Co-creating theatre: Authentic engagement or inter-legitimation?

This article investigates the development, purpose and value of co-creation in theatre. Through a qualitative analysis of a new work festival at West Yorkshire Playhouse, it explores the levers and barriers to participatory engagement and evaluates the phenomenon of co-creation from the comparative perspective of both producers and audiences of theatre.

The rising trend of co-creation reflects the evolving role of the audience in the creative process and at first sight represents a movement towards democratizing the arts. Co-creation is one of the deepest and most intensive ways audiences can engage with the arts, and this study questions to what extent it can be regarded as an authentic and successful democratization of the creative process, while exploring the contentious relationship between widening participation and artistic excellence.

The study takes a qualitative approach, based on participant observation and twelve depth interviews with a sample drawn from managers, theatre-makers, marketers and audiences. Its key findings are that co-creation attracts a highly niche audience of “theatre people” who are active learners and risk takers, and that while an all-encompassing definition of co-creation remains elusive, the activity is here to stay. Co-creation is ultimately messy, raw, incomplete, contingent and context-dependent. Successful co-creation involves trust, respect, collaboration, playfulness and exchange; it takes participants on an adventurous journey and deepens their engagement with theatre.

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