Modes of authorship in applied theatre for community advocacy in Northern Ireland 1998 - 2018

  • Dónall Mac Cathmhaoill

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Applied theatre has been a feature of the northern Irish cultural landscape since the 1980s, offering a means for communities to process the issues of the conflict. In the latter years of the conflict period, the late 1980s and early 1990s, the applied theatre and community arts sector experienced substantial growth, and was widely used to foster mutual understanding between the traditional communities through cross-community projects. A sea change took place in the period from 1994-98. This period saw the ceasefires that brought an end to almost all armed actions; the commencement of talks aimed at bringing the conflict to a permanent end; the election to the UK government of New Labour and their adoption of policies promoting community arts as social development; and ultimately the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement. These seismic changes in northern Irish society wrought major changes in the applied theatre works made with communities. New strands of work sought to describe and negotiate the new situation. Single community projects were increasingly preferred to the cross-community work of the conflict period. Advocacy projects promoting the views and experiences of Protestant / Unionist / Loyalist (PUL) communities, and the new communities of migrants become more common. A further development was the evolution of processes of theatre that negotiate the legacies of the conflict, and the competing readings of traumatic events from the past.

The research presented here offers a comprehensive survey of applied theatre in post-conflict northern Ireland, analyses the major formal and thematic developments in the period, and interrogates the politics at work in the structures of their creation. It will show that new types of work—among them PUL theatre, theatre with migrants, and theatre of the conflict legacy—all present challenges to the practice of the northern Irish theatre sector. It will argue that while individual theatre professionals work for the most part with inclusive and democratic practices, much work however rests on embedded practices and unproven assumptions, reinforced by problematic structures. The funding bodies and policy scaffolding that support the professionals making the works are set up in such a way as to support the agendas of a power-sharing government which is changeable, unpredictable, and still characterised by sectarian divisions. Moreover, the structures in place to subsidise applied theatre and theatre with communities still tend to give the lion’s share of the funds to professional theatre companies, The particular peculiarities of the northern Irish theatre sector, explored in the following pages, mean that the independent professional company is the load bearer for the great bulk of theatrical activity in the region, and the research presented here draws on my own experience to show how this creates compromises in the ethics and aesthetics of the work.

In the coming chapters, I will examine how this combination of factors favours theatre practices that resemble previous theatre practices. Further, while the themes have expanded to accommodate the new situations that exist between and within communities, the modes and techniques of creation used by theatre professionals are largely unchanged. The modes of authorship, aesthetic forms, and structures of production of twentieth century theatre still largely govern the work that takes place.

The research examines how these practices evolved, and interrogates them using multidisciplinary conceptual frameworks, to consider how the works enable, or disempower, the participant. It challenges the claims to democratic participation by professional theatre companies who do not engage the participant in processes of authorship. It explores what alternative modes of authorship are available, and how new forms that are participant-led, ethical, plural, and innovative might be developed that serve the needs of northern Irish applied theatre in the twenty-first century.
Date of AwardDec 2021
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorKevin De Ornellas (Supervisor), Jennifer Goddard (Supervisor) & Tanya Dean (Supervisor)


  • Northern Ireland
  • Community theatre
  • Applied theatre
  • Advocacy theatre
  • Post-conflict theatre
  • Community arts
  • Community activism

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