Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures

School of Media and Communication


Malaika Cunningham

PhD Candidate

Clothworkers' Building North, Room 1.07

BA (Hons), MA

Malaika is a theatre practitioner and PhD candidate based in the School of Media and Communications at the University of Leeds. Her research is part of the Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity with Professor Kate Oakley and Dr Beth Johnson.

Her research interests include: Theatre of the Oppressed, theatre, deliberative democracy, political engagement and neoliberalism.


Malaika’s academic background is in Political Theory, having studied Politics and Philosophy up to MA level at the University of Sheffield. She subsequently worked at The Crick Centre as a research assistant on an AHRC funded project exploring the role of participatory arts in political engagement.

Alongside her academic work she is Artistic Director of The Bare Project theatre company. She is also a facilitator with Cardboard Citizens, and works with interactive arts company, Invisible Flock.

Publications include:

Peer reviewed journal article: Co-authored with M. Flinders & M. Wood (May 2016) The politics of co-production: risks, limits and pollution. Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice, 12(2), 261-279 http://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/tpp/ep/2016/00000012/00000002/art00007

Conference Paper and Workshop Facilitator: Theatre of the Oppressed in Political Discourse. for ESRC Seminar Series on Civil Society Strategies for Democratic Renewal (Feb 2016) http://www.crickcentre.org/events/seminar-2-art-expression-and-democracy/

Conference paper: Art as Politics: Participation, Expression and Innovation. presented at The Value of Arts Philosophy Conference, Sheffield University (June 2015) https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/philosophy/research/conferences/valuesofart

Published report: co-authored with M. Flinders, Participatory Arts and Civic Engagement Project Report, AHRC Cultural Value Project (September 2014) http://www.crickcentre.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/AHRC_Cultural_Value.pdf

Blog: Cunningham, M. (2014) ‘From STEM to STEAM: The potential for arts to facilitate innovation, literacy and participatory democracy’, LSE Impact Blog. Available at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/03/14/stem-to-steam-creative-innovation/

Research Centres & Groups

Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity, led by Professor Tim Jackson.

PhD Thesis

Legislative Theatre, deliberation and the neoliberal threat to democracy

The detrimental effects of neoliberalism on democracy has been well explored by thinkers from a range of disciplines including Michel Foucault, Colin Hay, Tony Judt, David Harvey and Wendy Brown. This is apparent not only within neoliberal policies such as privatisation and an increase in corporate political influence (Harvey, 2005), but also through the proliferation of the ‘neoliberal rationality’ as common sense on a political and personal level (Brown, 2016, Brown, 2015). Our capability to govern our own society, one of Martha Nussbaum’s fundamental capabilities for human flourishing (Nussbaum, 2003), is becoming increasingly limited. This project aims to explore ways in which this may be overcome on the local level through opening up the private sector and local government to deliberative democratic interventions, namely, Legislative Theatre.

Legislative Theatre offers a means by which to bring ordinary citizens into policy making: to engage with political discourse and ultimately (if successful), to effect policy change or, in Augusto Boal’s words: “Making theatre as politics rather than merely making political theatre” (Boal, 1998a: 20). Boal claims Legislative Theatre can allow for more diverse voices in political decision making and that this leads to better laws and policy (Boal, 1998a). It challenges the notion that ordinary citizens are ‘not capable’ of making ‘technical decisions’ and values the “voice, experience and knowledge of a wide-range of participants as it promotes dialogical problem-solving” (Cohen-Cruz and Schutzman, 2006: 78). Similar to other deliberative democratic intervention, the aim of Legislative Theatre is to create legislation with those who have lived experience of the policy topic, as well as aiming to improve policy decisions made in terms of social justice and equality.

In this PhD project I will be exploring the role of Legislative Theatre, in overcoming the harmful effects of neoliberalism on democracy. Neoliberal policy and an embedded ‘neoliberal rationality’ have undermined key aspects of democracy in both the USA and UK (Brown, 2015, Birch, 2013). This project will observe two Legislative Theatre projects as deliberative democratic interventions, one in New York, the other in London. The focus of these projects will be safety and accountability in public and social housing. This study primarily aims to measure (using a qualitative mixed method approach):

1) the extent to which Legislative Theatre impacts political decision-making (within government and the private sector); influencing policy

2) the extent to which Legislative Theatre allows for a) a greater diversity of voices; b) a genuinely deliberative space (one which values and promotes respect and listening to all involved); c)  and a wider range of potential alternatives within decision making- thereby disturbing ‘neoliberal rationality’.

Other relevant questions for this research:

  • Why art? Does the creative nature of Legislative Theatre projects enhance or detract from its political efficacy?
  • How do different social and cultural factors influence the process and outcomes in London and NYC?

Key themes: Neoliberalism; deliberative democracy; equality; Legislative Theatre; practice-led research

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