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Dr Matt Hargrave

Assistant Professor

Department: Arts

 Matt Hargrave

Matt joined the Department in 2004 after having worked as a writer and theatre practitioner with many leading theatres and cultural providers including: Northern Stage, New Writing North, Mind the Gap, Live Theatre, and Arts Council England.   Matt’s teaching and research interests include theatre and disability; performance and mental health; and Stand-up comedy.

I studied Politics and Modern History at Manchester University, which was good, but less fun than making things up; so I enrolled on an MA in Contemporary Performing Arts at Bretton Hall College.  Here I discovered that performance was an inexhaustible subject, and it could involve anyone, regardless of age, background or training: it could be vehemently political, or frivolous, or both, simultaneously.  I developed a strong interest in the social application of theatre, particularly through the work of Augusto Boal; and the UK based company, Mind the Gap; and I continued to work as a theatre practitioner until taking up the full-time post at Northumbria.

In 2006 I began a doctoral study of theatre involving learning disabled artists, supported by the AHRC. The companies I collaborated with were frustrated by the lack of critical engagement in their work:  analysis that did exist tended to stress the social, or even curative, benefits of theatre. My research tried to fill this gap, to think about intellectual impairment as a set of performance qualities and as a contribution to theatre.  I considered the work of learning disabled artists in the same way that more mainstream theatre practice is evaluated: as a craft and an artform. Theatres of Learning Disability, the book that resulted from this research, won the Theatre and Performance Research Association’s 2016 Early Career Research Award.

More recently I have become interested in Stand-up comedy, particularly its relationship to mental health. I am currently exploring how comedians talk about mental illness and how comedy has the potential to disrupt normative assumptions about wellbeing.




Campus Address

Lipman 007
Northumbria University
Newcastle upon Tyne

My research is concerned to understand how vulnerable and socially stigmatised performers can change cultural representation; I have a proven track record in generating new knowledge about under-theorised cultural practices, evidenced by my monograph, Theatres of Learning Disability, which won the Theatre and Performance Research Association’s Early Career Research Award in 2016.  The awarding panel stated that the book challenges us to think and see differently…offering a ground-breaking contribution to the discipline’.   Prior existing scholarship was inadequate when critiquing works of art involving learning disabled performers. I addressed this gap, producing a detailed ethnography of performance practices, resulting in a new critical framework.

My research is interdisciplinary and concerned to understand how performers defined as ‘vulnerable’ can challenge perceptions of what is possible in performance and in doing so recalibrate the underlying politics of representation.  For example, I question why the presence of intellectual impairment is equated with socially undesirable indicators such as weakness and risk, rather than connection and creativity. I am interested in the fact (obvious but often forgotten) that vulnerability in many forms - disability, neurodivergence, non-normative mental states - is an aesthetic and social resource to be explored and celebrated, not least because it reveals the underlying inequalities and politics of ‘the normal’. Prior to my work, ways of talking about disability that did exist were inadequate as means of critically reflecting on works of art involving learning disabled performers.  My book addressed this gap by undertaking a detailed ethnography developing a nuanced and original critical framework: this critical ‘poetics’ changed the emphasis from questions of curative benefit toward deeper engagement with aesthetic judgement, which also unmasked underlying stigma.  My chapter ‘Dance with a Stranger’ (Alice O’Grady, Ed., Palgrave 2017), expanded these themes and focused on the impact of the central performer’s debilitating illness and led to the invitation to give the keynote address at the 2018 Australian Drama Studies Association conference in Melbourne: ‘Beyond Benevolence: Reframing Vulnerabilty in Theatre Scholarship’.

Recently my research focused on stand-up comedians who utilise material about shame and stigma in their work and who are adept at reframing vulnerability in unusual ways.  Support from Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research Seed Award (2019) initiated my investigation and resulted in the article ‘Stage Persona, stand-up comedy and mental health: Putting yourself out there’ (Persona Studies 2019).

My next monograph, Putting Your Self Out There: Stigma, Performance and the Ordinary, will examine the role of performance, particularly popular performance, in understanding the politics of stigma. This research responds to increased instances where comedians and other performers have addressed stigma directly in their work.

  • Please visit the Pure Research Information Portal for further information
  • Stage persona, stand-up comedy and mental health: 'Putting yourself out there', Hargrave, M. 7 Feb 2020, In: Persona Studies
  • Dance with a Stranger: Torque Show’s Intimacy (2014) and the Experience of Vulnerability in Performance and Spectatorship, Hargrave, M. Dec 2017, Risk, Participation, and Performance Practice, Springer
  • Theatres of learning disability: Good, bad, or plain ugly?, Hargrave, M. 1 Jan 2015
  • A proper actor? The politics of training for learning disabled actors, Gee, E., Hargrave, M. 2011, In: Theatre, Dance and Performance Training
  • Side effects: an analysis of Mind the Gap's Boo and the reception of theatre involving learning disabled actors, Hargrave, M. 2010, In: Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance
  • Pure products go crazy, Hargrave, M. Feb 2009, In: Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance
  • Good, bad or just plain ugly? Changing perceptions of the learning disabled actor, Hargrave, M. 2007, Planting trees of drama with global vision in local knowledge: IDEA 2007 dialogues, Hong Kong, IDEA Publications

Johanne Hauge Neurodivergent performance practice: overwhelm, ambiguity and other neurodivergent logics as critical framework Start Date: 01/10/2021

  • Drama PhD August 31 2013
  • Creative Writing MA (Hons) September 01 2005
  • Other Courses MA (Hons) September 01 1995
  • Politics BA (Hons) July 01 1992
  • English Literature A Level July 01 1989
  • History A Level July 01 1989
  • Sociology A Level July 01 1989

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