The Experience of Theater

Anne Bogart's picture

someone sees a play. they ask, what’s it about? i’m, like, you just saw it. it’s “about” the experience you just had. … blank face. … but what’s it about? they ask again. … hmm. maybe it’s time we chat about how the play is the thing & not a stand in for some other thing

(Twitter message posted by playwright Caridad Svich)

A play is not only about understanding the narrative or thematic meaning of the play. A play is indeed about the experience you have just had. But what is “the experience you just had”?  And how does attending the theater differ from other life experiences? 

In the theater we experience the unfolding events on many different frequencies, which resonate in separate regions of human perception. Borrowing from notions in psychology, let us examine three distinct localities:  the somatic, the affective and the cognitive. Of course, these three streams are profoundly entangled. The separation here may be useful in order to consider what it means to be an audience member.

After seeing a production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, if I am asked to describe the play, I would probably say that the play is about a man who kills his father, sleeps with his mother and the land of Thebes is thrown into chaos. This is what the cognitive part of my experience tells me. But the cognitive experience is only one of several bands of frequencies that clamor for dominance and my report leaves out the vast scope of human resonances happening on other frequencies. The experience of the production is usually far richer than the cognitive interpretation of the play. A play’s success can be measured by its ability to deliver a feast of affects, sensations and resonances.

You really have to be emotionally and physically involved, otherwise you become superficial and you just sit in your own little world and read the news.

(Ai Wei Wei)

The somatic experience of a play is the sensual and aesthetic involvement in which the body and the nervous system are activated by the stimuli of the circumstances in and around the production. The somatic experience is related to the body perceived from within and it is especially distinct from the experience of the mind. It is the felt bodily experience of being/existing. How do we understand our environment and experiences through the body? The word soma in ancient Greek is “the body” and somatic comes from somatikos, which means “of the body.”

Throughout history the theater has encountered resistance from religious organizations and was often outlawed in puritan and fundamentalist cultures, including the United States. In the 18th century, laws forbidding the performance of plays were passed in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island and plays were banned in most states during the American Revolutionary War at the urging of the Continental Congress. In 1794, the president of Yale College in his “Essay on the Stage,” declared that “to indulge a taste for playgoing means nothing more or less than the loss of the most valuable treasure: the immortal soul. In spite of such laws, the theater has managed to raise its head again and again. Is the puritanical and fundamentalist fear of theater due to the theater’s blatent involvement of the senses? Is the theater too juicy, too corporeal, too stimulating to the senses? On the somatic level did the act of theatergoing cause too much carnal stimulation?

The musicality of a performance is part of the somatic experience. Physical sensations in the audience can be triggered not only by the actual music played, but by the rhythm and the musicality of the speaking and the moving, the lighting shifts and the sounds. All contribute to the somatic experience. The actors’ voices can be felt like a massage. The actors’ breathing can change audience’s breathing. To feel in your body what another may be experiencing on a physical level is called somatic empathy. Watching a clearly performed, familiar action triggers the body’s mirror neurons, which are cells that activate both when we perform an action and when we see a similar action being performed or hear it being described. Our mirror neurons, which activate somatic empathy or the physical experience of the other, respond most forcefully to recognizable action. Experiencing the extreme action work of Elizabeth Streb and her company STREB can also trigger somatic empathy. Watching her dancers crash through glass and leap off of high places can cause physical sensations of delight or fear, all variegated flavors of somatic empathy.

The somatic experience is the embodied experience of being and is as central to our daily survival and thriving. Somatic knowing and learning is central to the understanding of theater. An actor’s instrument is not a script, but their body. Successful acting uses every aspect of the body including the voice, posture, stride, gaze, muscles, face, hands, to build a symphony of affect and cognition. Directors, too, use a nonverbal repertoire including timing, staging and perspective to weave a thick knot of affects through the production.

 I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

(Maya Angelou)

The word affect may be interchangeable with emotion. The affective experience of a play refers to the emotions that are triggered by the event of the production. In the theater, an affect is what acts upon and emotionally influences the audience. Affects are generally nonlinguistic forces that are neither under our conscious control nor even necessarily within our awareness, and they can only sometimes be captured in language.

The political arena is largely led by affect. The currency that connects our bodies and fuses us into communities is not a rationally elected choice but felt compulsion. 

Trump rallies are largely affective rage-fests capitalizing on a lust for hatred, the desire for a perceived macho-strength and the distancing of shame. But a Bernie Sanders rally is also largely affective with its soaring optimism and calls for a more just society.

Unlike other literary forms, the theater is genuinely alive with affect. In my own experience, a theater performance is the most emotional of literary forms and cannot exist without the actor who performs and the spectator who responds. The theater is a collaborative venture between performer and audience. In the rapture of live performance and with the contagion of laughter or of shame, the affective is ignited and actors and audiences negotiate this viral contract. To attend the theater is to risk the agony or the pleasure and sometimes the shame in an infectious co-existence with other audience members.

Actors know that acting is not only about memorizing words on a page. It is so much more. They agree to be vulnerable onstage, to expose their bodies in physical acts such as crying, aggression or intimacy that they might not otherwise perform in public. Actors display themselves metaphorically and literally, and audiences, in turn, agree to watch, to witness actors’ vulnerability and to experience the potential contagion of mortification. To be an audience member is to accept this indignity, to agree to risk being mortified for the performers if things go wrong, and to risk sharing intimacy and vulnerability with them if things go right. Actors and audiences accept these risks together in the mutual entanglement and second-to-second negotiation of theatricality.

In an early TED talk in 2006, Tony Robbins strode the stage discoursing on the hidden forces that motivate human action. Many luminaries were present in the audience including the former Vice President Al Gore. Robbins had to make many points in his 18 allotted minutes and at one point he asked the esteemed assembly what reasons they would offer for the failure of any of their endeavors.  “What gets in the way of successful action?” he asked. Someone responded, “I did not have the time.” Another said, “I did not have the money.” Another, “I did not have the technology.”  Suddenly Al Gore, sitting in the front row, shouted out, “I did not have the Supreme Court!”  Robbins, with both humor and warmth, briefly acknowledged the comment and then turned away to continue his 18-minute talk about how resources are rarely the real obstacle. Suddenly he stopped and turned back to Mr. Gore. “The Supreme Court was not the defining factor,” he said. “If you had communicated human emotion, something that I experienced with you the day before yesterday on a level that is profound as I have ever experienced, with that emotion, I believe that you would have beat his ass and won.” In saying these words, Robbins was pointing at Gore’s passion and emotion for his environmental initiatives. During the presidential debates, when he was running for president, Gore did not communicate sufficient emotion or passion for his policies.

Emotion, affect, is the great motivator and ultimately defines what we do.  Emotion is the force of life and it is what drives us. Emotion can seal memory and change the wiring of the brain. Learning happens most in the heat of emotion and affect lies at the heart of the theater experience.

If people want to see something they already understand, they shouldn’t go to the theater. They should go to the bathroom. 

(Bertolt Brecht)

The cognitive experience of theater is the mental action or process of using thought, attention and the senses to create knowledge and meaning.  Cognitive processes use existing knowledge to generate new conceptions. When we watch a play, we see and hear the characters on the stage, but we also try to imagine what they may be thinking. We are cognitive participants in the action.

The word cognition comes from the Latin verb cognosco con “with”, and gnosco “know,” itself a cognate of the Greek verb gignosko meaning “knowing or perceiving). Cognition means to conceptualize or recognize. Cognitive empathy is the ability to put yourself into someone else’s situation and attempt to see it from their perspective.

We tend to assume that the cognitive experience of a play is the leading component in being an audience member. In fact, there is so much more going on.