Intersubjectivity in Autobiographical
Performance in Dramatherapy
The aim of this chapter is to explore the autobiographical form of thera-
peutic theatre in dramatherapy as a relational and intersubjective space
whereby the embodied encounter of the performer with the spectator (or
witness) creates opportunities for mutual transformation. In other words,
this chapter aims to investigate the way in which the production of mean-
ing in autobiographical performance in dramatherapy can be described as
emerging from relational and embodied dynamics within the shared space
of performance. This inquiry is located within a larger research context
that investigates the role of the audience in the production of the per-
formance event and of its meaning. The discussion is mainly carried out
from a theoretical perspective, bringing together elements of performance
studies, dramatherapy, literary studies, phenomenology and intersubjec-
tivity theory. Lastly, this chapter intends to consider the methodological
implications for research of the suggested epistemological and conceptual
(AP) as a form of story-
telling whereby the performer engages in an act of sharing a moment of
autobiographical memory with an audience. Walter Benjamin describes
J.-P. Jacques, MA (®)
Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK
© The Author(s) 2016
S. Pendzik et al. (eds.),
The Self in Performance,
INTERSUBJECTIVITY IN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PERFORMANCE...
storytelling as `the ability to exchange experiences' (1999, p. 83). In
this way, Benjamin situates storytelling in a system of communication
and exchange whereby the recounted experience of the storyteller is, in
turn, experienced by a listener in the immediacy of their encounter. They
find themselves, Benjamin suggests, in the company of one another. This
implies a number of different points that are relevant to the argument
developed in this chapter. First, storyteller and listener are co-present and
need one another to fulfill their roles and intentions. They are mutually
dependent in the sense that the recognition of the other enables the fulfill-
ment of one's own position. Secondly, they share a physical intimacy and
proximity that differs for instance from the relationship between novelist
and reader which is characterized by spatial and temporal distance. The
storyteller—listener relationship is primarily based on the immediacy of
their embodied presence. Finally, the togetherness of their being-with in
Heideggerian terms creates a community that can be defined through the
poiesis generated in the here-and-now of their encounter.
PERFORMANCE AND ENCOUNTER
Peter Brook (1990) famously identified the presence of an
as essential for a theatrical event to take place. Grotowski (1991) similarly
described theatre as an act of encountering an
that he located within
the internal structure of the self, the person of the fellow actor or the
spectator. Grainger (2005), for his part, writes that `theatre crystallises
an experience of betweenness that is creative of personhood' (p. 8). He
describes theatre as a living event based on a meeting between actors and
audience, and constitutive of individual identity through the participation
in and the sharing of an imaginative experience.
I believe three important points can be inferred from this. The first
one is to emphasize the centrality of
in the phenomenology of
theatre whereby the proximity and presence of the other raises questions
of ethical importance. `Artistic creation,' writes Todorov, `cannot be ana-
lysed outside of a theory of alterity' (1984, p. 107). Alterity is envisaged
here as a position outside of which the construction of a point of view
remains incomplete. The other in its ethical dimension becomes a condi-
tion for developing an understanding of a given phenomenon as well as
being an agent in the production of its meaning. According to the Russian
linguist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, `our real exterior can be seen
and understood only by other people, because they are located outside
us in space and because they are
(in italics in the text, 1986, p. 7).
In the words of Baldltin (1990), the other provides an `excess of seeing'
which disputes the view of a self that is able to create its own epistemo-
logical and ontological truth. In the context of performance, this reminds
us how the theatrical event remains intrinsically dependent on an other,
separate yet engaged in a shared moment. An ethics of spectatorship in
performance (Fitzpatrick, 2011) considers the ethical implications of that
dependence and what it means in terms of responsibility. I understand the
notion of responsibility for the other as developed by Levinas (1989) as
a responsibility for the presence of an other in performance but also, and
maybe more importantly, as a recognition of the way the other shapes the
performance event and ultimately the subjectivity of those engaged in it.
The second point follows from recognizing the performance event as
a dynamic encounter between performers and audience. The question
emerges as to who actually creates the performance and where its meaning
is located. Barthes (1977) claimed the `death of the author' to suggest
a hermeneutic of text that is no longer centered on the intention of the
author but rather on the domain of experience of the reader. A postmod-
ern view suggests that the meaning of an object resides in the eye of the
beholder, or to put it differently, that it results from internal projections
including what Rozik (2010) names the `cultural baggage' or normative
culture. Yet the postmodern stance has been challenged by refocusing
attention to ways in which meaning emerges from a transaction between
a reader and a text (Rosenblatt, 1994) and the generative quality of that
transaction producing new texts (Smagorinski, 2001). The role of the
reader is acknowledged as an active agent in the production of meaning,
echoing views of an already emancipated reader/spectator bringing into
the performance space his or her own awareness and history (Ranciere,
2411). It suggests a subjectivity of spectatorship that had previously been
underestimated in the ways in which it shapes the semantic of performance
(Bennett, 1997). It also seriously questions the omnipotence of the text
as object of analysis (Heddon, 2008) and shifts attention to performance
as a process and space whereby `theatre meaning results from the interac-
tion between a performance-text and a spectator' (Rozik, 2010, p. 161).
Finally, it points towards an intersubjective understanding of meaning
in performance whereby performer and spectator are both invested, in
Hegelian terms, with their own center of consciousness (Stern, 2002).
The third point concerns the nature of that encounter and the fact that
it belongs to a singular order of expression as Merleau-Ponty (1962) would
say, based on the body. That embodied encounter between performer and
spectator is what gives performance its visceral and physical qualities that
can literally touch and move us. Performances, remind Shepherd and
Wallis (2004), are embodied events whereby experience is communicated
and received through the mobilization of the senses. This embodiment of
experience is, as Merleau-Ponty (1962) suggested, a privileged vehicle for
phenomenological knowledge. Pelias (2008) amongst others explores the
implications of embodied experience and of the body as a site of knowl-
edge, echoing what Meyerhold (Pitches, 2003) had previously investi-
gated under the term
This is to be understood at two
distinct levels. First, it recognizes the body as a vehicle of communication
imprinted with personal and social history, and the depository of social
and power relations. Secondly, it envisages the body as an instrument of
human inquiry whereby dominant discourses can be expounded and alter-
natives imagined. This embodied dimension of knowledge captures some
of what Judith Butler (1993) describes as a tension between
constituted and constituting subjects,
a tension that is reflected in AP.
MEANING IN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PERFORMANCE
Autobiographical performance is characterized by an intimate and embod-
ied encounter between a performer and an audience. It is an act of sharing
and offering that would not be possible without the presence of an other
who in his/her physicality brings out the visibility of the performer. I now
turn to the way in which meaning is produced in AP by linking it more
specifically to the role of the witness as envisaged in the dramatherapy
Authors tend to generally agree that performing personal stories play
an important role in the way we define ourselves and frame our iden-
tity (Rubin, 2007; Wood, 2015). In that regard, the act of performing
oneself not only communicates parts of personal history but also creates
history. This constructivist and narrative perspective emphasizes the way
in which narratives help structure experience and more importantly cre-
ate it (Bruner, 1986). It supports a view of meaning that is not as much
archeological in the sense of finding out old truths, as it is teleological or
emerging from the nature of a particular experience associated here with
the narrative activity. This has resulted in investigating the ontological
INTERSUBJECTIVITY IN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PERFORMANCE...
implications of the self narrating itself and the links between personal nar-
ratives and identity. Most notably, it has contributed to the emergence
of the concept of
2006; McAdams & McLean, 2013). This concept suggests that narratives
are vehicles through which the self-reflecting individual develops a sense
of internal clarity, meaning and purpose. It is characterized by its causal
coherence in bringing together fragments of autobiographical memory in
a way that helps structure life experience and as a result creates possibili-
ties for change and healing. Narrative identity finds resonance in the field
of narrative therapy which claims a reshaping and reclaiming of individual
experience through an exploration of saturated and preferred narratives
What can be objected to here, as Czarniawska (2004) puts it, is that `we
are never sole authors of our own narratives' (p. 5). If narratives contrib-
ute to a sense of personal meaning, they also reflect a socially constructed
self (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 2001) or, to paraphrase Judith
Butler, they are storied as much as storying by cause of interpersonal expe-
rience, social, cultural, discursive and linguistic practices. Besides, the per-
formance of personal narratives takes place in a particular context. This
makes performance a situated practice whose prospect and reality can have
liberating but also hindering effects on the performer. In that sense, it
seems more accurate to talk about situated stories (McLean, Pasupathi,
& Pals, 2007). The question to ask is whether meaning emerges from the
simple act of telling and performing stories (and therefore described as
endogenous) or whether it emerges as a result of the relational context in
which it takes place (and therefore described as exogenous). That ques-
tion raises further questions of ontological difficulties since it forces us to
consider the role of the other in the way we define ourselves and construct
Jones (2007) links the way meaning is constructed in dramatherapy
to the presence of others able to empathize and respond to what is being
explored and developed. According to him, others as audience are wit-
nesses to a process, and it is in that interaction that possibilities for mean-
ing emerge. Others therefore become a significant therapeutic factor for
change. Jones (2005) distinguishes between witnessing and being wit-
nessed in the therapeutic process, although both carry potential for insight
and healing. He identifies layers of witnessing within dramatherapy groups
(Jones, 2007) whereby the roles of audience and performer (or observer
and participant) are constantly interchanged. He acknowledges how the
performer affects the audience by evoking empathy, resonance or iden-
tification, but also, I would suggest, by creating possible dissonance or
distance. He sees how the audience affects the performer by fostering
acceptance, validation or recognition, but also by engendering a possible
sense of persecution or isolation. In other words, the performer—audi-
ence relationship equally carries significant beneficial and detrimental
effects. Jones does not place his analysis directly in the context of AP,
focusing rather on the internal and interactive audience within dramather-
apy groups. Equally, he does not offer a detailed account of the produc-
tion of meaning in an interactive context. Nevertheless, he highlights the
dynamic relationships of mutual influence and reciprocity between per-
formers and witnesses and how this engagement actively informs meaning
The relationship to the audience and its role in AP and
(Self-Rev) has been identified as a significant feature by sev-
eral authors, albeit with different emphases. Emunah (2015) describes
the reciprocity between performer and spectator based on a dynamic rela-
tion of empathy validation, but without elaborating on the details of the
mechanics of that reciprocity. Previously, Emunah (1994) recognized the
role played by the audience in relaying a mutual sense of connectedness
following engagement with the issues presented on stage and resulting
in feelings of shared humanity. Rubin (2007) suggests how the ritual of
being witnessed in performance is essential to personal transformation.
Schrader (1998) shares similar views in a context of part-autobiographical
performances whereby she describes the audience as a necessary condi-
tion for healing. Sajnani (2012) adopts a larger perspective and envisages
biographical performance as engaging with the lived reality of audiences
and not solely reflecting the lived experience of those performing. Like
MacKay (1996), she views performance as a political act contributing to a
renewal of social dialogue.
This brings me to two final points. First, it is noteworthy that if Jones
(2007) focuses mainly on the role of the audience within dramatherapy
groups, the studies mentioned above tend to concentrate more on the
relationship between performers and external audience. This adds another
layer of witnessing alongside the context in which the performance practice
takes place. I will come back to this point later by trying to think system-
atically about this in relation to the way meaning is produced. Secondly,
there seems to be an agreement on the function of the audience activat-
ing something on behalf of the performer. This remains quite a complex
INTERSUBJECTIVITY IN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PERFORMANCE...
process to describe that reminds us that performance is more than per-
forming. It is done in front of others whose eyes need borrowing in order
to see completion, as in the story of the Three Graeae in the Greek myth
of Perseus. The Graeae only had one eye between the three of them, an
eye that they needed to share and hold in turns in order to see. Without
that eye, they were simply condemned to blindness. In other words, they
each needed the eye of the other to be able to see. Pitruzzella (2009)
offers a useful contribution here by suggesting how the audience is a
source of authorization for performers and how this reflects the funda-
mental relationality of theatre. Interestingly, the word authorization origi-
nates etymologically from the Latin
meaning author. According to
Pitruzzella, audience and actors are engaged in a mutual act of authoring.
It suggests in my opinion that performance is the spatial expression of a
unique relationship based on interdependence and mutuality. This also
suggests that performance offers renewed capacities to envisage oneself in
dialogue with and in relation to others.
AUDIENCE, MEANING AND INTERSUBJECTIVITY
In the field of performance studies, recent contemporary practices have
highlighted intersubjective processes that seem relevant to the argument
developed in this chapter. It is my intention to investigate which aspects of
intersubjective theory might help conceptualize the production of mean-
ing in AP.
Writing about autobiography as a performance practice, Heddon (2008 )
argues vehemently against the self-referential and solipsistic nature of the
performed personal narrative by considering its historic roots in feminist
theory and practice, and its social function of challenging the dominant
politics of representation. Heddon (2013) suggests ways in which AP is
primarily dialogic through reflecting a number of transactions amongst
which is the relationship between performer and spectator. She provides
examples of performance artists such as Tim Miller and Robbie McCauley
who shift attention from dialogue with the self (Marranca, 1979) to dia-
logue with the other in autobiographical work and its scripting in the
performance event (Boenisch, 2010). This recognition of the subjectiv-
ity of the other (Fitzpatrick, 2011) in performance is also illustrated in
the work of other artists, such as Marina Abramovic, that Phelan (2004)
describes as an `experiment in intersubjectivity,' whereby the dependence
on the audience is fully acknowledged and the artist intentionally enters
into an embodied dialogue with the lived experience of the other. The
conceptual artist Sophie Calle, in
Exquisite Pain (2003),
personal experience of separation and pain with the different, yet similar
subjective experiences of others in a way that gradually helps her work
through her trauma. In these different artistic practices, the commitment
to the story of the other is a condition for new rays of meaning to shine
out of one's own experience. This is what Madison
ring to the words of Conquergood
as dialogic performance or the
expression of `the meeting of two subjects whose subjectivities grow and
deepen from their mutual encounter' (p.
Intersubjectivity offers a useful conceptual framework to understand
the way in which the self of the performer and the spectator dialogically
relate in their mutual search for meaning. Intersubjectivity originates in
the phenomenological philosophy of Husserl and Heidegger, and has
developed into a paradigm that has found applications in the fields of
humanistic and existential psychotherapy (Nolan,
It has provided a framework to describe and under-
stand the interpersonal dynamics of infant and human development, but
also the particular processes at play in the therapeutic relationship. My
intention here is to situate intersubjectivity in the context of performed
autobiographies, examining how it can account for an understanding of
the different levels of interaction within the intersubjective space of per-
formance, and how this informs the meaning-making process.
The intersubjective space can be defined as being the expression of
mutual and reciprocal exchanges and influences between individualities
recognized for having their own center of consciousness. It is a coming
together of one mind with another who, says Benjamin, `can be felt with,
yet has a distinct, separate center of feeling and perception'
(2004, p. 5).
The intersubjective space is not solely the expression of dyadic relation-
ships but also of different levels of
a dialectic expression of a meeting of different subjectivities, it
is a window through which emerge co-created, negotiated and transient
meanings. In contemporary performance practice, the intersubjective
space reflects ways in which performer and audience in their interdepen-
dent subjectivities create shared meaning through a process of co-author-
This is most exemplified in practices such as
relational performances (O'Grady,
that place the spectator as co-
creator of the performance event whose shape and meaning becomes the
expression of an intersubjective encounter. In such practices, the partici-
pants determine the course of the performance as well as being determined
INTERSUBJECTIVITY IN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PERFORMANCE...
by it by virtue of partaking in a communal process (Fischer-Lichte,
The theatre artist Adrian Howells exemplifies such practice in the context
of autobiographical work whereby artist and spectator mutually define and
shape the performance through the quality of their intimate encounter in
the moment (Heddon & Howells,
A CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK FOR AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL
PERFORMANCE: THE FIVE WITNESSES
My discussion so far has positioned AP within a web of interactions and
influences reflecting various degrees of tension within this art and therapeu-
tic form. This brings me to suggest a relational model that conceptualizes
the way in which the production of meaning within the autobiographi-
cal space results from constant negotiations and transactions with multi-
layered contexts that I will refer to as
have identified five layers
of witnessing and I have centered this model on the performance object
as being an expression of these transactions but also enabling renewed
ways of relating to oneself and others.
refers to the performer becoming a witness to him-
and to the self entering a dialogue with the self
But as one of the characters in Pirandello's
in Search of An Author
says: `This is the real drama for me; the belief that
we all think of ourselves as one single person: but it's not true: each of us is
several different people, and all these people live inside us'
(1988, p. 92).
compares AP to a hall of mirrors whereby different selves
coexist (Hermans, Kempen, & Van Loon,
and enter in a dialogue
with one another resulting in new awareness and understanding.
refers to the members of a group working together
on APs, being a witnessing audience (Rubin,
and sometimes physi-
cally engaged with each other's work. This is particularly exemplified in
student trainings and with client groups. The witnessing emerges from
the concurrent positions of being witness to others and being witnessed
by others (Jones,
The nature of the group matrix and of the inter-
actions within it will have a particular bearing on the way individuals
approach their performance. Equally, the way in which the different per-
formed narratives will be experienced in the group will in turn generate
new narratives and define the contours of their intertextual meaning.
refers to the person of the drama-
therapist, whose presence constitutes a unique and singular factor in the
devising and performing of autobiographical material. The dramatherapist
acts as container of the experiences, emotions and interactions occurring
within a group. S/he holds the boundaries of the space and safeguards
the well-being of those involved. S/he plays a range of roles (facilitator,
mediator, director) that involve various levels of engagement and that
could be equally conducive to creativity or tension. Moreover, s/he will
be subject to transference and countertransference in relationships. S/he
will evoke feelings in those in the group and s/he will find herself/himself
exposed to experiences that may connect to her/his own autobiographical
refers to the external audience coming to see a
performance. The audience bears witness to a performed experience with
possible profound healing effects on the performer. Its level of engagement
will vary depending on the aesthetic choices made by the performer and
on the intentions to reach out. Nonetheless, the audience largely remains
an unknown entity whose reaction and position vis
-vis the performance
cannot be fully predicted. Is it justified to see the audience as an undif-
ferentiated entity of individuals? If this audience is often experienced as
supportive and empathetic, wouldn't it be presumptuous to believe that it
is invariably benevolent? Different audiences, whether or not preselected,
will experience and will be experienced differently with significant effects
on the way the performer will present on stage.
refers to the larger historical and cultural context that
permeates individual histories leaving social imprints on the way experi-
ence is assimilated and communicated. It is the equivalent to what Hopper
(Hopper & Weinberg, 2011), or a set of social,
political, cultural and discursive structures and practices that define the
domains of the possible and are sedimented, would say Butler (1997),
within the body and the psyche. This is where the performance object
becomes the expression of the interplay and tension between the private
and the public, between constraint and freedom.
I have attempted in this chapter to offer a theoretical discussion on how
the production of meaning in AP can be described as emerging from dif-
ferent layers of intersubjective relationships within the performance space,
as suggested above in the conceptual framework of the five witnesses. I
will conclude with some brief remarks on the methodological implications
for research of this epistemological framework.
INTERSUBJECTIVITY IN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PERFORMANCE...
First, it seems important to identify a methodology that takes as unit of
analysis the different
levels of intersubjectivity
within the relational frame-
work. These different levels are the interactions between group members
including the therapist, the intertextual relationships between performed
narratives in their form and content, the relationship of the individual
group members with themselves, and the relationship to an external
Second, performance as an embodied practice requires an embodied
methodology (Pelias, 2008) that investigates the way in which the body
is a receptacle of tension and intersubjective dynamics, and how these get
experienced and communicated in a performance context.
Finally, intersubjectivity suggests dialogue as an epistemological and
methodological vehicle. It points towards the creation of a community
of inquiry between researcher and participants based on a dialogic col-
laborative process (Paulus, Woodside, & Ziegler, 2008), whereby the dif-
ferent voices of researcher and participants are in a constant and iterative
dialogue on the nature of the meaning of their mutual experiences. It
suggests a methodology that would elucidate the way in which the pro-
duction of meaning in AP can be described as resulting from a contextual-
ized and situated intersubjective co-creation. This chapter has proposed
how such a co-creation is the expression of relational processes and inter-
actions between different levels of witnessing in autobiographical perfor-
mance in dramatherapy.
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Applications and Approaches