It has now been more than five years since I created this website on the subject of children’s theatre and research. Established with the aim to focus on critical and theoretical appreciations of the field, the site sought to elevate the study of children’s theatre to the level of other theatre studies, as well as bring together both academics and practitioners with an interest for research into theatre for the young. Part of achieving these goals was the organisation of a conference at Westminster University in June 2010 and a subsequent publication that reworked some of the conference papers as well as additional contributions. Both initiatives were successful in connecting both practical and academic fields and the conference had a great attendance consisting of practitioners, academics, and students.
One of the conference keynotes was Matthew Reason who presented his then recently published book The Young Audience: exploring and enhancing children’s experiences of theatre, a book that now can be considered essential literature in the field. Through illustrating the importance of inquiring into the young audiences’ experience of theatre and empowering children as self-reflective audience members, his work has become an excellent example of, and a strong argument for, continuing research into this field. During the conference we also saw the introduction of the MA Theatre for Young Audiences at Rose Bruford College. This higher education initiative was followed by the University of Worcester which offers Theatre and Young People as a specialisation of the Drama MA. Most recently Bath Spa University established an MA in Theatre for Young Audiences in collaboration with The Egg. This MA has a specific methodology module on the history and theory of theatre for the young aiming to nurture future research in the field.
The establishments of these higher education initiatives certainly suggest that there is a growing academic interest in this field and further suggests a possibility that theatre for the young might be able to establish itself as an academic discipline in its own right. Other important academic developments originating from the UK are Starcatchers in Scotland, a creative organisation that actively nurtures research in the area of theatre for the very young and has let to the publication of some comprehensive reports. Successfully completed PhD projects from, for example, Gill Brigg at the University of Nottingham (on the topic of theatre for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities), and Ben Fletcher-Watson at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (on the subject of theatre for babies), as well as current PhD research by, for example, Caleb Lee at Royal Holloway, ensure that the field continues to develop while reflecting some of the excellent practice found in the UK and the rest of the world.
Although there is much reason to be optimistic about progress there is, however, still a lot of room for growth. Universities and theatre companies, for example, can continue to ensure research is developed in a supportive environment. A great international example is the Forschungstheater in Hamburg founded by Sybylle Peters, a scholar, researcher and performance artist. The Forschungtheater is designed as a creative space where children, artists and scientists meet to participate in collective research projects exploring topics such as time, money and space travel. These research environments are necessary because research in the field of theatre for the young can be complicated and demanding.
First, research with children or young people requires ethics permission that ensures the right balance between the risks and benefits of research, protects confidentiality and observes the right of the child especially in terms of safe-guarding and participation. There is no need to affirm the importance of ethical practice regarding research with children and young people, but the need for institutional affiliation to formally obtain this permission may limit practitioners and early career researchers in the opportunities to publish their findings. Second, the ability to conduct empirical audience research completely relies on access to children and young people and at times collaboration with theatre companies. With schools under heavy pressure to advance league table position, and with the arts suffering from financial cuts and often being marginalised in comparison to literacy and maths, it is not surprising that educational institutions may not be forthcoming in terms of allowing researchers to interact with students during school hours. Although there are many theatre companies and practitioners interested in contributing and participating in research and are happy to allow academics and students to attend performances or to conduct interviews, it remains difficult to connect research to practice and to establish these research collaborations.
This connection between research and practice can also be considered to be suffering from a lack of sharing research findings. Theatre companies have for many years undertaken a huge amount of research with young audiences, for example in the preparation of plays, conducting workshops with children, in early scratch performances or by collecting audience feedback through questionnaires or post-performance discussions. This research has allowed practitioners to establish a highly comprehensive idea of the views, wishes and demands of contemporary young audiences. This type of research is hugely valuable, not least in pressing the importance of theatre in children’s lives. However, without more open and general events such as conferences and seminars these findings are often not shared. At the same time, workshops, talks and seminars conducted and organised by theatre companies are not always widely announced or disseminated afterwards. Previously journals such as SCYPT (later titled New Voices) published in relation to the Theatre in Education movement were able to share important developments within and across relevant fields and are now useful reference points in terms of research. It is arguably important that the current research of companies, students and academics is disseminated to reflect progress and to ensure future development.
One final issue to mention is that children’s theatre research/study is a highly interdisciplinary field that stretches from art to education, from play to therapy, from cultural to childhood studies and much more in-between. This relates back to the usefulness of specific research centres that can bring these areas, disciplines and methodologies together so knowledge can be shared and advanced. Until such an opportunity can be established, it is hoped that this site can offer a virtual place where these research and practice based interests can be brought together.
Due to a lack of funding, the network cannot currently organise events and, as such, emphasis is placed on resource sharing. We are however very interested in any related events, information on theatrical productions and projects as well as current academic research in the field. We are also particularly interested in people who like to contribute to this site. Please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Karian Schuitema