Participatory Theatre as a Research Methodology: Identity, Performance and Social Action Among Refugees

by Erene Kaptani and Nira Yuval-Davis
University of East London

Sociological Research Online 13(5)2

Received: 14 Feb 2008     Accepted: 12 Aug 2008    Published: 30 Sep 2008


The paper is based on the ESRC research project: 'Identity, Performance and Social Action: Community Theatre Among Refugees' which is part of the research programme on 'Identities and Social Action'. After describing the project, the paper examines the methodological specificities and different stages of Playback and Forum Theatre. The latter includes image work, character building, scenes and interventions. It argues that overall participatory theatre, techniques as sociological research methods, provide different kinds of data and information than other methods – embodied, dialogical and illustrative. The paper ends by examining the circumstances in which the use of these techniques as research methodology are be beneficial. It also calls for an overall wider use of these techniques in sociological research, especially to study narratives of identity of marginalised groups, as well as to illustrate perceptions and experiences of social positionings and power relations in and outside community groupings. Using participatory theatre as a research tool, therefore, can be considered as one form of action research.

Keywords: Playback Theatre; Forum Theatre, Refugees, Performance, Research Methods, Identity


1.1 Social sciences in general and sociology in particular have developed a whole range of methodological tools in order to carry out empirical research. In this paper we would like to explore the particular ways that using participatory theatre techniques has helped us – in combination with post-performance interviews – to gain insights into the ways members of different refugee groups in East London have experienced their lives, and in particular their constructions, contestations and authorisations of identities.

1.2 The paper starts with a summary of our research project, its aims and methods. We then examine how theatre in general, and Playback and Forum Theatre techniques in particular, produce different kinds of knowledge and insights for the participants as well as for the researchers.

1.3 The conclusion of the paper outlines what we argue are the main contributions of using theatre in sociological research, considers it as one form of action research and urges for wider use of these techniques as sociological research tools, especially when exploring identity constructions .

The Research Project

2.1 The research project discussed in this paper – 'Identity, Performance and Social Action: Using Participatory Theatre Among Refugees', has been part of the ESRC research programme on 'Identities and Social Action'. Its aim is to deepen our understanding, with the use of participatory theatre techniques, of how identities are constructed, communicated to others, contested and authorised and how these are linked to particular forms of social action, in this case settlement in London and integration into British life[1].

2.2 The research involved working with four refugee community organisations in East London – Kosovan (mainly youth group), Kurdish (mainly theatre group), Somali (women's only) and an ethnically mixed group of students in advice work. Two Playback performances and five Forum Theatre workshops took place with each group. In addition, the individual interviews were carried out with a selection of members of the different groups. The theatre events focused on the refugees' lives since coming to London and their encounters with voluntary and statutory agencies. In Playback Theatre (Fox 1986), the audience tell stories based on their own experiences that are then 'played back' to them by actors on stage. In Forum Theatre (Boal 1979) personal stories of conflict and oppression are acted out by the participants themselves who, by stepping in and replacing the protagonist, test out strategies for action. The Forum Theatre scene is the final product of a long process of rehearsals and performance training with the participants who become the performers.

2.3 The semi-structured individual interviews, carried out with several members of each group, explored further the choices taken and the suggestions made by participants during the theatre sessions, and more generally, their views on their lives in London. All theatre sessions were videoed except those of the Somali women's group who allowed us to make audio recordings only (and we used written notes by observers to enhance their validity). The post-performance interviews were also audio recorded. All theatre sessions and interview narratives were transcribed. This formed the basis for the discourse analysis of the research data which concerned different aspects of the refugees' lives since settling in London as well as their various identity narratives[2].

2.4 The basic methodological and epistemological framework of the research has been that there is no value-free research and that any research has be to understood as a particular form of social relations (Alcof 1993; Haraway 1991; Harding 1991; Hill-Collins 1990; Smith 1990; Stoetzler & Yuval-Davis 2002). This involves particular sets of power relations as well as processes of both identification and distancing. Both the research director, Nira Yuval-Davis, and the research fellow, Erene Kaptani, have been taking part in campaigns to improve the legal and social situation of refugees and ethnic minorities in Britain. The research fellow had known some of the community activists taking part in the research as a result of her theatre and community work. Indeed, these previous political and professional connections were crucial for the researchers and their team in gaining access to the research setting.

2.5 The social relations in the research project were complex and multilayered. They involved not only the relationships between the research team and the research participants but also the relationships within each group. Another complicating factor was the fact that some participants, especially in the Somali and Kurdish groups preferred not to speak in English, which meant that either other members of the group or, in the case of the Somali group, the community co-ordinator, also filled the role of interpreter.

2.6 The situated social and cultural positionings of the researchers, creative team and the participants necessitated great care. Any conclusion reached needed to be checked and discussed with the participants, hence the post-theatre discussions and interviews. Most importantly, this made us decide that any interpretation of non-verbal behaviour throughout the theatre workshops should be left to the participants themselves.

2.7 The overall theoretical perspective of the research has been that all knowledge – and imagination – are situated, and that all analysis needs to be intersectional and deconstructive. Intersectional as although each social category has its own discursive ontological basis, in concrete terms they are constituted and constructed by each other (Brah & Phoenix 2004; Lutz 2002; Yuval-Davis 2006). This intersectional perspective is deconstructive, undermining essentialist and reified constructions of subjects. The necessity of adopting such an epistemological approach to identities research so as to avoid essentialist analytical models and dichotomies of either macro-level structuralism, or postmodern subjectivities as informers of identity formations, has been stressed by sociologists for a long time (Cohen 1992; Gilroy 1993; Hall 1996). Although in three out of the four groups we worked with the organisations were created around common ethnic origin, they have all challenged, through their narratives and performances as theatre participants, any homogenised constructions of 'ethnicity', 'religious affiliation' and 'refugee' migratory status.

2.8 This is so, as the three ethnic community organisations we worked with – the Kosovan, the Kurdish and the Somali, have had very different histories of migration, as well as different social, economic and political locations as refugees in Britain. Moreover, they are all 'Muslims' but in very different ways from each other, as well as from their homogenised stereotypical media constructions (Crawley 2005; Kundnani 2007; Marfleet 2007; Silverman & Yuval-Davis 1999; see also Kaptani &Yuval-Dais, forthcoming).

2.9 We found similar trajectories also in the fourth group we worked with, a mixed group of students from refugee and migrant origins studying for a diploma in advice work. We chose to work with this group so as to capture some of the experiences and identity constructions of refugees who are not part of specific ethnic community organisations. Overall, as the discourse analysis of the participants' narratives show, the research participants avoided using homogenised constructions of identities except when they referred to their experiences of encounters with the general public and especially with agents of the state. The dialogical approach of the research project has taken different forms in the three stages of the research fieldwork: the two Playback Theatre sessions, the five Forum Theatre workshops and the post-theatre individual interviews. Before examining their specific contributions to the research output, however, it is important to articulate what is theatre and what is theatre as a research tool.

Theatre Praxis as Research Method

3.1 According to Brecht (1965), Brook (1968) and Boal (1979), drama is exposure, confrontation and contradiction which lead to recognition and analysis, which in turn awaken understanding. When the spectator enters into the theatre space, s/he enters into the reality of the situation enacted and thus, even when relating to personal or collective past, theatre praxis is always enacted and asserted in the present. This is what can make theatre more real than the normal stream of consciousness and thus most effective (Jennings 1992).

3.2 Theatre can provide a meaningful connection to specific places as well as people. According to Turner (1986) we might encounter ourselves and the Other/s in the theatre space outside the protocols of everyday life. As a result, we can see ourselves and our interactions between and with the Other/others, in a way that is more distant than in everyday life and thus possibly making it easier to become reflexive. The performance which takes place in the theatre is always understood in the context of the viewers' everyday life, and thus should be seen as taking place in in-between spaces: the imagined becomes concretely situated and vice versa. Performance, then, can be seen as 'a border, or margin, a site of negotiation' (Carlson 1996: 20).

3.3 'As a practice, knowledge in drama is embodied, culturally located and socially distributed. This means that knowledge is produced through interaction with others, and that reciprocity between participants creates new forms of social and cultural capital' (Nicholson 2005: 39).

3.4 Jennings (1992: 235) draws attention to Landy's (1991) work on role playing as another strength of theatre is the dramatic character paradox 'that lies in the possibility of being both "in and out" of a role at the same time, of being in two realities simultaneously, those of the "me and not me"'.

3.5 By becoming the character one can feel more real. By dramatising any event of our lives or playing a game or creating a character, we create some degree of dramatic distance. 'The paradox of dramatic distancing is that it causes us to come closer to ourselves and indeed makes us get in touch with profound areas of experience that are not accessible in other ways… One of the reasons that theatre is so important is that it enables us to see things more clearly because it can encapsulate our lives as a whole in a manageable form' (ibid: 241&244). Moreover, theatre provides active embodiment of the narratives within a dialogical space created for action, reflection and 'becoming'. It can thus offer researchers an epistemology which is different to that involved in interview methods or focus groups and provide different kinds of data.

3.6 Theatre work is experiential and emotive, which can produce special ethical concerns for researchers, especially those not trained in the methods and with experience of working with members of communities who survived trauma and persecution and more often than not continue to live their lives as members of racialised minorities. In order to avoid some of the potential pitfalls this implies, we decided to concentrate on the lives of the refugees since arriving to Britain, to make sure that they had supportive members and co-ordinators of the groups, as well as the presence of someone with therapeutic and councelling skills. In our case the research fellow is also a qualified drama therapist as were some other members of the theatrical teams. By having these measures in place and in spite of some harrowing stories (especially by the Somali women), no emotional crises or uncontained anxieties occurred during our research as a protective 'dramatic distance' was created through the 'deterritorialisation' of the trauma into the theatre space and the use of a whole range of theatrical techniques.

3.7 There are specific characteristics of both Playback and Forum Theatre which have made us choose working with both and in that specific order in our research project. These characteristics are examined in the next section of the article.

Playback Theatre

3.8 In Playback Theatre the tellers watch their own story played back to them. This creates a reflective distance between the tellers themselves and their stories. The actors constitute a mirror within which the tellers see aspects of themselves. This enables a reordering of the experience as the old version of events has to be assessed in the prism of the new. In the process, a new image of the subjects themselves may emerge. It is a theatre which reinforces processes of collective witnessing, identification and reflection which can lead to personal and collective change. As Rowe (2007: 181) has commented: 'Playback challenges the "privatisation of the personal". The question: can I tell my story in this place and in front of these people? is, in part a political one'. The individual narratives told are often inspired by previous narratives that are told by other members of the group. People tell their own stories, and then see them enacted by the actors – in different styles, as decided by the conductor who is the mediator between narrators and actors. The narratives are enacted as a dramatic scene, as a chorus, a conflicting pair, as a tableau, etc. This was always an important moment for the individuals, even when they sometimes felt that certain aspects of the situation were not accurately portrayed by the actors – who, of course, understood and interpreted the stories from their own situated gazes. In the Somali group especially, the hunger for their stories to be heard and enacted brought even women who were not a regular part of the group to come specially for the chance of telling their stories, and have them played back to them.

3.9 Unlike in interviews and focus groups, the stories that emerge in Playback theatre are usually illustrative, focusing on particular moments of time and place, but encapsulating much wider insights regarding the participants' lives and situations. These narratives constitute, by the end of each show, what Freire (1970) calls generative themes, as actors produce the main themes that emerged from their lived experiences. For example, the moment a Kosovan refugee girl emerged from the lorry into London streets, expecting to find the England of her dreams and instead found herself in a street full of Asian people, and stated to her mother 'They brought us to India, not to England', expressing the shock of encountering multi-cultural London. Or, the moment the lonely, newly arrived Turkish migrant saw, to his great joy, a sign of a Turkish restaurant and entered it, expecting to finally find 'home away from home' only to encounter a waiter who turned out to be completely indifferent and rejected any pre-given emotional bonds that their common ethnicity might commit him to. The tale of the Kurdish man who arrived to London from his village and who was too embarrassed to ask which train to take to Kilburn where he stayed with a friend, and since 'all the trains in the station were turned in the same direction I thought I could take any of them,' ending up in Liverpool instead of Kilburn. Or, the much more tragic story of the Somali woman whose house was set on fire as a result of a racist assault.

3.10 The generative illustrative moments can also encapsulate the differential cultural and political resources that the refugees could mobilise to overcome some of their difficulties. For example, the theme of a parent and a sick child repeated itself, but in very different ways in the different groups. In the Kosovan group, the mother of the unwell baby could mobilise her knowledge of Latin as a generic European/scientific language and could call relatives in her homeland to find out the name of the mysterious [to her] illness of her baby. In the Kurdish group, the father, a theatre man, could think of videoing his sick child, so that the doctors could finally diagnose epilepsy. And, in the Somali group, after the mother could not prevent her sick child being taken away from her, she finally managed to mobilised a community organisation who found her a solicitor and mounted a public campaign on her behalf[3].

3.11 The stories told in each group were constructed as part of a collective process. They were often related to each other, built upon each other as well as triggered by stories with which the actors introduced themselves at the beginning of the session. Similarly in the beginning of the second Playback session, the actors' introductions themselves often reflected the collective narratives of the previous session.

3.12 Moreover, by watching the enactment of the past narratives, the participants were able to re-situate themselves in the action and reflect on the way they relate to their own stories and those of the others. As one of the participants said about Playback:'I liked the stories coming back to the audience. You don't know where is your part in the story when it is told but if [with] somebody else doing it (enacting it) for you then you know what is your part in it' (SBI1). Elements in participants' stories, such as cameras in a police station, hospital emergency rooms or official interpreters, brought up memories of similar experiences in the past. Playback can reproduce for the teller and the other participants the physical and spatial images of the illustrative moments which are shared in a way that no other technique can. For example, a participant commented on another's story about a reunion with her husband in London after seven years of separation:'You can see it physically. That was the closest that they could go to see really that what they were feeling was real… It was like I was standing there in the airport (with him)' (SNV).

3.13 According to Dennis (2004), in attending Playback Theatre, the participants move from their daily space and time to the dedicated space and time of performance, a liminal experience where the spectators may resume their everyday social roles still carrying with them the new perspectives they may have taken from the theatre experience. They are able to see their living context in the interaction between the aesthetic drama processes and sociocultural processes (Turner 1986). This reflective identification facilitates a higher degree of self-articulation of identity narratives. In Playback there is a collaborative production of meaning, which involves the conductor asking questions of the story teller, the situated performance by the actors, the witnessing of the other refugee participants and researchers as well as the cumulative knowledge of the stories that were played back earlier.

3.14 For the researchers, then, the data produced by Playback theatre are discursive narratives that should not be analysed either as individual or as collective, neither as reflections of everyday life nor of exceptional moments. Rather, these are illustrative narratives that can be used to highlight some of the important generative themes of the research participants. They reflect, in a non-normative or judgemental way, what are some of the constitutive experiences of the participants in their identity constructions – in our research as refugees settling down in London.

3.15 These narratives are not comprehensive – they leave out most of their daily life experiences, they are affected by the other participants' narratives – as such, they cannot be considered as a substitute to long term ethnographic or participant observation studies. However, they generate themes and moments that would not often emerge in traditional interviews which tend to produce either detailed chronological life stories, or normative perceptions and attitudes. The narratives analysed here are descriptions of experiential and emotive moments that reflect some of the issues that are most important to understand when exploring how refugees [or members of other marginal groups] encounter British society and state. The post-theatre interviews supplemented and contextualised these theatrical illustrative narratives.

Forum Theatre

3.16 Forum Theatre constitutes a series of workshops in which the participants are transformed from a passive audience into the double roles of actors and active audience. They construct dramatic scenes involving conflictual oppressive situations in small groups, and show them to the other participants who intervene by taking the place of the protagonists and suggesting better strategies for achieving their goals. Collective theatre games, image work, character building and rehearsals are the main stages which lead to the Forum Theatre final scenes. Augusto Boal (1979) developed Forum Theatre as part of the Theatre of the Oppressed, based on the principles of Paul Freire's (1970), as a tool of collective empowerment and emancipation. Indeed, when the participants step on to the stage to change the course of action, they often feel this sense of empowerment and achievement. However, as will be discussed later, not every situation of social conflict can be successfully 'forumised'. There are cases in which the scenes chosen by the participants are so repressive or aggressive that they do not provide any leverage for negotiations. However, we found that even when such cases were chosen to be enacted, they produced new data, as important information on the participants' experiences and past was shared with the researchers and the rest of the participants. Furthermore, the mere act of physical movement within the group, transformed by the theatrical safe space of action, often had a profoundly positive effect - of collective laughter, recognition and release - which countered the possibility of feeling helpless and disempowered. This was noticeable in our research especially vis-a-vis the Somali women. As their coordinator commented: 'they started acting themselves, which wasn't really something myself I could not have contemplated at the time, because I thought they will never go up there and you know, act; they felt quite confident out there and they were really trying to be part of that. And it felt good' (NI2).

3.17 As a research tool, all the different stages of Forum theatre workshops produce generative and local knowledge, starting with the use of the body, the container of memory, emotions and culture.

Image work

3.18The bodies of the participants, without verbalisation at the initial stages, are used to create representations of different concepts while making the images. These corporeal installations can be used as a projective focal point where the participants can address and analyse social relationships. At the same time it is an emotional and affective process as it consists of the concentrated/condensed memory of the experiences the body carries. Furthermore, the reflective projections of the participants onto the images, and the creation of narratives based on them, make the image even more poignant. As one of the participants in the mixed group stated: 'I think this one (image work) is a bit more powerful (than other acting exercises) as some people get very personal and try to express these feelings through images and bring back quite a lot of memories' (MF2).

3.19 As Grainger states, (1990:169): 'when we immerse ourselves in the experience of being alive in the body then meaning becomes something lived rather than examined'. Images enable the manifestations of emotions and memory which words might conceal. Images of concepts such as 'community', or 'London', could reveal the multi-perspectival and contradictory perceptions of the participants. For example, in the mixed group the image of London as a machine (i.e. connected images in repetitive action), was portrayed as a place to which everybody was welcome to come but at the same time other images, of checking passports, searching and stopping people, intruded and intersected with this welcoming image. The image of 'the community' was either constructed culturally, as the groups made images of dance, songs, national symbols - or socially, portraying it as arising out of relationships of dependency, asking for help, leisure time and of informal personal relationships, instead of the professional ones from the 'outside'.

3.20 The images of 'power' also revealed subject positions and power relationships, laying the foundations for the participants to analyse their experiences further. When the images of the 'solicitor', 'interpreter' and 'refugee client' were rearranged and interrelated by the participants, new relationships and social practices emerged. These practices came forth from what the participants projected at the time onto the images. For example, they put the interpreter next to the solicitor, touching her hand and people said 'bribery'. Another configuration was when they moved the solicitor to look at the refugee client so he could check if what the interpreter was translating was reflected in the facial expressions and mood of the refugee client. Both interpretations were discussed further in the group, expressing their mistrust of state practices and their experiences of exploitation by some interpreters.

3.21 Generally image work acted as an effective diagnostic tool and as something that the groups could reflect upon spontaneously, which gave some insight into the issues they have been facing. For example, in the Somali group, family and domestic relationships came into the open only while working on images of 'power' whereas before that they tended to avoid discussing these issues. This opened a space to explore gender relationships in another session.

3.22 As mentioned at the beginning of the paper, one of the basic methodological decisions we had to make was whether to include non-verbal behaviour in our discourse analysis or to limit ourselves to verbal narratives. While the non-verbal dimension is present throughout any theatre work, which is by definition embodied, it was particularly central in the image work. Upon reflection and consultation with our advisory group (for which purpose we organised a special methodological workshop on the subject, using filmed excerpts from our recorded theatre sessions) we decided to limit ourselves to verbal narratives. Given the different cultural backgrounds of the participants, we felt that any authoritative interpretation of non-verbal behaviour which would not be mediated by the descriptions and explanations of the participants of what they did and or saw others doing, would be presumptuous. This is why we considered the transcripts of the verbal narratives as the only valid (and sufficient) basis for our discourse analysis.

3.23 Overall, the image work produced its own narratives that could be used as data in their own right but it also helped to establish a sense of physical and social space which could be used to start developing the work on the dramatic scenes. The scenes that the participants chose were often inspired by the illustrative stories told by members of the group during the Playback sessions, as well as by the collective images that emerged before. Of particular importance at this stage of scene development were the processes of character building.

Character Building

3.24The work on building these scenes involved the development of the various characters in them. During that work, the participants were able to explore aspects of their lives which they had not dared to share previously with the researchers and with their group, such as family conflicts and power struggles within the community, as well as to attempt and understand better what motivates those with whom they are in conflict in real life.

3.25 The participants who played the characters of the story were 'hot seated'. This is a rehearsal technique where an actor answers questions while embodying her or his character. As this happened 'in character', they could speak of their own emotional reality in a way which created a safe distance between the person and the group. In one such moment, a debate started among the male and female participants about honour killing, virginity and young women's behaviour. In her interview one of the female participants reflected on that moment: 'With Forum Theatre, I think it's a good form of theatre for people who are not theatre people to get involved and not be intimidated and talk about it not just to watch…And um, just kind of, kind of communicate what's going on in your community, using your mind, you know and not just kind of ignoring the issues that are going on but addressing it (them),…but what we did with, you know, daughter going out late, it brought up, conjured up so many different things, being a virgin, what people think, and actually people talking about it rather than being taboo, …I wouldn't sit down with M and say well what do you think? Do you see me as a virgin or something? But in him asking F that question because she's in character it's ok to go there because she's playing somebody else. He's not asking F, he's asking her character. He's asking as a person who is, um, who wants to learn about the character so it's safe for him and it's safe for her because whatever she says she's in character' (EF1).

3.26 In this way, the narratives in this stage of the theatre workshops produced data on controversial subjects or articulations of non-conformist positions that would not be easily available from other modes of sociological research.

Forum Theatre's Final Scenes

3.27 Theatre structures defy prescribed social locations, allowing the participants to be 'themselves' and yet act as they would have liked to, given different social contexts. For example, one of the participants performed the role of the mother in a scene where her daughter was bullied in school and thus was too afraid to go back there. The mother was accused by the head-teacher of keeping her daughter away from school, and as a result both mother and daughter ended up feeling intimidated and powerless. In the enactment of the scene within the forum theatre context, the woman who played the mother felt very differently: 'I just felt strong and powerful like the head-teacher when I was sitting there. When I was banging at the table and saying 'go to hell' I felt quite powerful to be this person sitting and thinking that they are, you know, they can do everything and I could talk to her like I wanted to talk and get rid of my feelings' (TV1).

3.28 Such sentiment was also mentioned by others. People felt transformed as they had the chance and 'permission' to 'act by themselves'. However, some of the group's members tried to 'censor' these activities because of the 'unrealistic' nature of the response. They believed that being angry at the 'oppressor' could not really be possible because of the nature of the power relations and the prescribed social locations of refugees and officers. The interactions among the participants on the stage and among the audience showed the ways that theatre space can penetrate spaces of social exclusion and contest as well as authorise transformed constructions of identity (Yuval-Davis 2007, Kaptani 2007,Yuval-Davis & Kaptani, forthcoming). Powerful emotions are produced which contribute to collective representing, reflecting and analysing social situations. As one of the participants said: 'You just feel like you are under pressure to do something and maybe it's the same thing when you are actually in that situation, you are under pressure for something to happen and maybe the clock is ticking and you haven't got much time, you know' (EFI2).

3.29 The construction and presentation of the scenes enabled the participants to reproduce, confront and transform their identity positions in the theatre space in relation to some of the most important issues that they have been experiencing in the 'outside' world. The issues that were brought up were varied, from familial gender politics to the traumatic attendances in the 'Communication House' in which no asylum seeker ever knows whether they would come out free or detained to be deported. The different strategies suggested to overcome oppressive social relations might come from different individuals but they are accumulative, constructing new dialogical collective understanding of the dynamics of the situation. For example, the following scene on an interpreter in the Home Office interview demonstrates how social locations shifted when the participants constructed and disrupted the power of the interpreter, resulting in the unveiling of the constructed nature of hierarchies and privileges.

3.30 A Kurdish Asylum Seeker had to see a Home office interviewer to process her asylum application.The appointment was made for a bank holiday Monday. Her solicitor and her own interpreter could not come. The Home Office Turkish interpreter refused to postpone the date as he would have lost his fee for that hour. The Asylum seeker spoke a small amount of English and had to argue the case for another appointment. One of the interventions in the Forum scene was by an African woman who replaced the Turkish Asylum Seeker. She argued with the Home Office Interpreter, using a strategy of ethnic solidarity as a resource, arguing 'We are from the same place, how can you forget this and put money above our common values?'. This proved not to be an effective strategy in that situation as the interpreter replied, 'We live in London now so it is not my problem'. Another intervention was that of a participant who is an advice worker and who held a power position in the group because of her professional experience. She came up to challenge the oppressive interpreter, played by the woman whose story it was. She was able to feel the authority and power of her position vis-a-vis the advice worker, using the dramatic scene to reverse their 'normal' power relations, and was not open to her challenge. However, it helped them, as well as the other participants, to experience the constructed nature of social locations where ascribed identities of disadvantage and power relationships are constantly constructed and reconstructed. The last intervention, which proved successful, came from a participant who addressed the structural mechanisms of power in the situation. He asked to see the Home Office official who had authority over the interpreter and, using the language of rights in an assertive manner, managed to get the appointment postponed. The social locations of the refugee participants and their 'outside' experiences, transferred into the theatre space, and were deconstructed and transformed in this dialogical process of Forum Theatre. Overall, the data produced from the analysis of the transcripts of this and other scenes reflected individual and collective constructions of power, authority and identity.

3.31 Sometimes the narratives produced in the discussions do not produce new common understandings but on the contrary, become a trigger for articulations of sharp differences concerning various social identities, roles and locations within the dramatic scenes. The participants' opinions and interventions on the domestic scene in the Somali women's group illustrate this. Different debates took place among the participants regarding a scene where a wife who wanted to study and find work argued her case against her husband who had his doubts about her being able to look after the children and the household while also working. The husband was unemployed and did not receive any support (either in learning English or in his search for employment), which the wife, under the Sure Start program, was entitled to. The Participants' interventions and opinions varied and brought up conflictual expectations and aspects of the participants' identities in the same ethnically defined group. Some of the participants' comments and interventions are indicative of the debates in the workshop. They vary from normative observations on gender and power relations to claims for individual choices for personal development, as well as arguments concerning structural inequalities and policies' impact on the everyday lives of refugees.

3.32 One participant stated: 'It is very hard to accept role change. The father wants to be the only breadwinner, the dominant figure, and the mum should do what she is supposed to be doing and not letting her interfere to his domain. The underlying problem is the status' (F31). Another participant argued: 'if I was that lady and had been given the choice, I would ignore (my husband) and do what I need to be doing for my studies and, you know, advancing my life' (F32). While another claimed that: 'It is easy for us to say there are a lot of other things he needs this man to do but if you just come to this country, somebody tells you that there is where you get the help and that is what you know and that office does not tell you, you think that the whole system is like that and nobody is helping. You become demoralised, you lose your hope to get things happen for you'. Ending with: 'one organisation is working with her while the other side is not helping him and rejecting him. It seems, the system without realising it is causing the friction' (F33).

3.33 Co-existing with such debates, however, were also pressures for group conformity, censorship and the establishment of boundaries of what is allowed to be expressed in this space and what is not. (Yuval-Davis & Kaptani, forthcoming). For example, while we were developing the characters for the family scene, debates started on what it entails to be a young woman in London. The group's co-ordinator was stating that girls can become emancipated by attending community centres and leading a meaningful existence by following collective values. The young female participant argued back, stating that community centres are too strict and do not reflect the needs and way of life of her generation.

3.34 The tool of drama is very powerful and in extreme cases, such as when the Somali women described a traumatic scene in which children were taken away from their mother by the social services, the boundaries of the 'inside' and the 'outside' worlds of the Forum Theatre space can be crossed over. We were all reminded and mobilised to take part in the community campaign to bring these children back to their mother.

3.35 This is another important aspect of using participatory theatre techniques as a research tool. Although not an 'action research' in its more common format, the data produced in this kind of research can become a tool for affecting social change, rather than staying within the limits of community theatre empowering individuals and groups on the one hand and traditional social research producing new data on the other hand. Many of the research participants felt – like us - that these techniques produce a powerful tool of disseminating information on the plight of refugees (and any other groups of marginalised and excluded people). As one of the Somali participants told us wistfully: 'I heard about it but I could not picture it, visualise it until they (had) done it. To see things as they happened. When you [just] hear about it, it is more distant. Our emotions are not connected to it than when you see it. If they could do it in from of an audience then even the judges in court will be affected' (IBI).

Conclusion: Theatre Practice and Sociological Research in Negotiation

4.1 Both theatre techniques, Playback and Forum, in different ways, provide spaces for both participants and the research team to reflect on the situated nature of their gaze at the experiences, personal and collective, which are performed, involving a complex and multilayered processes of mirroring, appropriation and transformation (Yuval-Davis 2007: Yuval-Davis & Kaptani, forthcoming). In this paper we could touch on only a fraction of the rich and dynamic experiences of carrying out a sociological research by using participatory theatre techniques. While the research practice included many elements of other sociological research methods, such as participant observations, focus groups and semi-structured interviews, it also offered an innovatory research environment, a different way of collective interacting – and it was also fun!

4.2 Overall, the feedback of the participants in all the groups was overwhelmingly positive. During the dissemination conference, towards the end of the project[4], a couple of participants who shared a panel in the conference, told the audience how differently they experienced this research from others they have participated in some years ago. Then they felt that outsiders came, made them talk and then used their answers for their own aims, while in our research there was a sense of equality and reciprocity and a trust that was built throughout the research process, as well as of mutual learning. This reciprocal research space of the theatre enabled them to touch and confront issues which they did not often air before each other, let alone outsiders. As such it constitutes a specific form of 'action research'.

4.3 The most important aspect of using participatory theatre technique as a sociological research methodology is that it produces a specific kind of new knowledge. Sharing with other standpoint feminist methodologies a situated, deconstructive and reflexive perspective, its main characteristics can be summed up as embodied, dialogical and illustrative.


4.4 It is virtually impossible to dramatise an abstract narrative that does not relate to specific 'where', 'when', 'how', 'what' and construct identities as performative practices. The theatre processes of playing back, image work, character building, Forum Theatre interventions by various participants and the telling of narratives in collective spaces, deconstruct and differentiate between the various aspects of the enacted subject positions. They also question essentialised constructions of identities by asking the participants 'Could this have been done differently?'. This performativity has the advantage of being condensed temporally in the here and now of the stage, while becoming multiple spatially, as a result of the different reconstructions of the scene by the different interventions of the participants who challenge and change the identity positions enacted each time in the same scene.


4.5 The narratives and performances of the participants are produced within the collective settings of the theatre space, in which the contributions of the participants, together with the contributions of the creative and the research team, affect and are affected by each other – something which is reflected also in the individual post-theatre interviews. The refugees as actors are not just passive recipients with no agency but their agency is a product of the various relationships in the research space. As such, the identities constructed, communicated, authorised, contested and transformed in the research process cannot be analysed either as individual or as collective identities but as interrelational processes of in-between 'becomings'.


4.6 Rather than producing narratives of either linear biographies or attitude surveys, the dramatised illustrative moments produced by the participants highlight and encapsulate central 'generative' themes which may concern issues relating to the micro, mezzo and/or macro levels of their social locations, experiences and identity practices. Such illustrative moments can be particularly effective when disseminating the research results as they reproduce the embodied as well as the affective dimensions of the participants' experiences and thus trigger empathy.

4.7 According to Back (2007), sociology should look for an imaginative engagement with the social world, utilising a range of media, verbal and non-verbal forms of representation. We would argue that using participatory theatre techniques is an excellent way of doing so.

4.8 While, as is the case of every research method, it does not necessarily suit all situations or all types of research questions, the use of participatory theatre techniques are particularly useful for studying narratives of identity of marginalised groups as well as for illustrating perceptions and experiences of social positionings and power relations in and outside community groupings.

4.9 We see it as one mode of action research and as a good launch pad for individual and collective interviews. Overall, we found the combination of the more reflective distance of the 'Playback' technique as an introduction, followed by the more interventionist 'Forum Theatre', an efficient and useful sequence of work.

4.10 During the last twenty years, the range of sociological and other social sciences research techniques has grown considerably, as more and more researchers have broken the mould of positivist epistemology as the only legitimate research paradigm. Participatory theatre techniques, with their deconstructive, situated and reflexive approach to the social world, producing embodied, dialogical and illustrative knowledge, are eminently suitable to occupy an honorary place alongside all the others. The narrative and discursive analysis of the data they produce should be part of the accumulative body of knowledge of contemporary Sociology.


1Please see our end of award report (ESRC project 148250006), as well as our forthcoming paper on Identity, performance and Social Action.

2Please see End of Award ESRC Report RES-148-25-0006

3As a result of misdiagnosis of the bruise-like marks on the body of the child being a result of physical abuse rather than a genetic disorder. For more details on these stories please see our paper in preparation: 'Theatre praxis and dis/empowering'.

4'Methodological, theoretical and political implications of doing research among refugees', UEL, March 2008.


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