City Research Online

Sex Worker’s Opera: Community musical theatre as artistic activism

Flower, I. (2023). Sex Worker’s Opera: Community musical theatre as artistic activism. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


This PhD research unpacks the conditions that enable community musical theatre to constitute a form of artistic activism, encompassing organisational dynamics, creative processes, and features of live performance.

Bringing together theory from the fields of community music, applied theatre and political performance, the research presents a case study of Sex Worker’s Opera (SWO). SWO is a sex worker-led community musical theatre project that aims to tackle misrepresentations of sex workers, challenge stigma and advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work through the collaboratively-made performance, Sex Worker’s Opera. The candidate draws on performance analysis, participant observation and interview data gathered through music elicitation sessions with directors and members of SWO to explore three main research questions. Firstly, how did Sex Worker’s Opera provide a platform for marginalised artists (SWO’s members and directors) to engage with and advance the activist goals of the sex work community? Secondly, what were the structures and practices required to support the process of making Sex Worker’s Opera? And, thirdly and more generally, what are the social impacts of SWO?

The research shows that, within community musical theatre performance, songs provide a platform for marginalised groups who may not otherwise be heard to communicate pertinent political messages. Furthermore, dramaturgy can support the formation of emotional connections between performers and audiences, instilling a sense of moral and political responsibility that encourages allyship. It also demonstrates the necessity of prioritising values associated with cultural democracy and care ethics in creative and organisational practice, showing that artistic activism encompasses personal benefits when these are in place. Overall, it highlights the inextricability of affects and effects in assessments of the social impact of community musical theatre projects, and socially-engaged performance more broadly, and challenges assumptions about who is impacted by this work.

As one of very few studies into community musical theatre, this thesis offers a valuable point of reference for future interdisciplinary research. Moreover, it demonstrates the need to conceive of ‘social impact’ as something that might be seen in subtle affects, as well as quantifiable effects. In all, the thesis suggests that more should be made of the political potential of community musical theatre as a vehicle for community-led advocacy, calling for greater attention to the sustainable model of activism that grassroots community arts projects could provide and the ways in which they might complement other forms of political action.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music > M Music
Departments: Doctoral Theses
[thumbnail of Flower Thesis 2023 PDF-A.pdf]
Text - Accepted Version
Download (4MB) | Preview


Add to AnyAdd to TwitterAdd to FacebookAdd to LinkedinAdd to PinterestAdd to Email


Downloads per month over past year

View more statistics

Actions (login required)

Admin Login Admin Login