Man reading a play in dimly-lit theatre space

Applied theatre research

Explore our work in applied theatre research, one of our 4 areas of expertise in Performance, Theatre and Music

Applied theatre fuses artistry with advocacy and activism to better society. It can be thought of as an umbrella term for the use of drama and theatre in an educational, community or therapeutic context.

Through our research in the subject, we're investigating the use of theatre as a tool for community engagement, conflict resolution, and social justice. It's often done in non-theatrical spaces, with participants who don't consider themselves to be artists. The work might take place in hospitals, prisons, youth settings, and other community contexts, such as with asylum seekers, refugees, or LGBTQ young people.

Applied theatre challenges participants and audiences to examine the experiences of others, for example, the root causes of conflict in global and local spheres. It uses tools from drama and performance to create sites of sharing, community building, and civic practice.

We bring together academic staff with connections and professional experience across the globe. We have experts in puppetry and object theatre, using arts and creativity in relation to gender, expertise working in global conflict and with refugees, and researchers with experience working with veterans of the armed forces.

Through our work, we've seen the promotion of self-esteem in participants, including for trans, non-binary and gender diverse young people, veterans, asylum seekers and refugees. Professionals across multiple sectors, including the NHS, City Council, LGB Forum and Bristol Primary Care Trust, have used the specialist knowledge generated by our research.

Our research has shaped opinion in influential forums at a Parliamentary level, including The Gender Recognition Panel User Group, Stonewall Education Coalition, and the Parliamentary Forum. In a series of performances – directed by our staff, alongside former service personnel – military veterans have also shared their personal histories with their communities in Arizona (US), New York (US), Massachusetts (US), and here in Portsmouth.

Our research explores the following topics

  • Theatre for Social Justice
  • Theatre within the Criminal Justice System
  • Theatre as Activism
  • Puppetry
  • Theatre for young audiences
  • Community based performance
  • Drama in education

We use qualitative methods, such as ethnography and grounded theory, to explore ways in which theatre artists can respond to a number of different cultural sites with their practice. We also use theatre historiography and performance studies to understand applied theatre in a larger framework of performance methodologies. 

Partnerships and funders

We work in partnership with other institutions and organisations, including:

  • National Museum of the Royal Navy to create performance for underserved school children in the Portsmouth area
  • Journeys Festival to increase awareness of refugee situations
  • Royal Shakespeare Company to explore technologies that bring performance to greater parts of the population
  • Gendered Intelligence on collaborative projects with, and for, trans, non-binary and gender diverse people

We've also received funding of over £1.3m for our work from US Department of State, Innovate UK, Wellcome Trust, Pfizer, and the AHRC.

  • INTERarts

    an intergenerational arts  project with LGBTQ people. This project is funded by Pfizer and Age UK, and explores sexuality, gender and ageing.

  • GI's Anatomy

    Drawing Sex, Drawing Gender, Drawing Bodies — This Wellcome Trust funded project brought thirty transgender and intersex people together to participate in a series of practical life-drawing workshops in London.

  • TransActing Project

    this project explores the issue of performer training for people who identify as trans or non-binary, and to give producers, directors and others involved in making TV, film, radio, theatre and other media, access to that talent.

  • The Veterans Project

    Since 2013, this project has staged performances with veterans of the USA and UK, from across different socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. It gives space for each performer to use their own voice, and challenge established narratives around historical events, and experiences.

Our members

Erika Elizabeth Hughes Portrait

Dr Erika Hughes

Academic Lead

School of Art, Design, and Performance

Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries

PhD Supervisor

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George Edward Thomas Burrows Portrait

Professor George Burrows

Associate Dean (Research and Innovation)

School of Art, Design, and Performance

Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries

PhD Supervisor

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Matthew Roy Smith Portrait

Dr Matt Smith

Reader in Applied Theatre and Puppetry

School of Art, Design, and Performance

Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries

PhD Supervisor

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Discover our areas of expertise

Applied theatre is one of our 4 areas of expertise in Performance, Theatre and Music research – explore the other areas below.

Musical theatre

Our work engages with forms that articulate music with theatre, and explores the historical, social, economic and educational contexts underpinning shows on Broadway and the West End.

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Music: Composition, Practices and Technology

We're investigating music and sound and creating new tools to enhance performance and creativity.

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Performance Practices

We're discovering answers to political and philosophical problems, by investigating performance and its practices.

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Interested in a PhD in Theatre, Music and Performance?

Browse our postgraduate research degrees – including PhDs and MPhils – at our Theatre, Music & Performance postgraduate research degrees page.