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The emancipated spectator within the asylum system, applied theatre and narrative therapy


When looking into the asylum system through the lens of applied theatre, narrative appears to be an integral part of both processes. This article aims to draw a comparison between the position of the asylum seeker within the system of refugee determination and the spectator within theatre. It explores how we can begin to discuss the reclaiming of power for the individuals involved within both processes, following the framework of The Emancipated Spectator [1] by Jacques Rancière, and terminology drawn from practices of Narrative Therapy. 


Beginning the discussion around theatre, we must start from the spectator’s position within it. Rancière developed crucial arguments in The Emancipated Spectator and attributed the criticism that spectatorship has received to two reasons:

‘First, viewing is the opposite of knowing: the spectator is held before an appearance in a state of ignorance and the process of production of this appearance and about the reality it conceals. Second, it is the opposite of acting: spectator remains immobile in her seat, passive. To be a spectator is to be separated from both the capacity to know and the power to act.’ [2] 


Having illuminated these problems, Rancière continues by indicating the solutions that different approaches can offer. One such approach, based on Plato [3], rejects theatre entirely as ‘an absolutely bad thing: a scene of illusion and passivity that must be abolished in favour of what it prohibits – knowledge and action [4]’. Alternatively, there is the approach of theatre reformists, who find the problem to be that ‘whoever says “theatre” says ”spectator” – and therein lies the evil [5]’. The solution this approach offers is: 

‘a different theatre, a theatre without spectators: not a theatre played out in front of empty seats, but a theatre where the passive optical relationship implied by the very term is subjected to a different relationship.’ [6]


Theatre’s duty here is to re-evaluate the position of the spectator in order to create an active community of people, a collective which uses the metaphorical and literal space between them and the stage as a bridge, giving the opportunity to discuss, re-think and alter relevant topics. 


The roots of Applied Theatre lie within this idea of emancipation and narrative. According to Helen Nicholson, Applied Theatre is an umbrella term used to describe ‘forms of dramatic activity that are specifically intended to benefit individuals, communities and societies’ [7]. Applied Theatre also captures Narrative Therapy’s potential to re-author conversations. This involves an effort to attach significance to previously neglected events, while being encouraged to link these with other events of one’s life in a sequence that unfolds through time according to alternative themes, in order to create new opportunities to form identity descriptions that can contradict the previous, negative identity conclusions [8]. 


Furthermore, when discussing narrative, empowerment and the critical engagement of spectatorship, the theory of the emancipated spectator could also be applicable to the asylum system. More specifically, within the UK asylum system, an asylum seeker has few opportunities to share their narrative, which will be the one shaping the process’ outcome. Nevertheless, the process of refugee determination is particularly lengthy and frequently the different opportunities for sharing ones’ narrative are, in reality, chances to support pre-attained information, in an attempt to present a consistent story and avoid jeopardising the asylum seeker’s credibility [9]. As a result, the asylum rules and procedures, along with the strict (yet vague) definition of a ‘refugee’ by the Geneva Convention [10]; the work done by asylum lawyers, called in support of the asylum seeker; and the way the final decisions are made by the Home Office, cumulatively cement the idea that once there is a narrative in place, it is soon taken out of the asylum seeker’s control. To be more specific, due to the way personal narrative is treated by the Home Office [11], for example in questioning the way asylum lawyers themselves try to support asylum seekers create a legible narrative, and the way asylum tribunals reach their final appeal decisions [12], the asylum seeker can end up navigating the system with a thin description [13] rather than a complete personal narrative. Arguably, these asylum seekers become spectators within their own narratives. 


As it is often discussed within Narrative Therapy practices, the personal narrative is an integral part of our narrative identity, which is defined as ‘a person’s internalized and evolving life story, the reconstructed past imagined future to provide life with some degree of unity and purpose [14]’. Especially when said narratives include severe trauma, as is often the case with asylum seekers, a person’s mental health can suffer when there is an absence of a linear and coherent understanding of their own story. Consequently, ideas offered by theatre reformists can be applied to the asylum system in these regards, potentially creating a process that is respectful of people and their narratives. 


Overall, Rancière’s framework has the potential to allow us to view the asylum system through a different lens; one of emancipation and empowerment. The asylum system has the capacity to explore and expose personal narratives; but the way that this is done can be detrimental. It is important, therefore, to investigate which other approaches, such as Applied Theatre and Narrative Therapy, could be progressive and emancipatory, and how they could support the asylum seeker through the process. 


Notes and references

Prentki, Tim, and Preston, Sheila (eds.). 2009. The Applied Theatre Reader. New York: Routledge.

[1] Rancière, Jacques. 2011. The Emancipated Spectator. New York: Verso.

[2] Rancière, Jacques. Op. cit., 2.

[3] Plato. 1902. The Republic. New York; A. L. Burt.

[4] The Emancipated Spectator, 2-3.

[5] The Emancipated Spectator, 3.

[6] The Emancipated Spectator, 3.

[7] Nicholson, Helen. 2014. Applied Drama: the Gift of Theatre. Hampshire, UK & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 3.

[8] Morgan, Alice. 2017. What Is Narrative Therapy? An Easy to Read Introduction. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications. Extract available online at The Dulwich Centre, 17 November 2017.

[9] Cohen, Juliet. 2001. ‘Questions of Credibility: Omissions, Discrepancies and Errors of Recall in the Testimony of Asylum Seekers’. International Journal of Refugee Law 13(3), 293-309.

[10] ‘Owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or owing to such fear unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to return’. Article 1a(2) of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees

[11] Crawley, Heaven. 2010. ‘“No One Gives You a Chance to Say What You Are Thinking”: Finding Space for Children's Agency in the UK Asylum System’. Area, 42(2), 162–169.

[12] Thomas, Robert. 2005. ‘Evaluating Tribunal Adjudication: Administrative Justice and Asylum Appeals’. Legal Studies 25(3), 462-98.

[13] Defined by Narrative Therapy Practice, a thin description allows little space for people to articulate their own particular meaning of their actions and the context within which they occurred. Often generated by others, it leaves little space for movement (Morgan 2017).

[14] Mcadams, Dan P., and Mclean, Kate C. 2013. ‘Narrative Identity’. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 233.

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Sofia Nakou

Sofia Nakou holds a BA(hons) in Drama from Kingston University and an MSc in Theatre and Performance studies from Edinburgh University. Currently, Sofia is a second year interdisciplinary PhD student working on her thesis, (Re)Constructing Asylum Narratives through the lens of Applied Theatre; a research project on how the asylum seekers’ narratives, and subsequently mental health, are affected by the asylum system process and how Applied Theatre can be part of an interdisciplinary approach to such complicated and ongoing issue. Finally, Sofia is a theatre director and drama facilitator with over 10 years of experience in the art field whose work focuses on creating art with vulnerable communities and exploring how we can use theatre as a means of change.

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