Poetry can inspire us, paintings capture moments and music alters mood. Theatre is unique in its power to synthesize these art forms via a social activity that bonds us, provides escapism, elevates and entertains. The proscenium arch is like a magnifying glass that focuses in on fragments of the human experience, and allows us to sample alternative worlds from the curiosities of Wonderland to Rooster Byron’s caravan. So what if real people don’t tango in prison? We theatre-goers willingly suspend disbelief for American Dreams and Spooky Mormon Hell Dreams alike. We are adept at distinguishing what happens on stage as ‘pretend’ and what happens in the auditorium as ‘real’, whilst retaining our ability to empathise with characters in exactly the same way as people in the real world.
Through these psychological demands and theatre’s capacity to spotlight human experience, we can emerge from a show transformed – and it has nothing to with the double G&T we had at the interval. Research shows that viewing theatre enhances our thinking, strengthens attention processes in the brain, and lifts our mood in familiar ways (I can’t be alone in skipping home through puddles to an internal Singin’ in the Rain soundtrack). Furthermore, because empathy for characters activates the brain in the same way as real people, the more we’re exposed to complex fictional characters the better we become at what psychologists call ‘social cognition’ – understanding the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of others – essential for our real-life relationships.
Not only does theatre cultivate our social abilities, it can change our beliefs too. Psychology tells us that when we become absorbed in a story, our thinking alters to match the implicit values of that story. So a rousing rendition of Do You Hear The People Sing may change your perception of rebels and revolutionaries, and the more you weep at Warhorse, the more you’ll appreciate… well, horses. Joking aside, this has significant social implications, considering that feeling empathy for people from marginalised groups improves our attitudes towards those groups. In this way, good drama can facilitate social change, and that’s something theatre-makers and performers have at their fingertips. It’s not all about the West End of course; intimate fringe shows, interactive and immersive theatre may be even more effective at enabling us to walk in the shoes of others. So whether you seek enrichment, education or just an escape from your daily grind, look no further than your local theatre. You’ll be all the better for it.
by Rose Turner.