BA Music and Drama / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Activist performance

Unit code DRAM30821
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by School of Arts, Languages and Cultures
Available as a free choice unit? No


The course provides an opportunity to critically examine one of the most historically significant manifestations of theatre as an art form – its role inside social and political movements. The history of activism has repeatedly evidenced the fecund territory that exists at the intersection of theatre, protest and performance, with powerful and provocative protest performances appearing across democratic, postcolonial, identity and ecological campaigns throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. These disparate movements have generated diverse repertoires of protest configured by imaginative combinations of bodies and texts inserted into public space. The aim of the course is to develop students’ understanding of theatre and performance as a political phenomenon, as well as their appreciation of how the political domain is produced by performative and mediatised environments that sculpt subjectivities, identities and possibilities for social and political action. During the course, students will consider questions such as – how has theatre and performance played a critical and creative role in protest? How might theatre and performance be employed as part of reactionary as well as progressive protest? How might the ‘transformational’ potential of theatre and performance be articulated and understood?


The course begins with two introductory sessions examining theatre as an activist aesthetic and selected framings of the ‘political’ through the 20th and 21st century. Following this, the course is split into a historical and contemporary section, predominantly focusing on protest performance on either side of the Atlantic – the US and Europe. The historical section consists of four sessions exploring important historical precedents, relating to examples of theatre activism taking place as part of the civil rights movement in the US, the 1968 Paris uprisings, the alternative theatre movement in Britain during a time of economic crisis, and the global justice movement. The second section of the course includes four sessions that focus on examples in the living memory of students taking the course, extending from anti-war on terror activism to ecological protest performance.


  • To develop students’ understanding of the relationships between performance, politics and theatre
  • To stimulate students’ curiosity about and awareness of the ways artist activists have addressed contexts of inequality, social suffering and political oppression historically
  • To challenge students to make independent, informed and ethical judgements about complex political issues
  • To challenge students to take responsibility for the values, norms, assumptions and beliefs that guide their own choices and actions as citizens


Indicative syllabus:


  1. Introduction – activism, theatricality and performance. Focus on tactics, spaces, and media. Establishing key terms – performativity, theatricality, spectacle, representation and non-representational form, politics and aesthetics.
  2. Understanding the ‘political’ – an introduction to selected political theory relevant to understanding 20th and 21st century social movements (theories of democracy, the biopolitical, vital materialism and posthumanism).
  3. Histories (a) – Civil rights theatre, Black Power and the body, and the theatricality of non-violent protest. Political issue: contested citizenship. Theatrical form: civil rights plays and the choreographies of non-violence.
  4. Histories (b) – 1968 uprisings and the Situationists. Political issue: capitalism. Theatrical form: play, derive, detournement, spectacle.
  5. Histories (c) – the alternative theatre movement and economic crisis (post 1973) – Welfare State, Banner Theatre, Monstrous Regiment and Gay Sweatshop. Political issue: emergent neoliberalisms. Theatrical form: identity and class aesthetics.
  6. Histories (d) – the Battle of Seattle (1999) and the global justice movement. Political issue: anticapitalism and ecological damage. Theatrical form: carnival and the carnivalesque.
  7. In living memory (a) The war on terror. Political issue: wars on terror. Theatrical form: street processions and the tribunal play.
  8. In living memory (b) – The Arab Spring. Political issue: democracy. Theatrical form: digital art activism from Tahrir Square and clowning in Syria.
  9. In living memory (c) – Occupy! Political issue: economic justice. Theatrical form: creative and non-representational forms of public assembly.
  10. In living memory (d) – Third wave feminist theatres. Political issue: sexism and violence against women. Theatrical form: walking performance.
  11. In living memory (e) – the Anthropocene. Political issue: the end of the world. Theatrical form: non-human form/relations in performance and experiments in commons living.
  12. Review; assessment planning

Teaching and learning methods




Creative exercise

Discussion exercise

Student presentation


Per course:


One contribution from an invited artist activist

Attendance at local protest event (if appropriate/relevant)

Knowledge and understanding

·         Demonstrate a good understanding of the relationships between the political domain and performance as well as historical awareness of the significance of theatre and performance in social and political movements

·         Effectively and persuasively employ critical terms from political and performance theory to analyse historically significant examples of protest performance, demonstrating a comprehensive grasp of those terms

·         Demonstrate, through written and verbal discourse, a good understanding of the significance of performative and mediatised environments for the production of political subjectivity and agency

  • Contextualise examples of theatre activism with reference to selected political concepts (democracy, the biopolitical, citizenship, identity, neoliberalism, for example)

Intellectual skills

·         Critically analyse and interrogate claims made for the value and impact of theatre and performance in bringing about socio-political change

·         Critically evaluate a series of examples of theatrical activism of importance to 20th and 21st century history, evidencing in-depth analysis of at least three examples

·         Synthesise theoretical terms and concepts and apply these to analysis and argument

  • Effectively use primary and secondary sources, including in contexts where data is incomplete and where careful interpretive work is required

Practical skills

·         Research academic and non-academic materials/contexts, and evaluate sources

·         Plan, undertake and evaluate independent critical work

·         Engage in discussion of complex and controversial subjects

  • Present in front of a group

Transferable skills and personal qualities

·         Evidence their use of a range of research skills – analysis, presentation, written and verbal communication, constructing effective and persuasive argument, evaluation of sources

·         Plan, undertake, manage and evaluate critical projects

·         Communicate effectively, including when discussing complex and controversial subject matter

·         Demonstrate curiosity about global issues

  • Articulate an awareness of the norms, values, assumptions and beliefs that guide their own political behaviour and actions

Employability skills

Group/team working
¿ Ability to work independently and as part of a team, often as part of creative and critical projects that present unpredictable and challenging scenarios
¿ Creative thinking ¿ our teaching environment enables students to develop creative and critical approaches to problem-solving
¿ Awareness of the importance of contributing to public life and demonstrating good citizenship ¿ our curriculum is socially and politically engaged, and encourages students to develop a sense of social responsibility in their professional and social life
Project management
¿ Project management ¿ our teaching environment demands that students plan, undertake, manage and evaluate projects independently and as part of teams
Oral communication
¿ Advanced communication skills ¿ verbal, written; prepared/rehearsed and `off the cuff¿/improvised
¿ Emotional intelligence ¿ our teaching environment encourages students to develop self awareness, and an ability to use emotional and cognitive capacities when approaching new challenges

Assessment methods

Essay: A critical essay focusing on the relationship between theatricality, activism and performance in relation to two examples.

3500-4000 words / 60%

Proposal: A proposal for an activist performance intervention recreating the theatrical tactics of a historical example and applying these to a protest relating to a political/social concern (local or global) that has arisen during the module. The proposal will include a short case study analysis of the historical example, a rationale for the trans-historical connection, and short proposal for action that includes a clear description of the theatrical intervention. These will be presented on a weekly basis and written up for end of module submission.

2500-3000 words / 40%

Feedback methods

Mid and end of course evaluation

Dedicated office hours

One to one support for planning essays and proposals

Post assessment feedback as required by students

Recommended reading

  • Hazem Azmy and Marvin Carlson (eds), Special issue on theatre and the Arab Spring, Theatre Research International, 38:2, July 2013
  • L. M. Bogad, Electoral Guerrilla Theatre: Radical Ridicule and Social Movements (New York: Routledge, 2005)
  • Andrew Boyd, Beautiful trouble: a toolbox for the revolution (New York and London: O/R Books, 2012)
  • Jan Cohen-Cruz (ed), Radical Street Performance: An International Anthology (London & New York: Routledge, 1998)
  • Jill Dolan, Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre (Univ. Michigan, 2006)
  • Susan Foster, ‘Choreographies of Protest’ Theatre Journal, 55:3, pp. 395-412
  • Jenny Edkins and Adrian Kerr (eds.), International Politics and Performance: Critical aesthetics and creative practice (Oxford: Routledge, 2013)
  • Jenny Hughes and Simon Parry, 2015 (eds) Special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review (25,3). Theatre, performance and activism: gestures toward an equitable world.
  • Catherine Itzin, Stages in the revolution: Political Theatre in Britain since 1968 (London: Methuen, 1980)
  • Baz Kershaw, Theatre Ecology (Cambridge: CUP, 2007)
  • Baz Kershaw, The Radical in Performance (Oxford: Routledge, 1999)
  • Baz Kershaw, The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention (London: Routledge, 1992)
  • Ken Knabb (edited and translated by, revised and expanded edition), Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006 [1981])
  • George McKay, DiY Culture (London: Verso, 1998);
  • George McKay, Senseless Acts of Beauty (London: Verso, 1996)
  • The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest
  • Notes from Nowhere, We are everywhere: The irresistible rise of global anti-capitalism (Verso, 2003)
  • Ben Parry, with Sally Medlyn and Myriam Tahir, Cultural hijack: rethinking intervention (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011)
  • Ben Shepard, Play, creativity and social movements (London and New York: Routledge, 2011)
  • Ben Shepard Queer political performance and protest (London and New York: Routledge, 2010)
  • Ben Shepard and Ronald Hayduk, From Act Up to the WTO (London and New York: Verso, 2002)
  • Jenny Spencer, Political and Protest Theatre after 9/11: Patriotic Dissent (Oxford: Routledge, 2012)
  • Cami Rowe, The Politics of Protest and US Foreign Policy Performative Construction of the War on Terror (London and New York: Routledge, 2013)
  • Edward Ziter, Political Performance: From the Six Day War to the Syrian Uprising (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2014)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Simon Parry Unit coordinator

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