As a theatre practitioner and a socially-conscious individual, I am constantly aware of how my actions affect others. When I create theatre I am always considering the influence of my performance: how can I affect change? How can I let people know they’re not alone?
I have written two one-woman shows in my life. The first was about addiction and mental illness and the second was about sexual trauma and rape. As someone who produces and creates theatre, I want to make sure that what I’m “selling” is of value. We live in a capitalistic, consumeristic society where there are more options to choose from than ever before.
We are bombarded by what we see in the media and in an age of social media being our main social interaction, we desperately need to focus on moments to connect with other individuals and how we can optimize that connection to make the world a better place.
Theatre possesses the opportunity to be monumentally influential on a more cellular level than we realize. One of science’s newer discoveries, Mirror Neurons, is key to understanding the potentiality of this. We can then use this to create Conscious Theatre.
Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, author of Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How we Connect with Others, explains that mirror neurons give us the ability to connect with another being (human or animal). He writes,
“Our brains are capable of mirroring the deepest aspect of the minds of others.”
Mirror neurons explain empathy and why we sometimes find ourselves compelled to cry at a movie or even a sentimental commercial; our brain is making a personal connection to the people we see on screen.
This should give theatre practitioners more excitement to know that we are literally affecting the audience on a cellular level. Iacoboni’s research gives insight into understanding empathy. He explains:
“…mirror neuron areas help us understand the emotions of other people by some form of inner imitation. According to this mirror neuron hypothesis of empathy, our mirror neurons fire when we see others expressing their emotions, as if we were making those facial expressions ourselves. By means of this firing, the neurons also send signals to emotional brain centers in the limbic system to make us feel what other people feel.”
CASE EXAMPLE: HOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTER, “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK”
The importance of having protagonists with mental illness is supported through the idea that we can relate to others by observing them. Having the audience watch the pain and struggle, as well as the successes and triumph of people with mental illness will not only encourage them to cheer on their “team,” but they will also feel empathy towards them because they will unconsciously recognize the feelings within themselves.
For instance, Silver Linings Playbook is a movie about a man with bipolar disorder who has recently been released from the mental hospital. He was admitted to the hospital after committing a violent crime and is consumed by obsessive thoughts. He meets a young woman with social and grief problems who suffers from depression. We see the complexity and dysfunction in his relationship with his parents and the complicated love story.
This Hollywood blockbuster exemplifies some ups and downs in relationships. The New York Times writer, Manohla Dargis states:
“‘Silver Linings Playbook’ is crammed with people talking and shouting and weeping and also yielding to what are sometimes called boundary issues but which here turn out to be the mad, loving scrambling of people finding and saving one another.”
This Oscar-nominated film exhibited all the extreme examples of mental illness and family dynamics in a way that the mass culture was able to see the humanity, which is why it was successful as a blockbuster movie. Although, in typical Hollywood rom-com fashion, there were some realistic pitfalls.
CASE STUDY: BROADWAY’S “NEXT TO NORMAL”
Tony Award winning 2009 musical, Next to Normal, exhibits the humanity of mental illness. This musical follows a mother with bipolar disorder and the the lives of her family. She is treated with an array of medications and procedures, including electroconvulsive therapy, with adverse side effects. We see how this effects her and her family through grief, drug abuse, loneliness, and misunderstanding.
Similarly to Silver Linings Playbook, this Broadway hit had a popular reception. The New York Times chief theater critic, Ben Brantley, writes:
“Anger, yearning, sorrow, guilt and the memory of what must have been love seem to coexist in every note [Allison Ripley] sings…to experience them vicariously through Ms. Ripley is to tingle with the gratitude of being able to feel them all.”
We connect with the main character in Next to Normal because we can relate to her humanity, so when she sings about missing a part of herself, we delve into our recesses of the times we have felt lost and unsure of who we were.
Evolution has created brains to react with an inclination towards empathy, and for that reason, Iacoboni tells us it is a human need and desire to feel connected to others and to relate:
“It seems as if our brain is built for mirroring, and that only through mirroring — through the simulation in our brain of the felt experience of other minds — do we deeply understand what other people are feeling.”
CREATING CONSCIOUS THEATRE
As theatre practitioners–hopefully Conscious Theatre practitioners–the knowledge of mirror neurons encourages us to help people connect without effort on their part because the effects are taking place on an unconscious level. Watching someone struggle with something relatable allows us to experience it as if we were struggling with the issue. We are connected to them on a cellular level and feel empathic towards their success.
This amazing process happens naturally and with no exertion of the audience. Iacoboni tells us that,
“This simulation process is not an effortful, deliberate pretense of being in somebody else’s shoes. It is an effortless, automatic, and unconscious inner mirroring.”
The solution is simple: we generate material that gets viewed by an audience and those people are unconsciously affected. Conscious Theatre is about creating work that will positively affect the audience, and will evoke empathy to produce more tolerant and compassionate people.
CHANGING HOW WE PORTRAY MENTAL ILLNESS
Now, the most important part of this equation is consciously creating material that positively portrays mental illness. Mental illness does not need to be seen with rose-colored glasses. Rather, it needs to positively portray how humans are overcoming and fighting against the pain and hurt of mental illness.
There needs to be a division between the mental illness and the person so the audience can relate to the humanity and see the symptoms as separate from the individual. Reflecting on a quote by co-creator of Next to Normal, Brian Yorkey, confirms the truth about life: there isn’t always a fairytale ending.
“We knew there was no easy happy ending to this…You find some way to survive.”
It’s okay to show the pain and the struggle, it’s actually quite normal, but we also need to see the perseverance and will to overcome. Next to Normal and Silver Linings Playbook give us the idea of triumph, not over the illness of bipolar, but of the feeling of disempowerment and the sometimes-stifling symptoms.
We are left with the idea that these people are fighting for their lives to enrich them and ideally we are filled with a sense of hope for our own lives and our own journeys and struggles.
While many people conceal their suffering, it is actually more of a communal event. Iacoboni explains the brain’s proclivity towards community, stating,
"Although we commonly think of pain as a fundamentally private experience, our brain actually treats it as an experience shared with others. This neural mechanism is essential for building social ties."
The fact that in theatre we are sharing our pain with the audience and they are receiving it can be healing for both the actor and spectator. Mirror neurons give us the insight that we are inadvertently connecting with others just by observing them, and so, the act of going to the theatre is an opportunity to connect socially and to feel empathy.
By creating characters who influence the audience towards understanding and compassion for people with mental illness, we can slowly change our society and decrease the stigmatization.
We can use this information gained from science as well as from experience to take advantage of the influence of theatre (and film) to create a form of mental health education. For instance, a performer could devise a show about a protagonist dealing with mental illness who has found a way to control their symptoms. This protagonist then goes out to help others to teach them to empower themselves and how to manage their symptoms.
A show of this nature would show examples of how the protagonist is functional and also able to be of benefit to others and to society. Watching and creating Conscious Theatre will lead our society to become more compassionate and understanding of others.
We can educate people to be more tolerant and loving individuals, therein shaping our world to reflect this.
A CALL TO CONSCIOUS THEATRE
Our culture is ready for a change to shift these paradigms that have been established. By looking at the critically acclaimed successes of Next to Normal and Silver Linings Playbook, it is obvious that our society is open to watching theatre and film that addresses mental illness.
The mass culture is ready to relate to these protagonists and feel an empathic connection to the humanity inside these individuals. We are becoming more awakened and skeptical about these formally praised industries such as medicine and psychiatry and are beginning to feel the need to develop interpersonal connections through healthy relationships.
There are a lot of misguided portrayals that are produced about people with mental illness. It is time to reject the scapegoating that has occurred. Producing Conscious Theatre with sensitive work that relates to the humanity of an individual will showcase a separation of person and disease, creating more space for empathy.
Empathy allows us to feel socially connected to others, allowing us to relate to their struggles. Silver Linings Playbook was a step towards a better, more conscious approach to movie making, albeit flawed. However, I commend the attempt to portray characters with mental illness leaving the audience with a positive ending in a typical Hollywood format. If we continue in this way, I believe we can continue to create mental health education subtly through film.
Next to Normal was a more successful production of what sensitivity towards mental illness looks like. It provided thought-provoking questions about how to relate to those afflicted, and also, spread awareness to the difficulties in treatment. Providing a more empowering representation of the reality of mental illness, it showed that while there may never be a cure, there is hope and space to find strength.
Theatre has the potential to change lives and shift the paradigms we have created in our society. I cannot sit idly by and watch productions with a lack of social integrity or awareness to the gravity of influence happening. I choose to create Conscious Theatre, and I encourage you to do the same.
There is the possibility to produce art that affects people’s lives (whether they are aware of it or not), and it seems that with the power of art, it is intrinsically our role as artists to take on this responsibility and produce epic work. The call is here. Conscious Theatre is waiting.