What we already knew about the invisible gorilla

close-up-view-old-clock-gear-mechanism-17202086From the inception of this project about Theatre of the Real, it has been clear to me that audience perception/experience is central to this phenomenon. Of course, the perception by the audience that an action presented is indeed “theatre” is at the heart of all theatricality. This idea traces its roots at least back to Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie (1583) where in response to critics of theatre who claim that people might be confused and take the fiction for truth, he argues that it is the audience that carefully distinguishes the actual from the fictional allowing the shared pretense of theatre to exist: “What child is there that, coming to a play, and seeing Thebes written in great letters upon an old door, doth believe that it is Thebes? If then a man can arrive, at that child’s age to know  that the poets’ persons and doings are but pictures of what should be, and not stories that have been, they will never give the lie to things not affirmatively but allegorically and figuratively written.” Without an audience who has made the distinction between actual mundane life (worlda) and a fictional representation (worldb), there can be no theatre.

Performances in the Theatre of the Real/documentary theatre genre take up the essential perceptual work by the audience and call it into question. Through various strategies, the firm distinction between the actual and the fictional is blurred. I am tempted to say that this IS the defining feature of this performance style. With this basic premise in hand, the ability to clearly describe the perceptual work done by audiences in managing the tricks and manipulations of Theatre of the Real is therefore a key necessity.

It has been my hope from the outset of this project (as you can see from previous posts) that it might be a good approach to use insights from the field of cognitive studies to gain insight into what audiences are thinking/feeling. (Audiences are notoriously slippery). Rhonda Blair writes about acting, “Since acting grows out of our biological being, what we are learning about memory and imagination, and the way emotion, reason, and physicality are ultimately inseparable in the brain’s structure and function, has significant implications for how we understand what happens when we act” (xii). Substitute ‘acting’ for ‘audiencing’ and that is it exactly — a brave new world for comprehending what makes us tick.

However…after spending some time trying to get a sense of the field and where cognitive studies is at  — doing lots of reading and participating in a conference session on theatre and cognition — my sense of it is that the work is not as far along as one might hope as far as the hard core science is concerned. For example, a groundbreaking cognitive study presents significant insights into the phenomenon of inattentional blindness (See “The Invisible Gorilla Test“) This is a very important articulation of how the brain works but its application to theatre and performance seems small, or obvious. In this particular case, inattentional blindness explains what magicians have known experientially about misdirecting audience attention for a long time. Quite a bit of the work I encountered is of this kind where an established performance strategy or method is corroborated by the science. OK. Great. It falls a bit flat, though — almost as if to say “Thanks. We knew that. Good to know we were right.” This is fine, but it doesn’t move the conversation forward in the way that I had hoped. Lifting the lid to show the mechanism is useful, no doubt, but it doesn’t change what I understand about the performance in a substantial way.

What next? I think what I am looking for is a way not to literally explain what the audience brain is doing. Indeed I have not been able to find the scientific studies that have unpacked audience processes like how we understand fictions, how we distinguish truth from lies, how we pretend, and so on. These are very sophisticated multivalent processes, with more moving parts as it were, than the work that is currently being done. I suspect that the science isn’t there yet. My plan then moving forward is to consciously move away from models based in neuroscience instead move toward models that are based in cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics. I suppose that it is almost as useful to know what I am not doing, as what I am doing.

Works Cited

Blair, Rhonda. The Actor, Image and Action: Acting and cognitive neuroscience. New York & London: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Sidney, Philip. The Defence of Poesie. Critical Theory Since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. Rev ed. Forth Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992. 143-62. Print.


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