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Community Engaged Learning (CEL) in Applied Theatre

After its first iteration of running as a CEL-based project, Dr Jess McCormack, Applied Theatre (Unit Director), Hannah Cowell (Engaged Learning Adviser), Sarah Rogers from Hillfields Library and students CJ Coppin, Amy O’Mahony, Eleni Lee Gavriel, Elise Eden-Rose and Sergio Medina Meneses reflect on their experiences and share their learning with us.

Project overview

In TB2 of this year, students on the Applied Theatre unit undertook CEL projects as part of their course delivering pieces of theatre or creative workshops for partner organisations. Jess had been working alongside Hannah to integrate CEL into the Applied Theatre unit and allow for students to undertake a project with a community partner as part of their learning. CEL is an intrinsic part of Applied Theatre and the way Jess taught the unit allowed for the values of each to complement each other throughout the course.

Students explored four key themes:

  1. Imagination and Play: Theatre and Creative Arts with and for Children and Young People   
  2. Creative Aging  
  3. Theatre and Creative Arts for Health and Wellbeing  
  4. Theatre and Creative Arts for Social Change

A call-out was launched and interested organisations were able to submit challenges/proposals for pieces of theatre or creative workshops to be delivered by groups of theatre students. Partners included Bristol Refugee Rights, Friends of Hillfields Library, ACTA, May Park Primary School and the UoB WP Team.


Dr Jess McCormack, Unit Director

It has been a fantastic experience working with Hannah and the students and seeing the projects up and running. Having the support of Hannah was brilliant and meant that we could plan every aspect of the project very carefully making sure that we were consistently thinking about the students and partner organisations’ experience.

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I am so pleased that we have been able to design and run a unit that encourages students to become active and creative citizens and provides

them with the opportunity to gain insight into and respond to specific challenges facing community and/or education-based organisations. It is so important that the students listen carefully to the knowledge and expertise held by the partner organisations and then think about what creative skills they can bring to the project.

It has been wonderful to have feedback from the partner organisations that the students approached the projects with real care and professionalism. The partner organisations have been brilliant to work with and have been so generous with their time and sharing knowledge with the students.

It was an absolute joy to see the students engage with community groups across the city, learn through practice and develop their creative facilitation skills.

The students have:

  • explored stories and sock puppets with the early years groups at Bristol Refugee Rights;
  • examined contemporary theatre making practices with Year 10 students from local schools with the UoB Faculty of Arts Widening Participation Team;
  • collaborated with Year 3 children to design superhero adventures and explore questions around citizenship/values at May Park Primary School;
  • devised creative responses to memories with isolated older adults with acta Community Theatre;
  • created art work inspired by memories and hopes for the future with the Silver Explorers group at Friends of Hillfields Library.

It has been a joy to work on this unit and the positive feedback received from the project partners is a wonderful testament to all of the students’ hard work! I hope that we can continue to work with Hannah and the Engaged Learning team on the Applied Theatre unit and also to identify other placed in our programme where we might find opportunities for authentic assessment and community engaged learning projects.”

Amy O’Mahony, student

My community engaged learning project was delivering a workshop for Bristol Refugee Rights early years group for 0-3yr olds and their parents.

In our first workshop, we focused on space – playing with paper mâché planets and using lights to create stars in the sky as we sung twinkle twinkle little star.

In our second workshop we adapted our workshop to fit with the feedback we received from the Early year’s coordinator.

We focused on Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo to add a sense of structure to the workshop. We made animal sock puppets to enable the children to be involved in the storytelling.

The most important lesson I learnt through the community engaged learning project was that some things work in theory but not in practice. Therefore, it is important to adapt and respond to your group’s needs, especially with young children. Understanding the groups needs and how they were responding to an activity was the most challenging part of the project because it required us to be constantly alert and adaptable.

The best thing about the project was seeing both the children and their parents enjoy the activities we planned.”

CJ Coppin, student

The project I worked on was for Bristol Refugee Rights, where we undertook 2 workshops for 0–3-year-olds and their caregivers. In the first workshop we encouraged multi-sensory engagement, through music and lights, and in the second, we focused on the story of the Gruffalo using sock puppets to enhance the story-telling element.

Throughout these workshops, I have been able to reflect on what it means to be a facilitator, and how adaptability and creativity are key components. As we were in a group of 7, learning how to work as an ensemble within the context of this environment has been rewarding, as although we explored different aspects independently, ultimately, we worked together, and were able to facilitate two workshops. Throughout the applied theatre, we were able to learn from not only Jess, but external partners, who we were able to learn from and engage with. Having the opportunity was not only helpful, but enlightening as I realised that the skills, I am developing now within the theatre course, can be applied to many different situations.”

Eleni Lee Gavriel, student

ACTA. This unit had given my group and I the opportunity to deliver a workshop at a Community Theatre, based in Bedminster. Our aim was to navigate a participant-led workshop in order to support isolated elders through creative means. The foundation of our workshop was based upon kindness and story-telling — as we considered conversation to be a creative activity within itself.

The individuals were given the opportunity to share a recollection of an act of kindness which then transformed into tangible expressions of creative imagination such as arts & crafts, a poem, a letter or any other outlet of their choosing. It was delightful to see the varied skills, passions and capabilities within the group.

We did spend a lot of time exchanging stories, memories and experiences as the group displayed a mutual eagerness to speak and to listen. When sitting in the room, I witnessed the inner child of each individual awakening; everyone really appreciated being present in the space and interacting with one another.

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My favourite moment was the initial exercise when we shared our favourite sandwiches. Though this was simple, it was a beautiful way for us all to connect. We all had a good ol’ laugh and it definitely broke the ice… and made us all very hungry!

It is important to research and be well-prepared before delivering a workshop, but it is of utmost importance to arrive open-minded. It is very easy to head into a session with an exact plan in mind, but the nature of Applied Theatre means that patience and adaptability are two attributes you must prioritise. Allowing the workshop to flow and evolve naturally makes it unique; it creates a space that is open, genuine and liberating for both participants and facilitators. This is the key takeaway that I have from this unit. It is really important to recognise the individuality within a collective when working with communities and to allow the participants to lead the workshop as much as you do, in order to tailor a language that is understood and resonates with everyone in the room.

I definitely recommend this unit to other students; it may be challenging at times, but the experience is rewarding and heart-warming. The power and impact of Applied Theatre can only truly be understood once you engage with it yourself so give it a go!”

Sergio Medina Meneses, student

My name is Sergio. I am an exchange student from Mexico and this year I had the opportunity to get to know more about Applied Theatre. 

In this unit I got to choose to do something related to theatre for “May Park Primary School”. My team and I needed to plan and deliver a short performance and a creative workshop for children of year 3. Our main aim was to reinforce the school values after the pandemic through theatre. 

So, we decided to focus on superheroes and get them to get involved with that theme around the workshop and the performance. 

I believe that one of my favourite things was to get to work with children. Their imagination and innocence were so wonderful. There are no judgments only play and fun. I think I also got to feel closer to the kids who are refugees. As a foreign in this country working with them, and showing my language and they are sharing theirs with me was important and even emotional. Because that’s what theatre is all about. We don’t see nationalities nor origins nor genders… we see bodies in the space willing to have fun and to create TOGETHER. And every piece has something to offer, especially children that are so generous and their will to create is way bigger than us as adults. 

That is the thing Applied Theatre taught me (that I will remember): that no matter who you are, you are capable of making theatre.”

Elise Eden-Rose, student

My group and I ran a Widening Participation project in aid of encouraging students to become engaged with the arts at a higher education level. We wanted to create something exciting and new for the year 9 and 10 students, so developed a sound-based Complicité workshop, an informative welcome talk, a guided tour around the building and concluded with a Q&A with the students. We were apprehensive beforehand, concerned that the students wouldn’t engage in the way we hoped, but we were pleasantly surprised. We learnt that young people can be extremely open to new things, and we discovered the impact we can have by taking time to broaden their horizons.

We faced some challenges during our workshop, one of which was perfecting the ability to adapt and change on the spot. Going into it we knew flexibility was key, but it was far different in practice. One example of this was our attempt at a call and response to get the attention of the students. However, when it came to it, they didn’t respond particularly well to it.

nature sky bird holiday

We established that we would shout “seaside” and they would respond with bird noises after which giving us their attention.

When we tried this, it became apparent that there was too much existing noise and distraction in the space, so the students couldn’t hear when we called to them. So, we adapted and decided to split off and tell each group the time was coming to an end, and we were moving on. This showed us we were able to adapt as we went, and created confidence in our abilities.

Overall, we had an amazing time creating and running this day, and felt we learnt a lot about ourselves as facilitators and the students’ abilities.”

Sarah Rogers, Hillfields Library

I wanted to to give my heartfelt thanks to the student team for the two wonderful sessions they delivered with my Silver Explorers (over 60s) group. The group thoroughly enjoyed themselves and have been talking about the session in subsequent weeks. The topics and delivery were spot-on for the group. The students were adaptable, approachable, friendly, and honest. The group really warmed to the students, and some really open conversations and friendly interactions happened. I was thoroughly impressed with the activities the group brought along, how they described them, introduced them and allowed the group to veer off if necessary.  It was important the group were allowed time to reminisce, to think about family, our past, our present and ourselves. The students approached everything with respect and in an inquisitive and positive manner. The students were also super professional, turned up early and also offered to help pack down at the end in both sessions.”

Hannah Cowell, Engaged Learning Advisor

It has been a pleasure to work with Jess and the students on this project. Jess has allowed for learning to take place in a challenging and exploratory environment whilst creating a safe space for reflection and to learn from mistakes. Students have had the opportunity to appreciate the applicability of their creative skills in wider contexts and learned how adaptable they can be. I believe this project showcases an excellent example of authentic learning for mutual benefit. Hearing the positive reflections on the project is testament to the hard work Jess and the students have put into making these projects a success for their learning outputs and in providing meaningful contributions to external partners and their service users.”

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