Leeds Arts Research Centre

Touring autobiographical and documentary theatre and performance

A study including five currently touring performances created by theatre company Third Angel.

Touring autobiographical and documentary theatre and performance


This case study is of the impact that an approach to theatre and performance-making has had on the theatre industry, academia and the public. The approach is one of combining autobiography, biography, reportage and documentary research into a variety of narrative frames: fictional drama, performance lecture, autobiographical story telling. The study includes five currently touring performances created by theatre company Third Angel, on which I am the lead writer/artist and performer:

  • Inspiration Exchange (2010 – present)
  • Cape Wrath (2013 – present)
  • 600 People (2015 – present)
  • The Desire Paths (2016 – present) (photo in header by Terry Payman)
  • The Department of Distractions (2018 – present)

Show Descriptions

Inspiration Exchange

A durational story-swapping performance. Third Angel’s Inspiration Exchange has been presented across the UK and internationally since 2010, evolving to become a unique collection of curated stories and ideas. Where do ideas come from, it wonders? And more importantly, which ones stay with us? What are the ideas, objects, phrases, images, texts or thoughts that have inspired you in the past or continue to inspire you?

Each time the Exchange shifts in duration and format, popping up at festivals and conferences, in cafes, foyers and little side rooms in theatres, museums, galleries…anywhere there are people and ideas.

Performed at a table, with about 6 or 8 audience chairs around it. The conversational part of the performance – for one or more audience members at a time - lasts up to 7 hours, with a ‘summing up’ story-telling performance for the last 15-20 minutes.

Cape Wrath

Solo story-telling performance in a minibus.

After he retired, my Grandad went on a trip from the Midlands up to Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point of his native Scotland. He sat, looked at the sea, and thought about his life. Then he got up and went home. Over 20 years later, I got on a coach and followed in his footsteps. This is what I learned.

Third Angel presents a story of family, of fellow travellers, of whisky and chocolate, of the longest bus journey in Britain. Told to an audience of just 14. Heartfelt, moving, compellingly intimate, Cape Wrath takes you on a journey to the edge of the island.

600 People

A solo stand-up comedy/lecture performance.

“We step out of our solar system, into the universe, seeking only peace and friendship…”

So says the message from the human race on the Voyager spacecraft. But is there, y’know, anyone out there? I really wanted to know, so I went to speak to an astrophysicist to find out.

This is what I found out: Stellar Wobble. The Mirror Test. The Drake Equation. Fermi’s Paradox. Enhanced humans and murderous dolphins.

Somewhere between stand-up comedy and an astrophysics lecture, Third Angel brings you a simple show about huge ideas: the story of how a three-hour conversation with an astrophysicist changed the way Alex understands the way the Universe works.

600 People explores how we think about evolution and intelligence, belief and invention, communication and space travel. A show that explores the stories we tell in order to understand our place in the cosmos. A show that asks if there are extra terrestrials in our galaxy. A show that asks what it means to be human.

We said they were big ideas…

The Desire Paths

Durational map-drawing, story-gathering performance.

The Desire Paths is participatory public realm performance. Over the course of three, 6-hour days Third Angel performers draw a map of the town centre on to the stone of a pedestrianised street, or town square, or in another public space, such as a disused shop.

We talk to members of the public about who gets to name streets (people with money), and what they get named after (directions, trades, historical events, rich people’s family members and pets). We ask them “If you could rename a street of your town after a hope, dream or ambition for the future, what would it be?”

The Department of Distractions – touring theatre show

A single glove in the street, a torn up love letter in a Metro carriage, a pair of shoes hanging from a telephone wire, a phone box that rings as you walk past…

You see their work - but you never see them. So subtle you might not even notice. Snags in the fabric of everyday life. Objects, moments, the seeds of stories, the odd little things you come across every day that make you think, what’s going on there…?

The Department of Distractions, an organisation so clandestine you won’t have heard of them. They say their job is to plant stories in the world “to make life more interesting”. Others would argue that their job is as much to stop us looking in certain directions. But things are starting to unravel, a story they started has got out of hand, they’ve lost control of it and now they’re in danger of being exposed. How far will they go to maintain their anonymity? How much are you willing to believe?

Third Angel brings you a conspiracy-theory documentary-exposé detective story for the 21st century that asks: What aren’t you looking at?

600 People photo by Ed Collier
Inspiration Exchange image courtesy of S.H.E.D
Department of Distractions image by Von Fox Promotions, edited by Wayne Gamble
Alexander kelly
Inspiration Exchange event
Department of Distractions group


The research as practice centres on three themes:

1) Explorations of form and location

The collaborative process for these projects always asks: what is the form that best explores and communicates the ideas being considered and the questions being asked? This is evidenced by incorporating fictional, character-based drama, online, real-time story-telling and site-responsive reportage, stand-up comedy meets performance lecture, and durational, public realm story-gathering performance.

2) Combining documentary, auto/biography and fiction

The projects draw on the narrative tropes and structures of documentary podcasts, TV and literary detective fiction, autobiography and travel writing, map-making, town planning and futurology.

3) Thinking about the individual’s role in social and political structures

The performances allow ‘space’ for audiences to bring their own experiences to bear on the work, and to share their own stories.

man holding a postcard

Cape Wrath Photo by Elliot Roberts


The impact of the research addresses the three themes of changing audience expectations about theatre, engaging them through auto/biographical/documentary methods, and new thinking about active citizenship.

In relation to changing expectations of what forms theatre might take, impact is evidenced by the extensive touring schedules and the support provided through commissions and funding.

In terms of engaging audience participation, these extended multi-platform projects exist as Twitter story-telling and social media hashtag games, which audiences follow on Twitter and Instagram. Within these varied frames, the research explores how theatre and performance might combine auto/biographical stories, researched documentary narratives and information, fictional drama and the audiences’ own contributions.

In changing audiences' thinking about social structures and individual responsibility, the work plays with narrative and dramatic scale. Personal stories are presented as epic and significant, and epic narratives are presented conversationally. The shows invite audiences to consider where they are in the history of their family, and their species, to reconsider how they think about their environment (and indeed the solar system) and to think about what it means to be a responsible human.

There is a recognition of the complexity of Britain, and its huge range of lives and landscapes and connections, that adds something heartfelt and significant to the current debate about the future of the union.

Joyce McMillan The Scotsman

Research outputs


  • Kelly, A. (2018) ‘“Cheers, Grandad!” Third Angel’s Cape Wrath and The Lad Lit Project as Acts of Remembrance’ in Pinchbeck, M. & Westerside, A. (Eds.) Staging Loss: Performance as Commemoration. London: Palgrave
  • Kelly, A. (2013) ‘Inspiration Exchange: The value of sitting opposite’, Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, 18:2, 27-30
  • Kelly, A. (2018) ‘Performing Science’. Invited Paper for TaPRA Interim Event, Seeing The Unseen. University of Manchester, Jodrell Bank Observatory
  • Kelly, A. (2017) ‘Inviting Answers’. Invited presentation for You, The Audience, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Also presented at University of Lincoln and Hull City of Culture
  • Kelly, A. (2016). ‘Telling Other People’s Stories’. Invited Paper for TaPRA Interim Event, Training To Give Evidence. Northumbria University. Also presented at Where From Here: 21 Years of Third Angel, Leeds Beckett University/Compass Festival of Live Art, 2016
  • Kelly, A. (2016) ‘Cheers Grandad! Third Angel’s Cape Wrath and The Lad Lit Project as Acts of Remembrance’. Paper for Staging Loss: Performance as Commemoration. symposium, University of Lincoln


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