Theatre is an excellent measure of humanity. It shows us the best and worst of ourselves, and gives us a means by which to comment on what we see. It gives to its participants the commonality needed to create a community and requires from them the positive effort needed to sustain the community once it’s created. Let me explain.
- Obvious Statement #1: Humans don’t really care about things that don’t affect us personally.
Humans put effort into the things we care about. We have a finite amount of effort to offer, so we have to limit the things we can care about and how much we can care about them. This does not make us evil — it makes us survivors. An uncountably high number of actions take place on this planet in the course of any given day, and only the tiniest fraction of them will have an impact on any given person. If we cared about all of them regardless, nobody would be able to put in the proper (or any) effort on the ones that actually do have an impact. Not caring about things that don’t matter is the very thing that allows me to care about the things that do.
- Obvious Statement #2: Humans really care about things that do affect us personally.
Everyone’s mileage may vary, of course, but humans respond reliably to self-related events: the thoughts, actions, and experiences that involve us directly. Self-related processing involves different neurological systems than non-self-related processing, and as such we experience the two differently, giving preferential treatment to the things we think involve us (whether they actually do or not). This does sometimes make us evil — it blinds us to the pain and suffering of others, even when we could help with just a little effort. According to Lawrence et al, “excessive self-focus may be detrimental to an empathic response” (292). Too much navel-gazing can blind us to anything outside of our own personal bubble.
- (slightly less) Obvious Statement #3: Humans are fairly ineffective creatures on our own; the intricate social connections we form with other humans (i.e. communities) are what allow us to thrive.
Humans have dominated the planet not through physical strength (a wolf could take me down, easy) or larger numbers (bacteria, ants, termites, cattle — according to NPR, plenty of species are beating us in the population race), but through bewilderingly superior intellect. Our neurological hardware is unrivaled, and it includes the relatively new systems of the prefrontal cortex – the seats of personality, empathy, and social awareness (to name a few). By being able to work together, we’ve been able to go beyond mere survival to build the empires we have today. Because of our communities, we have language and religion. We have satellites and mouthwash. We have war and poverty and global warming.
- (increasingly) Obvious Statement #4: Communities can be a really bad thing.
Communities are groups of humans connected by some sort of commonality: physical proximity, shared hobbies, common ancestors, cast in the same show, etc. Since humans can often be terrible, selfish creatures (see obvious statements 1 and 2, above) the communities we form have the potential to be likewise terrible, and terribly self-serving. A community inflamed with self-serving goals and with no care for the effects that achieving those goals might have on others is a recipe for death, disaster, and Nazis.
- (hopefully) Obvious follow-up caveat Statement: Communities can be a really good thing.
A community energized with a noble purpose and infused with care regarding the effects of its actions is a recipe for joy, hope, and the Bill of Rights.
- (debatably) Obvious Statement #5: Positive communities strike a balance between care and self-care about the effects of their actions.
Members of any community need to care enough about the self-serving effects of their membership to join in the first place. Then they have to care enough to put in the continued effort required to sustain that community. Without this natural bias towards self-preservation via the brain’s preference for self-related processes, the community disbands. Members of a positive community temper that solipsism with empathy, ensuring that their actions do not have a net negative effect on the world. But how do you strike that balance? How do you help the members of a community buy in to the group for their own benefit without losing sight of the bigger picture?
- (potentially divisive) Conclusion: Doing theatre creates the kind of community that automatically harnesses the natural human bias towards selfish behavior towards an unselfish, shared goal.
Performance training is excellent for improving communication skills, and performance itself is excellent for testing them. Choosing how to you hold yourself, choosing what to say and how or when to say it, choosing what you do with your hands — those are the skills theatre teaches, so those are the ones being judged by an audience in performance. I can think of no better motivator to practice a skill than the judgment of an audience who will be showing up at a specific place at a specific time to watch you succeed or fail. Theatre is also a collaborative art by nature (even a one-man show needs an audience to watch it) which means it cannot be done alone. It forces people to work together, and it motivates them to put in the personal effort required to make that work good. And at the end of the day, the net result of that effort is simply a show — maybe not the Bill of Rights, but not Nazis, either. While a show certainly has the potential to bring both hope and joy as well as death and disaster, it doesn’t gain that power until systems of interpretation get involved after the fact, which is an argument for another article.
Theatre creates a community that cares enough about itself to survive and cares enough about others not to cause damage in doing so. Theatre does this by requiring each member of the community to put in personal effort towards a shared goal, harnessing the power of selfish behavior and directing the gaze outside of oneself.
Woźniak M, Kourtis D, Knoblich G (2018) Prioritization of arbitrary faces associated to self: An EEG study. PLoS ONE 13(1): e0190679. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0190679
Lawrence, EmmaJ., et al. “Empathy and Enduring Depersonalization: The Role of Self-Related Processes.” Social Neuroscience, vol. 2, no. 3/4, Sept. 2007, pp. 292–306. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/17470910701391794.