Research into Applied Theatre has focused on the use of theatre as a means of raising public and professional awareness of the cultural contexts and experience of illness.
The University of Exeter Drama department’s research in Applied Theatre has had impact in the improvement of community understandings of mental health. It provides professional development for medics and teachers, informing training in applied and community theatre.
John Somers' work over the last twenty years; continued in the work of Drs Fiona Macbeth, Kerrie Schaefer, Sarah Goldingay and Professor Jane Milling (at present, there are ongoing funded projects being undertaken which will lead to further impact in this important field, improving people's understanding of mental health); has been ground breaking in modelling, analysing and developing a form of interactive theatre that effectively engages audiences and communities (professional or geographical) in narratives of illness and stress. Our Centre for Performance, Sciences, and Community has also been formed to support this work.
John Somers developed new approaches to community theatre and has given presentations on this work internationally. Impact has also been achieved through his founding of the applied theatre company Exstream in 2001; under his direction Exstream achieved a reputation for excellence through the development of interactive theatre, raising awareness of issues related to wellbeing, mental health, and creativity within the community.
From 2002 to 2006, five interactive plays, authored and directed by John Somers, were core to this practical research, performed and toured by Exstream. Of these, On the Edge (2004) has proved the most significant. He worked closely with mental health specialists. Touring nationally, with 123 performances to more than 5,000 people, 79 performances were in schools, colleges and universities where the audience was aged between 14 and 22. In addition 44 performances were held for teachers and mental health professionals as a part of continuing professional development or at conferences. It toured in 2009 and 2010 to UK teacher training institutions as part of an 'Education Not Discrimination' mental health awareness workshop for trainee teachers, trainee head teachers and Social inclusion leads.
This practical research is significant for its focused aim in raising awareness of early stage psychosis through a combination of theatre performance and subsequent classroom interaction. John Somers collaborated with psychologists and psychiatrists and those with direct experience of the condition. in creating this work, resulting in a fruitful exchange across disciplines.
His development of community theatre has also been innovative, including twelve theatre projects and the foundation of a community theatre school in Payhembury, East Devon. This work is distinctive in identifying ways to widen the skills base in the community and to improve levels of engagement and participation in theatre activity through targeted training. The Community Theatre School in Payhembury has continued to develop as a model for spreading theatre-making skills in communities, resulting in the creation of original work such as New Talking Heads, a series of performed and videoed monologues; Foresight supported by £10,000 from the National Lottery in 2008; and Hollyhayes, a sophisticated community theatre production on a farm in Payhembury in 2011.
John Somers has worked extensively internationally, most recently in Taiwan, Poland and the Czech Republic. He was awarded the 2014 Association of Theatre in Higher Education Leadership in Community-Based Theatre and Civic Engagement award at a ceremony in Phoenix Arizona having already gained the 2003 American Alliance of Theatre and Education Special Recognition Award. He already held the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award from Türk Eğitim Derneği (Turkish Drama Association) for services to drama in the UK and in Turkey. In honour of his work in Warsaw University over many years, The Applied Drama Centre was renamed Studenckie Koło Naukowe Dramy Stosowanej im Johna Somersa (the John Somers Applied Drama Research Association) at the Institute of Prevention and Resocialisation (IPSiR).
John Somers is the founder and first editor of the international research journal Research in Drama Education.