Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Impact Assessment and Applied Theatre.

Recently we've been looking at ways in which we can evaluate and monitor our work. It's always a thorny issue trying to find accurate ways to record the impact of a piece of art on its audience and just as it's difficult to define the right criteria with which to assess student work, so to is it nearly impossible to find a confident and assured way to in which to persuade funders and participants that the project work we carry out has meaning and effect.

These are my notes so far.

a) What is the relationship between impact assessment, which in itself is a performative act, and the working methodology of each specific project? For example the handing out of a questionnaire in itself becomes part of the 'event.' If it isn't intrinsically linked it needs to be carefully staged or cut.

b) Drama (and Applied Theatre particularly) deals mostly with behavioural issues. Empathy with the participant and audience is the key currency which drives the work forward. The emotional engagement of the audience and participants is fundamental to the 'live' reality of the act. How do we sensitively and usefully apply quantitative assessment to this focus? Isn't behaviour change in itself is a contentious issue, suggesting one set of attitudes or beliefs take precedent over another?

c) Additionally Applied Theatre practitioners in the main encourage participants to communicate their stories visually and orally rather than through a written text. This is partially to do with the inclusive, international and democratic nature of presenting something in this way. (In other words even though our interpretations might be different, forged by our experience, culture and education, we all begin by seeing the same thing.) Shouldn't impact assessment materials mirror this and look for non-text centred ways to record evidence?

d) Impact assessment as a provider of evidence to attract money from government funding

bodies presupposes that the project is in tune with government priorities and that the 'art' is in the service of social policy. Often the work is in direct opposition to and seeks to subvert reliance on these primarily neo liberal economic priorities. Do we consent to this model of theatre making?

d) Impact from participation in a Drama project can take a myriad of forms - financial, psychological, physical, social, political, cultural. Each project will have a specific and nuanced impact on each participant. Any capturing of evidence will inevitably 'reduce' the nuanced effects that the event has had on the participants. It leads to the event organisers controlling the narrative of 'what happened' rather than leaving it in the hands of the community. This is particularly difficult in situations where the 'change' is to take a group from dependence on an expert or authority into independence. Student satisfaction surveys, as devised centrally, have this fundamental flaw built in.

e) Some projects are not focused on change or transformation, but rather on consolidating or maintaining a community, a set of behaviours, a tradition or ritual. Often these projects are fun to create and participate in. In their own terms they have no longevity or need for sustainability, but operate as a one off celebration. Do these circumstances make the need for impact assessment obsolete?

f) As a transformative force Applied Theatre is most effective at a local level. It's most important function within St Mary's is to reflect on and influence the student and staff experience here. It could be a positive force for recommending institutional change, curriculum development and as a measure of student satisfaction. Impact assessment, in terms of tangible changes to policy and practice, would be valid and interesting to take part in.

g) Applied Theatre at St Mary's must be seen as an art form rather than as social science. Its imperative is the creation of poetic acts rather than traditional academic research outcomes. Any work which analyses impact should be carried out by social scientists, standing outside of the creation of the work, rather than the creators themselves, who are unlikely to sacrifice their instinctive understanding of a creative truth to the democratic demands of a survey return. At best an impact analysis might identify areas in which Applied Theatre practice might make a difference but it's hard to conceive that it would effect decisions made in a rehearsal room or during a production meeting.

h) In any discussion of Applied Theatre it's important to stress the negative impact of project work. In any circumstances where our approach appears to be destroying relationships, reawakening traumatic experience, reinforcing an oppressive status quo etc. we have a moral imperative to abandon our work. This should be done immediately rather than under protection of an Impact assessment. In as much as we often respond to demand and the demand comes often from a perceived 'problem' it follows that an impact assessment on the level of whether the problem has been dealt with, alleviated, maintained or worsened is useful. In most circumstances the problem will have at least been addressed and from that point of view any impact assessment will suggest a measure of success.

i) Impact has been at the heart of all our practice over the three years of the degree. Our focus as educators has been on ensuring that our students learn the craft skills which will make them effective practitioners in the field. There is a stringent assessment on the impact on our students of our curriculum through external examination, national frameworks and standards. In addition our partnership work with professional companies ensures an ongoing sense of peer review from professional practitioners. Our pedagogic approach has been to allow students to co-devise projects alongside members of staff and visiting lecturers, but in keeping with the notion of community ownership, these educators have facilitated ideas and approaches originating from the students own perspectives. This means each cohort reinvents the wheel. Students have moderated and refined their own practice through the perceived 'success' or 'failure' of the many tiny initiatives that they have personally taken in the creation of this project work. Unlike traditional research projects where the researcher's learning is at the heart of the work, our teaching projects are student centred. The inefficiency of this process is fundamental to developing the empathic understanding necessary to engage in community theatre work.

j) There is humility to Applied Theatre work. We offer our services to community groups and work alongside them in their setting to create projects. James Thompson from Manchester University has pointed out that we are rarely the 'hosts' or the 'experts.' Every project has the inbuilt restraints of i) restricted time and ii) limited knowledge. Often the debate about socially transformative work focuses on the need for legacy. There is a counter argument to suggest that Applied Theatre practitioners should not outstay their welcome or over emphasise their effectiveness. In line with this more work needs to be done on the tone and language of impact assessment tools.

k) Legislative Theatre, as developed by Augusto Boal, is a more direct and arguably effective methodology with which to impact assess decisions taken, in that it has an immediate, undeliberated outcome. Perhaps a performative form of impact assessment drawing on the techniques and traditions of theatre making offers a more cogent and connected approach to understanding the value, meaning and benefits of the craft? I think research in how we could incorporate and adapt some of Boal's ideas into the decision making process at St Mary's might be a valuable move forward. (See f.)


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