The science of experience

The fourth post in this series opening out from my essay looking at some historical precedences to NTiYN is unusual, in that it’s not really a conversation, more a session of close listening. My meeting with Nicola Shaughnessy, professor of performance at the University of Kent and director of the Research Centre for Cognition, Kinesthetics and Performance, began with a 10-minute preamble from me talking particularly about the post-show Theatre Club audience conversations I’ve been doing with Fuel and elsewhere. And then she started to tell me about her work, and I was too engrossed to interrupt.

I haven’t published everything she said for the simple and lazy reason that transcribing is one of my least favourite aspects of my job; in particular what’s missing is detail about Nicola’s current research, using neuroscience as a framework, on the ways in which people with autism and Alzheimer’s respond to theatre – and the surprising similarities between those responses. That editing has required me to juggle her words around quite a lot, in an attempt to make this both as expansive and compact as possible. What I’ve focused on is her response to the notion of audience discussion, and her historical perspective – the theatre salon – because that is the material I couldn’t fit into the essay.

Over to Nicola:

One thing that struck me as you were talking about theatre clubs – about the wine and crisps on the table, and the book club – is that when I was writing about women and modernism, I got very interested in the concept of salon theatre. This goes back to some of my earliest experiences in terms of why I got interested in theatre in the first place. My PhD thesis looked at Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, and the corpus of neglected or hidden plays: I was interested in why these three celebrated prose or poetry writers were drawn to theatre and a dialogic medium as a means to explore particular issues behind the scenes. Stein’s plays were ultimately discovered and made popular through the work of Robert Wilson, but she wrote, I think, 101 operas and plays and they’re considered unperformable by a lot of people. The play of Plath’s I was particularly interested in, Diary of a Ouija Board, is all about her relationship with Ted Hughes; with Woolf it was her sexuality, her relationship with Vita Sackville-West. The theoretical approach I used was psychoanalysis: I ended up psychoanalysing the texts, because to a certain extent I was arguing that the drama was the repressed finding expression through theatre.

The theatre salon was a sort of private theatricals, it’s a very interesting modernist culture. In the salons you’d sit as a community and watch a piece: often they’d be very experimental, sometimes it would be more like performance poetry – and of course, because they were private events, it was quite poor theatre, or often it might be a rehearsed reading. The issue with them is class: the salons were very much associated with the coffee houses and a culture for very rich privileged artists – I sometimes think, of course you’re a fantastic writer Virginia Woolf, you never had to go to work, you were just moneyed, wouldn’t that be nice. Although what is interesting, it was an artist community, and they weren’t necessarily rich, some of them were incredibly poor, but they were artists, and it would often be visual artists mixing with writers, mixed communities of practitioners, people were dabbling in different things and might be capable of both.

I think the talking about theatre, the after of the experience, what it means to you, is incredibly important and something that has been neglected or lost. Or actually, because of the way that theatre studies has become a subject, and when you go to the theatre in schools, especially if you’re studying drama, you then write the essay after, we’re turning people into critics that have to think and talk about theatre in a certain way, and judgements are made through that process. Certainly I find that there’s a fear of not being capable of articulating that experience or not making the appropriate judgements. People say this about book groups as well: when I talked about starting a book club, people said, I couldn’t possibly come to a book club with you because you’re already a critic and you speak the language. So there’s this kind of fear of not being capable of the intellectual endeavour, when actually it should just be a conversation. And it is very difficult to find the right language to talk about something that is experiential. That’s another reason why I like theatre, because it is an experience, it’s an experience that we share with other people, and I’m really interested in the affect that theatre and performance has on audiences, and all different kinds of audiences, how we talk about that audience perspective and how we evaluate it. I think that has been a neglected area.

The research that I do now draws upon cognitive neuroscience and affect theory: the two are in tune with each other but theoretically they’re in opposite camps, so I’m trying to bring them into dialogue. Neuroscience can be a really useful tool: it provides a means for writing about audience experience, it gives the language and rigour to be able to talk about emotion and empathy and attention. It’s always interested me that theatre has survived cinema because the cinema is in some respects more sophisticated than theatre, so why has theatre continued to thrive? For me it is about the physicality of theatre, it’s the liveness, being aware that you are experiencing something in the moment, with other people, having a relationship with something on stage that is live and that can never be reproduced. In that moment in the theatre you are experiencing the past, the present and the future simultaneously and that’s a very complex process. It means that you’re actually experiencing a kind of grieving for something that can never be reproduced: you have it and it’s fantastic and you’re never going to get it back, and it means that it’s very, very precious. The best theatre puts you in touch with something that can only be allied to the sublime, and creates what Woolf calls “moments of being” – but there’s a sense that it’s a solitary experience, because your experience will be different from mine.

I’ve come full circle thinking about this, because I very much used to argue against the immersive experience: I teach contemporary performance and I started out teaching students about acting in quotation marks, we leave the concept of pretence behind, and you stay aware of yourself as an audience member. But when I discovered the neuroscience I said to my students: it’s OK to have emotion in theatre, theatre is there as an emotional experience. What theatre offers is a safe and controlled environment in which to have a very intense experience and that’s because we know it’s not real: there is a safety, there is a contract we sign up to that we’re going to go in and anything can happen and it will be an experience.

I think the idea of having an opportunity to talk about theatre afterwards is good but I would say not just talking: what I would look for in the after-show experience would be a variety of things that you could do. I’m imagining an environment where, instead of there just being wine and crisp on the tables, there are doodling opportunities, and an opportunity to reflect quietly. Theatre is very odd, it’s very collective and solitary, and the after-show thing is about not trying to generate some kind of uniformity of experience but having a means of honouring that solitude as well as then extending that into sharing. So you’ve got to find a way in which you can have both within the same experience and you can move between the two, so that after-show experience becomes part of the whole experience. It could be that you buy different tickets, but I like the idea of the thing being there as an opportunity for anyone to walk into that wants to.

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