Performing Transformations, June 1, 2, 3, 4 / 2012, Tangier, Morocco.
The changing theatre: A psychological approach to the experience of acting
José Eduardo Silva
Joaquim Luís Coimbra
Faculty of Psychology and Education
University of Porto
The investigation aims to study the transformational processes in art, more
precisely in the art of theatre. A number of particular features has made us elect
theatre in its relation with change, as the main focus of our study, namely that to talk
about theatre and not talk about change would certainly seem to be a harder task than
the opposite. In fact, in the theatrical practice everything is connected into change
processes, whether we are talking about transforming emotions into aesthetical forms;
written texts into tridimensional plays (props, sets, costumes, lights, sounds, living
characters); actors transform themselves into characters; and the characters
themselves are constantly transforming and changing, as well as the developing
relationships amongst each other. Depending on the lens we choose to look at this
phenomenon, we can observe different scale related processes of change, but on the
base of each, we constantly find a dialectical process and a dynamical developmental
logic of constant transformation. In our case, we have chosen to focus on the
experience of acting, from the voice of its practitioners: the actors. We are envisaging
the actors (and theatre makers) as “experts” in the art of change, and hope to find in
the voice of their experience, knowledge and information that helps us to broaden our
understanding of the phenomenon of change, namely from a psychological
perspective. For that purpose, the research design that has been developed mixes
both quantitative and qualitative methods: The qualitative component consists of
collecting implicit theories of change from actors and theatre directors, and is its main
contribution; the quantitative component consists in the development of an
instrument to measure cognitive complexity for the theatrical context which we have
called “Escala de Complexidade Sociocognitiva no Domínio do Teatro” (Sociocognitive
Complexity Scale in the Domain of Theater) [ Silva, Ferreira, Coimbra & Menezes
(2011)], adapted from the “Escala da Política” (Politics Scale) by Ferreira and Menezes
(2001) and from the Portuguese version of the IDCP (Parker, 1984) developed by
Ferreira and Bastos (1995). Preliminary results of this study will be presented and
discussed as well as further developments and implications.
My personal experience in theatre making, first as an actor and later on,
also as a director and a teacher, is deeply connected to my own
developmental history. Looking back, it seems to me that the most
important thing theatre has offered me, was a language, and through that
language I became able to speak/express myself – not only in words, but
also in actions, emotions, shapes, objects – and to preside and assist to my
own transformation. That is probably why my curiosity about the strange
processes involved in theatre making never ceased, and from the first
rehearsal I went to (about 18 years ago) until today I keep investigating,
doing, studying, and acting – although always with the notion of how little
My coming to the psychological sciences was, partly, because I felt that to
keep studying theatre through the theatrical perspective was
becoming redundant, partly because the experiences I had
accumulated in years of exploration in action (actor = action) -
which was what attracted me in theatre in the first place - resulted
in, what I felt, was an excess of sensorial information that I needed
to integrate or organize in some way, conceptually. In my
professional life I many times heard a saying: “O Actor não pensa.
Faz.” – which means: “An actor doesn’t think. He just does.” There
are many ways to interpret this sentence, and, I can even
sympathize with some of them, when used in certain contexts
(especially because I think cognition is an overvalued dimension of
existence in the western culture), but, deeply and inevitably, It is a
sentence that I cannot agree with, since promotes and celebrates an
(effective) separation and hierarchy, between actions, feelings and
cognitions, in line with the hegemonic realistic ontological
perspective that it tries to criticize. As an artist and mostly as a
person, I need a more holistic and integrated vision of the human
being, that takes into account the energetic, dynamic,
transformational processes inherent to life.
Why, specifically, the field of Psychology? In the one hand, I took the
guess, that if it would be possible to learn more about these processes of
human functioning, it would be through psychology; on the other hand,
some of my favorite artists and aesthetic currents where somehow
conceptually connected to it:
Constantin Stanislavski “Psychological theatre”
Antonin Artaud “bureau of surrealistic research” and “theatre of cruelty”
Bertolt Brecht “distancing” or “estrangement”
Grotowski “For a poor theatre”
Alejandro Jodorowsky “Panic movement” and “Psychomagic”
Augusto Boal “The rainbow of desire”
Recently, from the convergence of several disciplines and proposing a
constant and systematic study of the human psychological functioning, a
different perspective on the nature of reality (ontological). The
psychological constructivism, proposes the inseparability of the three
dimensions of human functioning: emotion, action, cognition – it is by
their constant articulation and under the aegis of meaning making, that he
concretes the process of broadening his knowledge of the world. In this
sense, reality is a construction, and therefore humans actively create and
construe their personal realities, as well as intersubjectively.
But what does this mean?
According to Guidano (1991):
a) Emotions correspond to an immediate and irrefutable perception of
b) Actions are the exploratory movements that create patterns
produced by immediate experience that are always expression of
knowledge in the sphere of the practical universe.
c) Cognition reorganizes the patterns of immediate experience
transforming them into objects of distinctions and referrals.
By articulating these dimensions humans are able to build a culture
(creating choices) and accede to crescent levels of comprehension of the
world. They appropriate the world (symbolically), reconstructing it
semantically, actively building their own version of reality – under the
aegis of meaning making.
Saussure (through Barthes, 2006) talks about this process of appropriation
of the objects of the world (that he would call referent), and for each
object, humans construct a symbol by which the appropriation takes place
(that he would call sign). But the sign is composed by two other
conceptual elements: significant (the explicit level of expression) and
meaning (the implicit level of content), which implies that in this process
of appropriation the subjective dimension is uncontrollable and
unavoidable in constructing an individual version of reality, and making of
each individual, incommensurable and irreplaceable. Continuing, these
two concepts allows us to make an analogy with two concepts from Freud
(2009) the manifest content, and the latent content, to understand that
the affective – emotional dimension (latent/ where de meaning resides)
remains in an invisible existence (repressed) whilst without a shape (form)
that can give it an expression. This implies that is by the manifestation of
the significant signals that emerge from the emotional states, that we are
able to gain access to the affective-emotional dimension, or in other
words, it is only when emotion transforms into language that it becomes
communicant making it possible to be interpreted and reinterpreted by
oneself and by the Other. To this process Derrida (2006) calls
grammatisation, that is, humans are able to build their own syntactic and
semantic structures relationally, and through language they objectivate
themselves changing conditions, forms and contents of their psychological
It can now be more clear, the way by which humans indeed actively
construe and create their own version of reality, limited by the constraints
of their own perception, and guided by the effort to progressively escape
from the determinism of nature and build multiple possibilities of choice
for himself and for the Other – culture.
This perspective brings new insights about, creativity (as inherent in the
act of developing), diversity (as a consequence of the creative act) and
therefore the collective life. Goodman (1978) reminds us of these
“possible worlds” the world is made of. Through examples in the world of
art he shows us how each art form is made of syntactic and semantic
structures (a language), and each one is a symbolic representation of the
world – a semantic reconstruction (version) of world able to be habited.
The pluralism inherent to these versions is applicable, to the multiple
processes of construction, and to the diversity of results of construction,
that is, to the multiplicity of possible worlds, that share a great part of
All this, implies that humans, as living beings, are relational, complex,
incommensurable irreplaceable, capable of self determination (creating
diversity) and life is an ever changing, dynamic and energetic process,
whose development is unstoppable.
Creativity, diversity and change in art
From all the human transformational processes of knowing, appropriating
and making sense of the world – in the act of sublimation from which
culture emerges – art is probably its most supreme expression (Goodman,
2006; Silva, Menezes e Coimbra, 2012 in print). The artist, by the
exploratory way of action, is able to transform his felt experience in
objects, sounds, drawings, gestures, words and many other aesthetical
forms with which he can give shape to his emotions. This way he becomes
able to start a dialectical process, where he transforms the world he lives
in at the same time as he transforms himself – and through this
interactional dialogue he becomes able to open a path of access to his
own self knowledge and accomplishment, as well as to an ever increasing
knowledge of the world. Life continues and develops through relations,
imbued in energetic and dynamic processes where change is a constant
presence. In the comprehension of the human functioning, we must take
into account the inevitability of change. We cannot choose between
change and immutability, the choice that can be done is about the
direction that a change can take (Coimbra, 1991): we can choose to
participate or don’t participate, to influence or don’t influence that
process. Art seems to have developed a good relation with change and
theatre is certainly one of the art forms where this is most evident. From
all the human transformational processes of knowing, appropriating and
making sense of the world – in the act of sublimation from which culture
emerges – art is probably its most supreme expression (Goodman, 2006;
Silva, Menezes e Coimbra, 2012 in print). The artist, by the exploratory
way of action, is able to transform his felt experience in objects, sounds,
drawings, gestures, words and many other aesthetical forms with which
he can give shape to his emotions. This way he becomes able to start a
dialectical process, where he transforms the world he lives in at the same
time as he transforms himself – and through this interactional dialogue he
becomes able to open a path of access to his own self knowledge and
acomplishment, as well as to an ever increasing knowledge of the world.
Life continues and develops through relations, imbued in energetic and
dynamic processes where change is a constant presence. In the
comprehension of the human functioning, we must take into account the
inevitability of change. We cannot choose between change and
immutability, the choice that can be done is about the direction that a
change can take (Coimbra, 1991): we can choose to participate or don’t
participate, to influence or don’t influence that process. Art seems to
have developed a good relation with change and theatre is certainly one
of the art forms where this is most evident.
Theories of change in psychology
Freud (1914): “Remembering, repeating and working through”
. Remembering (fill in the narrative gaps in memory)
. Repeating (resistance mechanism)
. Working through (working the resistance through, towards change)
Rogers (1957) “The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic
. Emphasizes the relational quality of the therapeutic procedure, in order
to let the client communicate his experience in a context of acceptance
from the part of the therapist (in six steps):
1. Two persons are in psychological contact.
2. The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of
incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious.
3. The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent
or integrated in the relationship.
4. The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the
5. The therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client's
internal frame of reference and endeavors to communicate this
experience to the client.
6. The communication to the client of the therapist's empathic
understanding and unconditional positive regard is to a minimal
Lacan (1978) “The neurotics individual myth”
. Emphasizes the immeasurability, irreplaceability, mutability of the
human functioning, and the importance of the transformative symbolic
processes (metonymy and metaphor) as constructors of the individual
Frank (1982): “Therapeutic components shared by all
. All psychotherapies are potentially effective (all deserve prizes).
.The preponderant factor lies in the quality of the established
relationship between patient and therapist.
Nawas (1985): “Common factors in psychotherapy”
. Myth (rationale)
. Ritual (therapeutic procedure)
. Faith (the patient must believe in the therapeutic procedure)
Sprinthall (1991): “Toward a generic definition of counseling psychology:
Development versus therapy”
• Real actions made in natural contexts
• Continuity in time
The case of Theatre
In the particular case of theatre, the answer to the question of whether
reality is, or not, a human creation, seems indeed very clear, since each
theatre play is, in a sense, the construction and materialization of an
alternative, and equally plausible reality that a group of individuals has
created in a certain period of time from the confluence of their own
similarities and differences, and once created it exists as so. The
emergence and permanence of a theatre play, changes the reality(s) we
live in, and proposes the possibility of alternatives – that can be later on
accepted or refused. Either way it empirically demonstrates that the
human capacity of self determination is a fact, limited by the changing
balance of human acceptance\inacceptance. This
acceptance\inacceptance has to do mostly with other human beings and
their personal beliefs systems that constitute the diversity of human kind,
and this is of course related to the diversity of possible worlds. The
possibility of their coexistence, or in other words, the possibility of a
diverse reality, is determined by factors such as power (or its lack), and its
ability (or inability) to create conditions for a viable path to the diversity of
existing forms. Through this perspective, that always has been present in
the world of creating aesthetical objects, we can have a glimpse as how to
overcome the limitations of the – hegemonic - principle of mutual
exclusion (Maturana, 1997).
Theatre and psychological change (state of the art)
This investigation aims to study the transformational processes in the art
of theatre. From my personal experience in theatre -as an actor, and latter
on, also as a director and a teacher of young aspiring actors and actresses
– it has become gradually clear through the years, that this art form tends
to visibly operate transformations and changes, not only in their
practitioners (actors, directors and other artists involved), but also in the
assisting audiences. In fact, our research is increasingly reaching the
conclusion that to talk about theatre and not talk about change would
certainly seem to be a harder task than the opposite.
This transformational capacity can be confirmed in the literature by a
number of utilizations that sciences such as psychology have been doing
of the theatrical practice. Psychodrama (Moreno, 1972), drama therapy
(e.g. Jones, 1996; Orkibi, 2010) and therapeutic theatre (Snow, D’amico &
Tanguay, 2003), are some of the approaches that have developed in the
field of psychology, and that have shown effective results in the treatment
of different kinds of disturbances and developmental disabilities. But
literature also shows that the theatrical processes have been object of
interest and study form several different areas, that have revealed
positive results in the association of drama with: education (e. g., Bailey,
1996; Hui & Lau, 2006; Leit & Humphries, 1999); social intervention (e.g.,
Freire, 1972; Prentki, 2002); and more recently the study of emotions and
emotional management (e. g., Goldstein, 2009; Goldstein & Winner, 2009;
Orzechowicz, 2008). Not wanting to be exhaustive we will mention that
other uses of theatre with positive results, can also be found in the
literature in the fields of empowerment, equality of opportunities and
inclusiveness, amongst many others.
On the other hand, theatre hasn’t been indifferent to the developments of
science and the social changes that have been occurring in the last
century, although not sharing the same realistic ontological perspective
that classical “objective” sciences have been postulating through the years
(Mahoney & Lyddon, 1988; Silva, Menezes e Coimbra, 2012- in print). The
perspective of the theatrical and artistic practice has been distant from
the ontological discussion, even if always close to a relativistic and
multiple notion of reality, where diversity is a desired consequence of the
creative processes, and creativity is inseparable from the developmental
process of knowing (Goodman, 2006). Mainly in the last century, theatre
emerges with an immense diversity of genres, styles, and conceptual
forms, some of them intentionally directed to operate transformations,
both at Individual and collective levels. The Theatre of the oppressed
(Boal, 1979; 1995), Play back theatre (e. g., Park-Fuller, 2003; Thomson &
Jaque, 2011), as well as the work of the artist Alejandro Jodorowsky
(2006) and the mouvement panique are just a few examples of the above
mentioned intentionality of transformation.
But most of all, at a purely artistic level, it cannot be ignored the
transformative impact in our culture, society and individuals, the work of
actors, directors, dramatists, and theatre theorists (some of them
accumulatively) like: Sophocles (420 b. c., (2011)), Vicente (1527, (2009)),
Shakespeare (1623, (2001, 2002)), Moliere (1665, (2006)), Stanislavsky
(2006), Artaud (1991, 1996), Pirandello, (2009), Brecht, (1999), Beckett
(1989), Grotowsky (1975), Brook (1996) just to name a few.
All the above mentioned works, seems again to confirm that theatre has a
transformative capacity that should not be ignored - even when used as a
tool to facilitate the desired psychological changes (therapeutic or others).
Some authors argue that there is an innate healing function in theatre
(e.g., Bates, 1998; Emunah, 1994; McNiff, 1988; Pendzick, 1988; Snow,
1996), and we can observe that transformations can effectively be
operated through it. But the question is: what does this mean? What
happens in the theatre practice that allows/encourages/produces
transformation and change in a very visible way?
In order to learn more about this question we decided to investigate the
theatrical phenomenon, and coincidently (or not) we have noticed that in
the theatrical practice everything is connected into change processes,
whether we are talking about transforming emotions into aesthetical
forms; written texts into tridimensional plays (props, sets, costumes,
lights, sounds, living characters); actors into characters - adopting
perspectives different from their own; and because they are living entities,
build relationships that are constantly changing and evolving, giving birth
to a new, alternative and provisory reality - thus emphasizing the
energetic and dynamic processes involved in the act of living. Depending
on the lens we choose to look at this phenomenon, we can observe
different scale related processes of change, but on the base of each, we
constantly find a dialectical process and a dynamical developmental logic
of constant transformation. We then decided to focus our study on the
experience of acting in the voice of its practitioners (theatre actors and
directors). We are envisaging them as “experts” in the art of change, and
hope to find in the voice of their experience, knowledge and information
that helps us to broaden our understanding of the phenomenon of
change, namely from a psychological perspective.
For that purpose, the research design that has been developed mixes both
quantitative and qualitative methods:
- The quantitative component consists in the development of an
instrument to measure cognitive complexity for the theatrical
context which we have called “Escala de Complexidade
Sociocognitiva no Domínio do Teatro” (Sociocognitive Complexity
Scale in the Domain of Theater) [ Silva, Ferreira, Coimbra &
Menezes (2011)], adapted from the “Escala da Política” (Politics
Scale) by Ferreira and Menezes (2001) and from the Portuguese
version of the IDCP (Parker, 1984) developed by Ferreira and Bastos
- The qualitative component is its main contribution and consists of
collecting implicit theories - because of the question of social
desirability - of change, from actors and theatre directors. In order
to do so, we designed two semi structured interviews and for this
we have created two vignettes reporting two different situations of
change: One in a therapeutic environment, and other in a life
situation. We would then pose questions like “what do you think is
the problem with this person?” or “have you – or anyone you know
- ever been in this situation? How have you – they- dealt with it? ”.
The selection of actors and directors, respond to a criterion of activity and
gender (equal number of actors and directors, masculine and feminine),
but aims to be as broad as possible, in age, theatrical background, and
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