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Jennifer Kitchen

The Power of Play in Theatre Education: Past framings, future potential. 
Responding to the ASTWG’s provocation to understand our past in order to shape our future, this paper considers the legacy of theories of play in drama and theatre education, shares a recent use of playfulness in research and invites considerations of how new critical understandings of play might shape future research and practice.  

Ideas on the importance of play have formed a theoretical backbone in drama and theatre education. Drawing on Sutton-Smith’s distinction of cognitive ‘first paradigm’ and socio-cultural ‘second paradigm’ theories of play (Sutton-Smith, 1979) I argue ‘first paradigm’ play perspectives have dominated drama and theatre education, and while encompassing many central ideas of the field, can actually serve to unwittingly reproduce domesticating and neoliberal rhetorics of both theatre and education. (Kitchen, 2015)  

I argue therefore ‘second paradigm’ socio-cultural readings of play can facilitate more reflexive understandings of its role in drama and theatre education, foregrounding its potential to both create and disrupt communities. This perspective framed my doctoral research, where I utilised socio-cultural theories of playfulness to explore ensemble-based TIE pedagogy in a school Shakespeare project. I concluded understanding playful discourse as foundational identity work within the rehearsal room demonstrated the centrality of play in creating spaces for social justice through theatre education.  

However, taking account of the field’s increasing move towards critical approaches (Hughes and Nicholson, 2016; Freebody et al., 2018) I conclude with a challenge to myself and others to push this application of ‘second paradigm’ play perspectives further, and draw explicitly on developing ideas from Post-Colonial, Feminist, Queer and Critical Race Theory scholarships. Through such a critical theory approach to play, I suggest, we can reach towards new conceptions of the power and processes of our work.  

Freebody, K. et al. (eds) (2018) Applied Theatre: Understanding Change. Cham: Springer.  
Hughes, J. and Nicholson, H. (eds) (2016) Critical Perspectives on Applied Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  
Kitchen, J. (2015) ‘The ensemble domesticated: Mapping issues of autonomy and power in performing arts projects in schools.’, Power and Education, 7(1), pp. 90–105. doi: 10.1177/1757743814567389.  
Sutton-Smith, B. (ed.) (1979) Play and Learning. New York: Gardner Press.  
Dr Jennifer Kitchen is an Early Career Fellow based at the Centre for Education Studies at The University of Warwick, UK. Her doctoral research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and also undertaken at Warwick, asked how socio-cultural theories of playfulness can be used to explore ensemble approaches to teaching Shakespeare. Her research was carried out with the UK educational charity Shakespeare Schools Foundation. She has presented internationally on this topic, and in 2016 took part in an extended visiting scholarship to Emerson College, Boston USA. She has also taught and provided dissertation supervision on the Warwick Business School Masters in The Advanced Teaching of Shakespeare. Prior to beginning her doctorate she was a theatre education practitioner for several years, including a year’s residence with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and continues to practice on a freelance basis in areas relating to Shakespeare, storytelling and early years’ theatre education.