Applied Theatre with Looked-After Children

Dramatising Social Care

by Claire MacNeill (Author)
©2018 Monographs XVI, 288 Pages


Applied theatre is a continually growing and diversifying field. This book is the first of its kind to examine the use of applied theatre with looked-after children. It interrogates the experiences of young people in care in the UK and the potential of applied theatre as a liberation tool within these settings. Informed by twelve years of practice-based research, the book examines how a central pedagogy was initially developed with young people and front-line staff within a residential children’s home. The author then critiques the ways in which this pedagogy was adapted and expanded to work with other «looked-after», misrepresented and marginalised young people in related settings.
The research presented here describes a unique journey through care homes, children’s prisons and inner-city estates, exploring the possibility of reclaiming childhoods through theatre practice. It asks the questions: what does it mean to be «looked after» and «cared for» by an institution? What are the challenges of developing liberatory practice within rigid and homogenising frameworks? And how can theatre forge radical creative spaces within a network of power and control?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Foreword
  • Introduction: The Origins and Intent of This Book
  • Part 1: Conceptual Frameworks
  • Chapter 1: The State of State Welfare and Medway STC
  • Chapter 2: Conceptual Framing of Oppression and Empowerment
  • Chapter 3: Understandings of Applied Theatre as a Tool for Liberation
  • Part 2: Case Studies
  • Chapter 4: The Romany Gypsy Project and Main-Place Residential Children’s Home: Discovering a Praxis
  • Chapter 5: The Evolution of Pedagogy and Praxis in Residential Children’s Homes in Hampshire
  • Chapter 6: The Adaptation and Expansion of Applied Theatre on Inner City Estates
  • Chapter 7: Clashes, Contradictions and Critical Reflections: Illuminating the Paradigmatic Differences
  • Part 3: Conclusions and New Proposals
  • Chapter 8: A Summary of Findings, New Proposals and Contemporary Care Contexts
  • Chapter 9: Performing Research: New Horizons and Possibilities
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← viii | ix →


Figure 1.The research process as a whole.
Figure 2.Sites of practice.
Figure 3.The contradictions between the two central paradigms.
Figure 4.Subverting relations of force, re-centring young people within power paradigms.
Figure 5.Spheres of influence and sources of oppression.
Figure 6.Levels of intervention in children’s homes.
Figure 7.Levels of intervention on inner city estates.

← ix | x →

← x | xi →


My mum and dad looked after me. I grew up in an Irish Catholic home where there wasn’t a lot of food on the table at times. But I was looked after. So were my seven brothers and sisters. The St Vincent de Paul ladies who came visiting on a Friday with their full shopping bags of groceries looked after us too. My mum thought they were also looking after themselves. Looking after their spiritual life she would say, by looking after our physical needs. I’m not sure if Linda Tuhiwai Smith might have questioned their generosity. We did, when we felt embarrassed about being poor, but deep down we were glad for the food. I thought as a boy that the bleeding Heart of Jesus looking down off the wall was looking after us too. He looked so gentle and loving. School. I was looked after there too. We went exploring the world and I learnt to love learning. My nostalgic misty-eyed memories of my childhood mean I barely remember the dislocation of living in poverty. I remember my dad saying he wasn’t hungry because when you get older you lose your taste buds. Taking care of us meant he didn’t take care of himself as well as he could have. I remember too him telling me when I was very little that when you get older you can stop dreaming. It seemed then to me, as it does now, the saddest loss of all. I can still feel the prick of the tears on my seven-year-old face thinking about not having dreams.

The way things happened around me when I was a teenager meant that I might just as easily have ended up in a mess. Social workers used to buzz around us and the Health camp I went to when I was about thirteen meant I got to put some needed weight on but I also met a lot of kids who weren’t just poor. You could tell no one was really looking after them, or looking out for them. There sure was no one looking inside them to see their heart’s desires.

The road out of poverty my dad, who had been paralysed when he was in his forties and lost his job, told me, was through education. Dad understood the liberating potential of education and as the oldest surviving son ← xi | xii → I got the full benefit of his faith. It’s now my faith that the power and gift of education ensures you don’t have to die in the same world you are born in.

Education led me to understand that poverty isn’t an accident. I learnt that it is a condition created through the deliberate unequal distribution of wealth. It is fuelled by greed. As I became increasingly politicised, recognising the web of injustices that shapes the world I sought for solutions. Stumbling across Dorothy Heathcote’s work nearly forty years ago committed me to a life-time of work in applied theatre and drama education. I was determined to realise the potential for revolutionary action in her pedagogic aesthetic that could be used anywhere.

It was seeking out Dorothy that took me to London and to work in Stamford House Regional Remand and Assessment Centre. It was my first experience of making theatre with young people locked behind bars. I learnt that applied theatre wasn’t going to change the world. But I understood that it could still do important work. It could humanise a place where the processes of dehumanisation coloured everything that was done. In making theatre together we could make something beautiful in a deliberately ugly place. And we could play in and with possibilities. There were times where we might imagine a different and better world.

In all the work I have done in places where people are locked up, from forensic psychiatric wards, to adult prisons and youth justice centres, it is the laughter that I remember most vividly about the work. The playfulness of group devised theatre has led to a joy so rare in the lives of those who are hidden behind walls from the world.

This book on applied theatre and looked-after children resonates deeply with much of my own life. Unlike the care I received as a child, Claire writes poetically about the tragedy of looked-after children in the UK. It is a painful story to read. It is hard to hear how systems steal young people’s dreams. Hard not to be revolted at the Orwellian term looked-after children, realising how it is a deliberate lie. Harder to not be angry and sick in your stomach about it.

I am grateful that this book has stirred again my passion for a revolutionary change through theatre. The world is in desperate need of such a change. This book is unequivocal that theatre is a deeply political tool. It asserts theatre can and should be a form of liberatory praxis that severs the ← xii | xiii → chains of power systems that colonise and recolonise the marginalised and the vulnerable. These are grand designs for an art form, that largely exists in the margins. Yet there is an infectious optimism in the work this book celebrates. Kant told us that it is a moral responsibility to be hopeful. It seems perfectly reasonable to hope for children, to fear for them not fear them, to see the possibility still for deep and sustained change.

I am mindful too though that the arts and applied theatre has limitations. It is not enough in itself that applied theatre creates momentary beauty and joy in these young people’s lives. It is not enough that this beauty is a counter-narrative to the despair that sits around so much of these young people’s lives. But it is enough perhaps that this theatre-making reminds children of their humanity in a world that denies it. It is perhaps enough that this work spits in the hardened face of bureaucracies that refuse to see the harm they do. It is perhaps enough that there are people like Claire MacNeill who have dedicated a life to making theatre with the marginalised and dispossessed young people who live amongst us. She is truly looking out for them. Applied theatre is, when it is practised at its best, a performance of hope.

Our old dreams are exhausted. Throughout the world there is a cry for a new way of being, a new freedom for social justice and fairness. One of the most fundamental cries springing from our hearts is that these earth-shaking times are in fact giving us a new chance to re-dream our lives, and we should take it with courage.1

Professor Peter O’Connor
The University of Auckland ← xiii | xiv →


← xiv | xv →

Children Learn What They Live

If children live with criticism,
they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility,
they learn to fight,
If children live with fear,
they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity,
they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule,
they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy,
they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame,
they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement,
they learn confidence.
If children live with praise,
they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance,
they learn to love.
If children live with approval,
they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition,
they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing
they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty,
they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness,
they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration,
they learn respect.
If children live with security,
they learn to have faith in themselves and in those around them.
If children live with friendliness,
they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.
2 ← xv | xvi →

1 Orki, B. from an interview published by New Internationalist, People, ideas and action for social justice. 1 June 2011. <https://newint.org/columns/finally/2011/06/01/ben-okri-nigerian-poet-novelist> accessed August 2017.

2 Law Nolte, D. Nolte, D. and Harris, R. Children Learn What They Live. New York, NY: Workman Publishing, 1998. p. 6.

← xvi | 1 →


The Origins and Intent of This Book

My Childhood

As a child I liked to make things, ‘Goodbye!’ and ‘Welcome back!’ signs, little booklets with exercises for people to do on long journeys. I created a miniature world in a hidden place behind my cabin-bed where various dramas would be played out by the different dolls and miniature people who lived there. As I got older, and talking at length to a mop I had named Sally became less socially acceptable, I discovered drama and attended an after-school drama club which, for a number of years, I literally lived for.

I grew up in an Irish working-class family. My Dad was a carpenter and a passionate socialist and my mum was a childminder. They were young parents and our home life reflected the struggles they faced in trying to provide for us and make their way in the world. Both of them were eccentric and imaginative and in many ways childlike. It was not unusual, for example, to return home from school and find your teddies set up in a cryptic scenario casting you as the detective to work out what had happened between them. As parents, they taught me to empathise with others and not to believe in all you are told, to fight for the underdog and that childhood is a magical and sacred place.

Our house in the early days was busy and loud with different characters, relatives and neighbours endlessly seeming to pass through or stay with us, even though wherever we lived was always very small. Our house was also always full of children because of mum’s job. These children each came with their own stories. Many of them were from single-parent families and all of them brought new insights into different cultures and backgrounds. ← 1 | 2 →

As time went on home life became strained. I grew up in the 1980s when unemployment was rife and directly affected our house; as did the black cloud of depression that comes with it. I remember there being a lurking feeling of uncertainty and fear that transformed into visions of dark spirits spiralling above the roof in my regular nightmares. Mum and Dad eventually went their separate ways.

Drama and performance for me, growing up, provided a space where I could escape and in my process of becoming others, I could make sense of my own world. By creating sets, scenes and miniature worlds in secret places I could ‘bring [my] inner house into order’.1 By pretending I was a multitude of others, living in a different time and place, I could play at being elsewhere and consider different types of challenges and dilemmas.


XVI, 288
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (November)
Applied Theatre Looked-after children Children in Care Applied theatre as a tool of empowerment Theatre for Development within social care systems Children in care and creativity Community Drama Young Offenders Applied Drama Theatre for Development The criminalisation and demonization of poor children in the UK
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018., 303 S., 7 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Claire MacNeill (Author)

Claire MacNeill has been researching applied theatre with looked-after and misrepresented young people since 1999. Her PhD examined the use of applied theatre as an empowerment tool with looked-after children. She provides consultancy for theatre companies, children’s charities and social care departments and advocates for decolonising research and engagement methods with «hard to reach» young people. She is also a sessional lecturer in applied theatre at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.


Title: Applied Theatre with Looked-After Children
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305 pages