Legislative Theatre: What Are the Main Benefits And Challenges Of Using Theatre for Policy Making

by Participation Factory

(photo: TONYC)


Legislative theatre (LT) is a type of participatory method that uses roleplaying and improvisation to engage community members in identifying solutions to political problems, and then translating them into new laws. This method is now used worldwide for social and political activism, conflict resolution, community building, therapy, and government legislation.

Recently, we conducted an interview on legislative theatre with Katy Rubin, a legislative theatre practitioner, designer and strategist. As she has long-term experience with designing, coordinating and facilitating Legislative Theatre participatory policy-making processes across the United Kingdom, there is no better person to talk to about the pros and cons of legislative theatre.

The legislative theatre methodology has all kinds of benefits which depend on the situation and the objective of the given process. What Rubin emphasizes is that through roleplaying, we can articulate a specific issue in a deeper and more human way. According to Rubin, policymakers are very often making policies disconnected from the people who are actually experiencing the daily impact of those policies. Through theatricalizing the experience and the research around the context of the policy, the audience and the policymakers are getting a deeper and more emotional understanding of the problems. Using accessible language and storytelling motivates everybody in the process to understand why a change is needed and what needs to change.

In addition to setting the ground for mutual understanding of complex social issues, legislative theatre enables the testing of policy ideas in real time. Unlike other participatory strategies, LT offers a model to test and try out new strategies and have a shared understanding of why or why not will they work and what needs to change. 

At the same time, the process of LT is an enjoyable experience for participants. The element of fun is greatly emphasized by Rubin, as she describes legislative theatre as an event where participants are laughing, having fun, enjoying themselves and creating a space that is very different from traditional policy making. 

What makes legislative theatre also interesting is the power dynamics. Residents/ Citizens are in a unique position of power not only by starting off the process through their play but also by putting the policymakers in a slightly uncomfortable or unfamiliar position. Making policymakers play, laugh and be in a different kind of design setup than they’re used to diffuse the tension around the issue and allow for creative solutions to be generated.

Yet, with legislative theatre come challenges, too. As Rubin points out, governments and institutions might exhibit reluctance to engage in legislative theatre due to concerns related to the integration of artistic expression with traditional political processes. The immersive and often emotionally charged nature of theatre can be seen as departing from the familiar norms of policy discourse, potentially raising scepticism about the effectiveness and seriousness of the outcomes. 

According to Rubin, the process of legislative theatre itself necessitates the guidance of facilitators with exceptional skills in bridging the gap between creative expression and legislative action. These facilitators play a pivotal role in shaping the narratives that emerge from the theatrical dialogue, distilling them into actionable policy proposals. As we look further into the process after commitments are made, it is not only difficult to hold the policymakers accountable, but it is also challenging to manage expectations regarding the immediate impact of artistic interventions on complex political processes. 

Overall, legislative theatre continues to foster civic engagement while enhancing transparency, encouraging dialogue, and empowering marginalized voices. Despite the challenges inherent in its execution, applying legislative theatre holds immense value as it has the power to reshape governance by infusing it with the authenticity and inclusivity needed to address pressing societal challenges.