No. Social theatre has existed for a very, very long time. Its roots are based in community work, grassroots activism, and people coming together to creatively explore questions they find relevant.
Why have I never heard of this?
Many people in this field find social theatre hard to explain. This is mainly because the terminology and language around social theatre is relatively new, depending on the country and culture (in France, for example, the word 'community' is usually avoided within civil organisations... it all gets a little confusing/lost in translation). But more importantly, social theatre isn't recognised in most countries as a valid professional field, that is worth academically and financially promoting. It is often mixed up with 'social work' or 'community outreach' and not considered on its own as legitimate. Institutions are therefore reluctant to teach it, and governments are reluctant to support these initiatives. In France, for example, social theatre is more often regarded as 'amateur' theatre. In Hungary, it is 'community theatre'. Both, although referenced, do not necessarily enter an academic curriculum and are more thought of as hobbies than a professional field. On the other end, the UK (and as far as I know, Australia, recently the US, Germany, Brazil, Argentina and some Scandinavian countries) have begun 'legitimizing' the field by starting to teach it in schools and universities. If it is studied, written about and supported, then more professional companies can emerge and develop as entirely dedicated to social theatre.
How can I become a professional?
This depends on where you are. As mentioned above, the field is not financially recognised on its own in many countries, and this means that it can be a really hard to find regular work that pays for living costs. But there is social theatre everywhere. There are initiatives created by neighborhoods, schools, community centres, churches, activist associations, artist collectives, anarchist groups, advocacy campaigns, institutions, even corporate outreach programs (if you argue those are relevant too). Getting involved or creating an initiative is one thing; being trained is another, and paid for it is yet another.
In the US, for instance, I had found jobs for social theatre as an independent workshop coordinator in schools - it meant adopting the name 'teaching artist' (an American word used to describe someone who assists artistic expression and education). But really, it was social theatre; I was doing workshops around social justice and societal questions that the kids wanted to look at. As I mentioned before, it often comes down to what words we use. There is also the possibility of straight-up academic studies in social theatre (also called "applied theatre"). This is the most costly option, but it may (may!) fast-forward opportunities available to you. I would recommend looking to Scandinavia for tuition-free options, or Scotland where EU citizens can study for free. UK universities offer competitive scholarships. Professional trainings often exist among theatre companies that do socially engaged work. In my experience, I have often found that those who come to these are from various life stages. Some participants I have taught are professional artists who had trained more 'traditionally', teachers, social workers, psychologists interested in learning how to use theatre in their work; NGO staff, or activists looking to find either playful or more participatory ways to engage with communities and spread awareness.
Isn't Social Theatre like therapy?
No. Social theatre has many benefits, extensively researched. Among these are confidence-building, feelings of belonging to a community, tolerance, skills in facing interpersonal conflicts... but this is not necessarily the focus of social theatre work. There is drama therapy, often confused with social theatre, that works with individual needs and difficulties, tensions to do with family dynamics, for instance. Social theatre is focused on the group, and on larger questions of community and social change. It may decide to look at strategies to counter instances of injustice that are happening, for example, together as a group.
Is social theatre really an artform, like more traditional theatre?
This is a question that comes up regularly. Is it theatre if the outcome is not necessarily aesthetically 'nice to watch', if it doesn't have professional acting, good directing, etc.? I have two thoughts on this: 1. We talk of an aesthetic quality in a theatre piece without really defining it anymore. What makes a piece good? Surely, it is its ability to move us, to touch us somehow, to invite us to ask difficult questions, or scratch our heads about the strangeness of human nature. Cardboard Citizensis a social theatre company that takes the 'aesthetic quality' of its productions very seriously. Its works, process-driven by nature, are helped by a professional dramaturge to ensure a narrative flow. The scenography is thought-out, the performers are extensively trained. Far from there, in Lebanon, Sabine Choucaire's social theatre initiative The Caravan Projecttours refugee areas with a minivan. The performers stand on its roof above the crowd, use a few props from recycled material that they made themselves. Many of them have recently been recruited from other camps. Although they had not had extensive time for training, the stories are entirely theirs, unedited. Both companies do strong pieces that speak to their audiences. In both, we are moved, troubled, provoked into asking necessary and sometimes uncomfortable questions. I feel they both fulfil the needs for aesthetically qualified work, and are both provide excellent theatre work.
2. I believe the way we approach theatre and performing arts asaesthetic/or not is outdated. Often we are taught to think of a work as "product-focused" or "process-focused". The first kind concentrates on the experience of the audience - what do they see/what will they feel/what will help in creating that atmosphere. This kind is usually more 'aesthetic'. The second is the idea that the creative process is focused on how it unfolds, on the creators' experience of it, or on how the piece comes together, with everyone pitching in. Less on what comes out of it. But it's not necessarily one or the other. These two are not clearly separate and opposite results. A good piece of theatre is a balance of both.