This post is by Viviane Gravey, reporting on how Theoretical Theatre was received at the 2nd European Teaching and learning Conference 2016, held in Brussels, 9-10 June, 2016.

The creation of characters out of social science theories proved a very entertaining exercise, with debates regarding how to best characterize Realism (as Henry Kissinger or as Justin Bieber?), discussions as to where Karl (Marx) would rather go on holidays (Cuba or New York) and broad agreement that Constructivism was definitely named Ashley and would holiday on the Equator, in order to be able to see the world from different perspectives.

Theoretical theatre is a teaching innovation developed at the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia since 2012. It is a collaborative teaching approach, which sees a team of lecturers (and PhD students) each embody a theory and interact (argue!) with one another. We use variations of theoretical theatre (with two to five characters) at different levels of studies, from first year undergraduates to master students, to provide an introduction to the social science theories underpinning the different modules. These performances are used in complement with more conventional lectures explaining the different theories.

Theoretical theatre offers an opportunity for developing teaching innovation as a team, and to learn new skills – from performance skills (improvisation, comedy) to video editing. Contrary to most simulations and games it puts the onus on the teaching staff, and not on the students, to behave differently. But it also offers opportunity for active learning by students: lecturers-led performances at the start of the module are followed-up by student-led performances or activities later on.

While theoretical theatre was developed to explain theories we use at UEA to teach environmental social sciences (from sustainable consumption to environmental politics) we believe this format is very flexible and can be used in other disciplines as well. EUROTLC16 offered a great opportunity to test this flexibility and to reflect on this innovative teaching approach.

The discussion during the session touched on the practicalities of developing this innovation in other settings (when during the module, how many staff, how to get colleagues enthusiast about it). But it also raised deeper questions about the act of creating characters embodying theories. Should the representation of a certain theory be adapted in order to be as approachable and relatable as possible by the students, or should we, a contrario use these characters to invite our students to look beyond their usual frames of references?

We also reflected on the importance of biases and archetypes: while on the one hand we could use this opportunity to build characters to challenge some preconception – on gender, age, etc. – on the other hand, tapping into these biases and over-playing certain stereotypes could help the audience very quickly ‘get’ the character and engage with them. We agreed that these more stereotypical representations of theories should then be nuanced in lectures and seminar discussions. For example we talked of highlighting not only the proximity of some ‘rational choice theory’ solutions to current government policies (as we do in one of the performances) but also some ways in which this same theory offers a much more critical take on current political arrangements.

20160610_104709The creation of characters out of social science theories proved a very entertaining exercise, with debates regarding how to best characterize Realism (as Henry Kissinger or as Justin Bieber?), discussions as to where Karl (Marx) would rather go on holidays (Cuba or New York) and broad agreement that Constructivism was definitely named Ashley and would holiday on the Equator, in order to be able to see the world from different perspectives.

20160610_104717Another interesting suggestion was to think of theoretical theatre performances not only within a module but as a red line running through a full study programme. A performance on a highly relevant issue – the example put forward was the refugee crisis – could be amended and expended upon over multiple years. Hence the first year of study could see a debate opposing only two perspectives (here, Ms Esperanto’s Supranationalism v. the intergovernmentalism of Mr Smith (from the Matrix)). Each following year would then contribute new perspectives or nuances.  20160610_105246

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