Performing 'impact': community theatre and the outcomes produced through narratives, texts and memories

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Education


Our desk study aims to contribute to the literatures on community arts impact and to inform further work with practitioners. It is a response to public and scholarly reports on the need for better evidencing of the effects of community arts. It follows insights gained through empirical studies of participatory and feminist theatre practice (e.g. Hall & Thomson, 2010) and acknowledges the experiential knowledge of practitioners about the importance of process (Van Erven, 2001) and the inextricable connectivity between process and outcomes (Kershaw, 1992).
By using the lens of informal learning, we are able to focus on the connections between the participatory processes used in community theatre practice (McCarthy, 1994), the texts and performances that are the result and the learnings of participants (e.g. Wiles, 2011). We can thus consider how to move away from the model of summative evaluation of projects (analogous to a final examination) which currently dominates the sector, to the evaluation of informal learnings via project archive building (analogous to the monitoring and tracking of learning afforded through continuous assessment).
We understand community arts processes to constitute a public pedagogy. This is a slippery and contested concept (Sandlin, Schultz, & Burdick, 2010) but we take it to mean the opportunities and affordances for learning made available through a signature pattern of events, places, utterances, routines and associations (c.f. Ellsworth, 2005). Learners, in this case, the participants in community theatre, always exercise agency in taking up aspects of what is on offer, or not. Offering an opportunity to learn is not a guarantee that it will happen.
In the case of participatory, rehabilitative and feminist theatre key aspects of the public pedagogy signature pattern include: the generation of individual and collective life-history narratives, the collective development of a text through dialogue and story-making activities, the use of extant archival materials about place and people, and the production and staging of a performance which is a representation of everyday lives in a given place/time.
We will use the 'four pillars' framework developed by UNESCO (Delors, 1996) - learning to know (new understandings of place/time and people), learning to do (dispositions and skills, including those in the arts), learning to live together (associations, networks and participatory practices) and learning to be (new embodiments, identities and horizons of possibility) - as a means of organizing the potential learnings (ie impact) afforded through the processes of participatory, rehabilitative and feminist theatre.
Our aim is to use the desk study of narrative, text, authorship, performance, place and memory to refine understandings of process and then to determine
(1) what it is about the public pedagogy (signature patterns) of community theatre that contributes to outcomes for participants
(2) what therefore might be recorded and monitored during a community theatre project to track and evidence those learnings
(3) what (1) and (2) contribute to the scholarship on the practice and performance of community theatre.
We will then test out the potential contribution to tracking learnings/impact in two day workshop with community and feminist theatre practitioners. We will ask them to interrogate the framework and to consider what it might mean in use as a mode of evaluation. We are particularly interested in how continuous monitoring might dovetail with project archives, both material and virtual, that practitioners already routinely maintain, and potentially refine what they already do. Our goal is that some of these practitioners will continue to work with us to test out the impact framework in practice in real projects and in this way we will have something quite substantive to say about the measurement of the contribution of community arts to connecting communities.

Planned Impact

The study is designed to be of benefit to community arts practitioners, community arts managers and arts policy makers. Bringing understandings from theatre and performance together with those of learning and assessment, learning through the arts and public pedagogies is in itself a relatively unusual move. However this scoping study will do more than this. It will map key themes from Arts and Humanities literatures which illuminate the processes used in, and the learning accrued from, participatory, rehabilitative and feminist theatre (ie add to work such as Coult & Kershaw, 1983).

At present practitioners have a limited range of broad categories (identity, participation, self esteem, confidence etc) which are used to describe processes and outcomes. The study will provide new framings, concepts and language which those in the field will find helpful in the processes that they routinely use to critique and develop their practice. When the study is taken up in community arts fora, such as that promoted by the East Midlands Arts Forum, EMPAF (, then it will assist the building of interpretive communities in the sector.

The development of a process-based approach to evaluation is the most significant potential contribution to the community arts field and beyond. We have already garnered support from a range of community arts practitioners to form a partnership to develop the approach. Our emphasis on practitioners is because we believe, on the basis of our involvement in the sector, that it is through the buy-in of the grass roots practitioner that a process approach to evaluating impact will have traction, rather than through top down imposition. The practitioner-academic partnership in itself often is a form of impact since the majority of work conducted between higher education and the community arts field is either organized around teaching, or is research driven, rather than the reciprocity we know is made possible through mutual knowledge mobilization involved in research-based development. This is why our project will work in the first instance with and through community feminist and rehabilitative theatre practitioners with whom we already have connections.

Please see pathways to impact document for details.

We are aware, however, that this project is a first step. While the scoping study and the attendant development activities are not all that is required in order to make the impact of a new form of evaluation a reality, it will be of great interest in the sector generally, where the inadequacies of post project evaluations have long been recognized.


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THOMSON, PAT, BARRETT, ANDY, HALL, CHRISTINE, HANBY, JULIAN And JONES, SUSAN The Routledge international handbook of arts and education

Description We found several key concepts in the arts and humanities literatures which could inform formative evaluation processes used by community theatre companies. A key practical outcome from our consultation with companies was the notion of using film as 'data' that could be analysed to better understand process. That film could then be edited in order to show the results of the analysis, in other words what happened during the planning, rehearsing and production of a theatre performance.
Exploitation Route Film is under-utilised as a research tool in formative evaluations. Performing arts companies tend to see it as an illustration or records of what happened rather than a tool for inquiry.
There is considerable scope to investigate how film might be used to show how community theatre has 'impact' on both participants and performers alike.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The findings of this desk study have informed the ways in which the Get Wet project ( managed its formative evaluation.
Sector Education
Impact Types Cultural