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How to use theatre to involve the public in decisions about research and innovation policy

While ageing populations are going to be one of the defining features of cities in Europe in the coming years, for Sub-Saharan Africa, youth is on the horizon. By 2050, the top ten cities with the youngest populations in the world will all be in Sub-Saharan Africa. And yet, thinking about the future of cities is most often left to serious professionals with serious statistics.

"There are no hard to reach groups, only inappropriate methods." I heard this at an event on public engagement recently. In East Africa, the Young Cities Dialogue programme has employed a very novel method to capture the perspectives of young people about the future development of their cities: participatory theatre.

If you are working in policy today, it is highly likely that you will have heard about ‘design for policy’, or the idea of using design concepts in the policy process. The rise of this approach has prompted the evolution of the role of citizens in the policymaking process, making it more central, reflecting a similar trend in theatre, where the role of the audience in the creative process has also taken centre stage.

There is a reason why theatre is consistently used in classrooms, often in therapy and sometimes in public engagement: there are myriad papers describing the tried and tested benefits of using theatre for learning, communication and creativity. For members of the audience, performances can generate real emotional and cognitive engagement, allowing them to relate to a particular story and topic through personal experience.

The last decade saw the development of many new forms of theatre, including immersive, site-specific or participatory theatre. These new art forms are meant to create a new and different relationship between the audience and the performers, often eliminating the fourth wall which separates them in traditional theatre. As a result, the audience becomes an integral part of the story, put in the spotlight, and not merely passively observing what is happening on the stage. That allows for much more personalised and tailored theatre experiences.

In the field of research and innovation, we have observed that theatre has mostly been used for two purposes: for information or communication around a certain piece of research or information, but also increasingly for public engagement and co-creation of content.

Theatre for information and communication

As a medium, theatre is very effective in passing on a message, or in communicating around certain topics to an audience. There are many interesting examples of theatre being used to popularise science and research.

Festival of the Spoken Nerd is a great example. Through live comedy shows, the trio of comedians make science, a topic rarely presented as fun, accessible to and enjoyable for a much wider audience. The association Talking Birds, founded in 1992, has developed the concept of ‘theatre of place’, often involving and collaborating with local councils, and bringing their audience to discover unused and little-known spaces in their cities, and the stories or memories surrounding them.

Because they are nodes for the generation of new research, universities have also had to think about new ways of sharing their work. The objective is obviously not to replace academic papers, but to reflect on how the use of methods like theatre can get a different, wider audience engaged with science and research. Both the Universities of Bristol and of Hertfordshire have been producing performances and plays presenting current and new research on topics as diverse as climate change, arts and heritage, or the sociology behind the mechanism of trust.

Theatre for participation and co-creation

Theatre is also a very strong medium for audience participation and co-creation, particularly new forms like participatory or immersive theatre.

The Stage Your City project, led by the European Theatre Lab, merges participatory theatre with digital elements like augmented reality, gaming and smartphone applications to engage communities around the future of their cities. The audience is asked to explore a dystopian city, ruled by AI, and to make decisions about the world they want to live in by 2070.

The play Don’t Smile was co-produced by Theatre of Debate, in collaboration with students, dentists, adolescents, patients and artists, and using research from the University of Leeds about oral health. The objective for that project was to engage the adolescents most at risk, in a region where nearly half of all 12 year-olds have decaying teeth, particularly in areas of social deprivation. It was a very successful initiative and even won an award from the National Co-Ordinating Centre for Public Engagement in 2016.

Another great example, led by a professor at the University of Strathclyde, is the use of interactive theatre to improve public opinion around nuclear waste management, a sometimes controversial topic. Key to this initiative is that each performance is followed by an open discussion, between actors and audience, providing the time and space needed for the public to really engage with the topic.

Finally, for its 2018 edition of FutureFest, Nesta commissioned the interactive performance CrimeForce: LoveTeam. Through their shows, the performers introduced the audience to the field of future studies, and in particular to scenario building, and regularly asked the audience to make decisions to shape the future and the proceedings of the story.

How this could be valuable for more informed and inclusive policymaking

We think using theatre in the policymaking process has a real potential to make it better informed and more inclusive, by introducing new and fresh ideas, but also by allowing for direct and real-time feedback from the audience.

Like any other approach, there are challenges, particularly around making sure that audiences are engaged throughout, or that the right audience is targeted. Policymakers dabbling with the approach should not simply rely on the co-creative or participatory nature of a play to improve the inclusiveness of policymaking. Successful public engagement and co-creation require high levels of trust and collaboration, and that can only be achieved if policymakers truly understand the needs, experiences and backgrounds of the groups they are targeting.

What we are doing at Nesta

As new theatre forms develop, like immersive or participatory theatre, there is a growing opportunity for these to permeate other disciplines, including for example public consultation or policymaking, to both engage with and inform a wider audience.

We are currently bringing together the best examples of theatre being used to improve the policymaking process, making it more inclusive and better informed by a more diverse range of voices and perspectives. Have we missed any really interesting examples? We aim to publish a report on creative approaches to public engagement later this year. For more information, check the Everyone Makes Innovation Policy page, or follow @FEngasser or @tom_saunders on Twitter.

This blog is part of Nesta’s Everyone Makes Innovation Policy grant programme. As part of this we are running a short blog series on creative approaches to public engagement. Next in the series we have a blog on the use of arts in science and innovation policymaking.

Photo credit to Joseba Barrenetxea via Flickr.


Florence Engasser

Florence Engasser

Florence Engasser

Senior Foresight Analyst

Florence was a senior foresight analyst within Nesta’s Discovery Hub, which aims to create a link between Nesta’s current portfolio and our pipeline of future work.

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Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Principal Researcher

Tom was a Principal Researcher in the inclusive innovation team.

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