Questioning the Hierarchy of Knowledge Production in Socially Engaged Arts

By: Réka Polonyi  

The field of theatre for social change is founded in community-engaged creative processes. It is inherently political, embedded in its geopolitical and social environment. Yet it is often under-represented in academic theatre settings – often labelled ‘amateur’, or seen as an unsettling mix between social work and theatre. This paper raises various concerns over accurate ways to gain and share academic knowledge in social theatre. It stems from personal frustrations as a theatre practitioner and researcher working with marginalised communities, and my struggles in France, Hungary, and the USA to find supportive resources for practice-based, academic inquiries embedded in community work. How is theatre practice expected to engage with society – its ambiguities, fluctuations and paradoxes – if community work and its practice are not necessarily considered relevant in teaching the next generation of theatre practitioners? This concern will be narrowed down to two specific inquiries: a) What are the implications in the ways knowledge is selected in the academic perpetuation of socially engaged theatre; and b) How does this selection process undermine a democratic consensus on what knowledge is considered valuable to retain and perpetuate? The need to re-invent and consistently shift our perspectives and approaches in socially engaged arts is more relevant than ever, yet I argue that the future of socially engaged theatre risks data fossilizing if it does not retain creative flexibility in crossing disciplines, in protecting grassroots and practice-based forms of knowledge cultivation, and in taking risks in permitting inquiries to test our scholarly expertise.

Community Arts Knowledge production Theatre for Social Change Drama Education
2020 Special Focus - Against the Grain: Arts and the Crisis of Democracy
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Réka Polonyi

PhD Candidate, Graduate Teaching Assistant, Theatre , University of Manchester

I am a a practitioner and PhD researcher in social theatre at the University of Manchester, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I work primarily to advocate immigrant rights through theatre (NAJE, Paris; Immigrant Movement Internatioanl, NYC; Frontierra, NYC; Make the Road NUC; Toplab, NYC; Chancho al Horno, Ecuador), as a program coordinator for refugee youth (UNHCR, Ecuador) and a clown/clown doctor (Heim Pal Hopsital, Budapest; Clowns Without Border, Hungary).