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Mind over matter: Can theatre help us define who we are?

Posted on 27 March 2012 Written by

How can the experience of theatre as part of the social process contribute to our identity? For me, it is our immersion in the moment-by-moment social experience of theatre – by Heidegger– which contributes to how we give our lives meaning.

An example of my experience of this occurred whilst watching the Royal Opera House’s production of The Dream/Song of the Earth last month. I became deeply captivated by the physical strength required to be a professional dancer and very aware of the connection between physiology and creative expression. The messenger of death in Song of the Earth, played by Edward Watson, captured death in a beautiful way through Watson’s very aliveness, causing me to challenge my own thoughts on how I view this inevitability.

Director Max Stafford-Clark, in a discussion about the reach of political theatre, stated that it is theatre’s “ability to change the way people think” that makes it such a unique experience. I would argue that this change in thought has a profound effect on our identity. Namely, it is the theatre environment (the context of our theatre experience) constructed out of setting (the building, venue or other place of performance), audience (the spectators to the production) and performer, and our reaction to and engagement with this environment, that contributes to the formation of the relational and collective self.

The theatre experience is, of course, an individual one in the sense that we come into the theatre with our own preconceptions, and our feelings and reactions towards the performance will be unique. Yet it is also relational (and didactic) because of its communicative aspect. The piece will set out to tell a story, or put across some kind of message (it has a purpose), and we will participate in this relationship by forming opinions and reacting to the performance. This response, however, is a collective one because it is a group experience (excluding performances that have only one audience member, notably found in venues such as Camden People’s Theatre, for example Analogue Production’s Lecture Notes on a Death Scene).

Nevertheless, surely this experience can only have a profound effect on us as individuals, and consequently the collective, if we fully immerse ourselves in it? It seems these days that the mind cannot concentrate long enough to form fully fledged opinions about anything.

I was at a social media training day recently and I sat behind someone who was tweeting about how great the speaker was before the speaker had finished the point they were making. How could anyone possibly have digested enough of the lecture to conclude, and consequently tweet, that it was “amazing”? We all want to be the first to comment , but these comments are only valuable if they have been thought about . To draw meaning from an experience, and in a theatre context participate in an interplay between observer and performer as part of a social experience to contribute to the self, we need to have actively engaged with it.

A meaningful response comes from contemplation as well as natural reaction – we need time to digest – and sometimes it can be nice to really analyse what we think about something before telling the world about it. So, next time you go to the theatre, be sure to really think about what is going on around you and in front of you before getting out your iPhone. Allow the experience to have an effect on you and how you think and feel about the world.

Image by: LeWEB.

Katey Warran

Katey Warran

Katey is Marketing and Communications Officer of A Younger Theatre and is Marketing Officer at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. She does freelance marketing including working for the New Actors Company, loves all things digital and has a passion for Applied and Community Theatre. Katey also has an interest in philosophy, enjoys singing and country music, and is a tea addict.

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. Peth Says:

    Yes.
    And/but
    Making theatre, is a more profound way of developing and defining ourselves than merely attending theatre.
    Responding to our fellow humans while playing creatively with face, voice, tone, shape, memory and emotions.

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