The facilitator conundrum

Pedro de Senna

On the 4th of March, 2021, I watched Kay Hepplewhite, author of the recently published The Applied Theatre Artist: Responsivity and Expertise in Practice (Palgrave, 2020) give a presentation about her book as part of a research seminar series organised by the University of Portsmouth. In her presentation, Hepplewhite introduced some of the key concepts her book discusses, which opened up a number of interesting avenues for thought in relation to our Futures project. In the book, she investigates how applied theatre practitioners are able to draw on their expertise to respond to emerging situations and make decisions in the moment, within the contexts in which they are working.

One of our aims in bringing Theatre Arts and Futures together in this project is to help participants embody their assumptions and feelings, through applied theatre techniques. This in turn has three purposes: to allow for new ways of knowing to emerge – what we might call non-logocentric epistemologies; to facilitate collective meaning-making through felt sense, important in a multinational project involving cross- and intercultural encounters; but also to realise, in the physical world, ideas which otherwise would have remained imagined or simply described in words, bridging what Stuart Candy (2010) calls the ‘experiential gulf’.

Methodologically, Hepplewhite takes the opposite direction. Rather than trying to embody discursive practices, she lends discourse to embodied practices, using reflective dialogue in her investigation: after observing and filming the artists/facilitators in their practice (with the consent of all participants, of course), she invites them to reflect on the decisions made in the moment during the work, aided by the video of the activities. This generates a sort of reflective meta-narrative about the work they undertake – examining, justifying, elucidating, challenging their own often unarticulated (because embodied) thought processes. Watching oneself at work is something one rarely does; speaking to what one sees, even more so. This made me think about the possibilities this methodology offers for our own workshop development, in terms of its use within workshops to ‘re-translate’, if you like, action into words, but also as a means of reflecting on the workshop structure and principles themselves, and to help us analyse the key role of the facilitator.

In our search for design principles to underpin futures-oriented training programmes, the role of the facilitator has indeed been discussed at length. Key to Hepplewhite’s book is the notion of responsivity, an attribute that the author suggests is a cornerstone for applied theatre artists, and which she defines as the quality of being responsive to participants in a project, as well as being responsible to them and for their experience. This of course has an ethical dimension and Hepplewhite describes this as the practitioner’s “respond-ability”, which comes from experience and expertise, and involves a mixture of anticipation and adaptation. In the language of our project: anticipation for the future and anticipation for emergence. Applied theatre artists, in other words, seem to be particularly futures literate in their practice.

It would seem from Heppelwhite’s observations that the field of applied theatre has much to offer in this respect. It is clear from her research that the practitioner’s respond-ability is crucial to the outcome of any applied theatre intervention. The implications for our project are important. The materials that we are creating will need to be deployed and employed by a variety of facilitators in different contexts and with different fields and levels of expertise. How can we ensure that our toolkit will be used in a way that truly empowers participants about their personal and professional development? How can we design facilitator (and eventually participant) respond-ability into the materials we produce?

In her presentation, Hepplewhite offered an interesting image: she spoke about applied theatre – and here, I would argue, any activity involving a facilitator and a number of participants – as ‘graft’. As well as bearing the connotation of ‘hard work’, the word graft is used by her in a way similar to that used in horticulture, describing the process whereby one plant is placed into the stem of another in order for them to grow together. Supporting the graft is the rootstock, which in the case of applied theatre artists is the art-form of theatre itself.  Herein lies our conundrum: facilitators ought to have a deep-rooted understanding of their discipline and practice, from which grafts can branch off, and new shoots can emerge. But if we are designing educational resources for a variety of users, what kind of expertise can we expect from future facilitators? What kind of training materials should we therefore be preparing, that will allow them to delve into their own expertise – whatever that may be, while at the same time grafting other disciplinary practices? Are there particular types of experience that offer stronger ‘roots’? Finding the right answer(s) to this is will be crucial to the success of this project.



Candy, S. (2010) The Futures of Everyday Life. Doctoral Dissertation. University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Hepplewhite, K. (2020) The Applied Theatre Artist: Responsivity and Expertise in Practice. London: Palgrave Macmillan


People during Futures Literacy Lab in Greece using applied theatre techniques
The photo was taken by Iliaktida NGO during the Futures Literacy Theatre Lab Pilot organized by UNESCO Chair on Futures Research _FORTH/PRAXI Network, Middlesex University and Iliaktida NGO, July 2019, Lesvos-Greece.