Ways of Seeing

Feb 19, 2019

Perhaps we could say that the power of theatre is that it gives us the opportunity of a sustained gaze where we can move slowly from looking to seeing. In such moments of ocular transmutation, we catch a glimpse of something other, something deeper; a second reality that tells us more about ourselves and the world we inhabit. This is the gift of theatre, allowing us to see through things to their core, where things are brought to light that might otherwise remain hidden.

(Brian Kulick) 

The word theater is derived from the ancient Greek theatron (θέατρον). “Thea” means eyes and “tron” is a place.  The theater is, literally, a place of seeing.  The Greeks seem to have had many words for seeing, each rich with different conceptions of the act.  Please bear with me here:

Blepein is the inability or difficulty to look at something. 

Horan is to be seen by.

Idein iswhat cannot be seen otherwise than by thought.

Skeptesthai is to see distinctly, from which skepticism derives. 

Theasthai is to gawk with one’s mouth wide open, to gape or to stare. (Hans-Thies Lehmann described it, “One becomes nothing but an eye, raptly gazing more than distinguishing matters clearly.”)

Opsis is marveling, without comprehension, at a spectacle.In ancient Greek theoros was the word for spectator, or, “one who observes the vision.”

In ancient Greek theoros was the word for spectator, or, “one who observes the vision.” In the ancient conception of theoros the spectators were considered to be an envoy sent to consult an oracle and bring back the news. The act of being a spectator included both witnessing and participation. The word theoros is close to the Greek word for theory, theoria, and derives from the Greek theorein, which means to look at, to contemplate to speculate. This may explain why sometimes the word theory is used provisionally or not quite resembling something real. Theorein combines theion (the divine) and orao (I see) i.e. “I contemplate the divine.” Divine was understood as the harmony and order that can permeate the real world that surrounds us. 

For some time, I understood the ancient Greek notion of theater as “a place of seeing” to mean that the theater is a place an audience goes in order to see. Then, after reading Declan Donnellan’s excellent book The Actor and Target, I realized that, in fact, the theater is the place where the audience goes to see the actors see. What remains true to this day is the sense that there is a reciprocal dependence between art and spectator, intertwining both viewer and viewed. The theater cannot happen without an audience, which takes part in bringing the event into existence. Theory and spectator are fused.

Looking, again, to ancient Greek words with thea in the stem, theasthai means “to behold.” In Euripides’ Bacchae, Pentheus arrives onstage, half maddened by the god Dionysus; his vision is blurred, and he sees double. Pentheus glimpses two suns and Dionysus appears to him to be a bull. The audience watches Pentheus see. It is through what the actors, the characters on the stage are confronting that the drama unfolds for the audience. In the theater it is not always necessary to build complex scenery or detailed props because the joined power of what the actor/character sees and the audience’s imagination constructs castles and landscapes, can turn a paper bag into a looming mountain. In fact, theater at its best, is capable of making the invisible visible.

It turns out that there are also many different words for seeing in English: watch, observe, recognize, eye, gape, stare, goggle, glance, gawk, perceive, view, recognize, witness, behold, spy, glare, inspect, examine, stare, regard, gaze, peer, gawp, marvel, oversee, notice etc.

But seeing is tricky for humans. There are certain problematic aspects for us because our perception of reality is often seriously flawed. The information that we gather is incomplete and there is a strict limit to how much we can perceive and pay attention to at any one time.  In a famous experiment in psychology, researchers from Harvard University asked a group of people to watch a short video in which six basketball players tossed balls around. The people were asked to count the number of passes made by three players in white shirts. At a certain point in the video, someone in a gorilla suit walked directly into the middle of the action, faced the camera, and then departed. Half the people who watched the video and counted the passes missed the gorilla. 

Physiologically, we do not see a picture in its entirety, rather it is our imagination that puts the myriad fragments together, forming an impression of what we think that we are seeing. We are more or less guessing at the environment around us all the time. We begin to unconsciously fill in missing information with our imagination and then do not bother to differentiate between fact and fabrication. And our expectations about what we are about to experience fundamentally influence what we see. As we grow older, our experience of the world has a tendency to become muddled by habit and the assumptions of routine. Unfortunately, our own critically flawed perception of reality makes us far less happy than our circumstances suggest because we tend to downplay the positives and exaggerate the negatives in our lives. We judge others by jumping to conclusions about their objectives based upon the effects their actions have on us. Our suppositions often are more negative than their actual intentions. Without care and attention, our own routines can deaden the very experiences that we crave. We fabricate things and then pretend that they are real.

By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have learned to operate through such deeply engrained patterns of language and behavior that virtually all of our communication involves projection, assumption and bias. But lazy and received habits can be broken and renewed ways of seeing can be cultivated. To see the world anew, we are required to make a concerted effort to refresh the act of seeing. Revitalized attention requires diligence and practice. I studied Aikido with a teacher who, after many years of practice, decided to take up drawing classes so that she could see the moves of her Japanese Sensei with more clarity. She had reached what she felt was a saturation point where she could see nothing beyond what she had already discovered.

We tend to assume that we see our surroundings as they really are and that our perception of reality is accurate. In fact, what we perceive is merely a neural representation of the world, the brain’s best guess of its environment, based upon a very limited amount of available information. Perception is largely a constructive process influenced by our needs. In our current hyper-capitalist culture, vision has become the dominant sense and we must therefore be diligent about renewing our capacity to see with acuity. We must also be vigilant about the world we inhabit. Vision is related to desire and it is virulently exploited by commercial entities. We have to understand how our desires have a direct effect on perception. When we are hungry, we can only see bakeries. We see something and we want it. We want something and we look for it. If not careful, we see only what we want to see. 

What is an idea?  It is an image that paints itself in my brain.


But seeing is not only what the eyes do. In fact, all of the senses see. The theater is a place of aesthetics, a place of sensations, a place that, at best, stimulates many of our senses. The experience of an audience is not logo centric. We attend the theater for a somatic encounter rather than for a purely cognitive, informative one.  We experience body, language, space, rhythm and sensory activity. The thrill of the journey is the consciousness that can arise from fantasy, ambiguity and sensuality merged into the process of cognition. These moments of powerful sensory-aesthetic perception can lead us from looking to seeing.

A research team at the University of Arkansas found that high school students who attended high-quality live performances of Hamlet and A Christmas Carol showed enhanced literary knowledge, tolerance and empathy. The control group of students who only read the two plays and did not attend the theater scored lower on the study’s tolerance measure by a large margin. The students who had gone to the theater were better equipped to recognize and appreciate what other people think and feel.

The theater at its best is a tuning device for the senses, training us to read emotions, to interpret metaphor, to practice an uninterrupted gaze and to suspend disbelief. It can stimulate the spontaneous logic of sensation, opening an array of sensory potentials and patterns of thinking and feeling.  The theater brings us together and asks for our complete attention, teaching us to listen to different sides of a conversation or an argument. We develop the facility to imagine the outcomes of various choices we might make in our personal and political lives.  The theater can model a kind of public discourse that lies at the heart of democratic life. We learn to pay attention in a way that wakes up distinct elements of our innate intelligence. We acquire the ability to fill in the blanks, completing what we see on the stage. Through stories retold, the theater asks us to look at the past through the lens of our own time. We must not only focus outwardly in real time and on myriad levels, but also dive inside ourselves and call on own sensory matrix of memories and experiences in order to discern new seeds of meaning. Live theater provides an occasion for people, onstage and off, to come together, to collaborate on the creation of another reality and a community in which all of the parts move us from looking towards seeing.