Frances Rifkin trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and, after working experience as Assistant Stage Manager with the Royal Court and Royal Shakespeare Theatres, developed a committed practice to alternative and community theatre models. As a political activist and feminist, Rifkin has carved a long-running career against the dictatorial and sexist attitudes that often pervade mainstream theatre.
As Cofounder and Director of Recreation Ground Theatre Company (1972 – 79) and Artistic Director of Banner Theatre, Birmingham (1979 – 88), Rifkin worked at the coalface of political theatre.
Recreation Ground Theatre Company was an Arts Council funded, socialist Small Scale Touring company. It worked as part of the massive campaign against Fascism and racism, with trades unions, anti-fascist committees, community centres and schools. It collaborated with Rock Against Racism and produced two antifascist plays for young people that toured numerous schools. Funding was withdrawn when members of the company, working as individuals, went at their own expense to perform in Andersonstown Social Centre in Belfast in 1976.
As Director of Banner Theatre Birmingham, Rifkin worked with its founder Charles Parker, former radical producer of the BBC Radio Ballads and collaborator with folk revivalists Peggy Seeger, Ewan McColl and A.L. Lloyd amongst others. With Banner Theatre, Parker, tape recorded ‘actuality’ on the picket lines with industrial and other communities, and produced touring theatre and political song with progressive movements, trade unions and steel, coal, council workers and many others. Following Parker’s death in 1980, Rifkin continued as director of Banner Theatre, touring its shows and songs throughout the United Kingdom during the dramatic social upheavals of the 1980’s.
Rifkin later lectured at the University of Warwick (1992 – 95) and Lancaster (1995 – 97) and held the role of theatre consultant at Queen Mary University, London (1999 – 01). Subsequently returning to professional theatre practice, Rifkin worked in a wide range of settings and groups: the Trade Union Congress, Unison the Union, NHS staff and patients, the Lawnmowers Independent Theatre Company, and with a host of voluntary organisations in search of creative and complex approaches to community theatre.
As a practitioner and teacher, Rifkin now practicses Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. Boal’s approach liberates people and practitioners to use creative theatre – often for the first time – to formulate, consider and represent complex ideas through performance. Boal’s philosophy emerged from the trajectory of Stanislavsky, Mourinho, Brecht and a long history of political, questioning, creative and therapeutic theatre practices. Boal hands theatre over to the non-professional audience as the ‘spect-actors’; offering the opportunity to claim and explore their agency in society and creativity, placed equally in the performance space with the professional. Boal’s Theatre is a form that questions the notion of ‘watching’ theatre: ‘spect-actors’ work in action to examine and dissect the ideas behind theatre and society.
As an academic, Rifkin has extensively examined participatory ethics within theatre arts. Rifkin is the author of ‘The Ethics of Participatory Theatre in Higher Education’, published by The Higher Education Academy and Intellect Books (2010), with a second publication currently in development. Frances Rifkin’s research has also been presented in numerous talks, recently with Strike 1984 in Durham (2013), where she presented ‘A Biased History of Political Theatre’, which explored the aims, ambitions, rifts, debates and creative status of political theatre throughout the latter part of the 20th Century.