"Filling out the Forms was a Nightmare": Project Evaluation and the Reflective Practitioner in Community Theatre in Contemporary Northern Ireland
AbstractSince the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, large sums have been invested in community theatre projects in Northern Ireland, in the interests of conflict transformation and peace building. While this injection of funds has resulted in an unprecedented level of applied theatre activity, opportunities to maximise learning from this activity are being missed. It is generally assumed that project evaluation is undertaken at least partly to assess the degree of success of projects against important social objectives, with a view to learning what works, what does not, and what might work in the future. However, three ethnographic case studies of organisations delivering applied theatre projects in Northern Ireland indicate that current processes used to evaluate such projects are both flawed and inadequate for this purpose. Practitioners report that the administrative work involved in applying for and justifying funding is onerous, burdensome, and occurs at the expense of artistic activity. This is a very real concern when the time and effort devoted to ‘filling out the forms’ does not ultimately result in useful evaluative information. There are strong disincentives for organisations to report honestly on their experiences of difficulties, or undesirable impacts of projects, and this problem is not transcended by the use of external evaluators. Current evaluation processes provide little opportunity to capture unexpected benefits of projects, and small but significant successes which occur in the context of over-ambitious objectives. Little or no attempt is made to assess long-term impacts of projects on communities. Finally, official evaluation mechanisms fail to capture the reflective practice and dialogic analysis of practitioners, which would richly inform future projects. The authors argue that there is a need for clearer lines of communication, and more opportunities for mutual learning, among stakeholders involved in community development. In particular, greater involvement of the higher education sector in partnership with government and non-government agencies could yield significant benefits in terms of optimizing learning from applied theatre project evaluations.
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