Theatre is obviously artifice. An audience pays money, sets a date and a time they will go to the theater, walks in, sits down all facing the same way, and waits for the lights to go out.
Meanwhile, actors, directors, and designers rehearse, prepare, raise money, rehearse some more, and then arrive backstage 30 minutes before the audience walks in to put on costumes and make up, and warm up their bodies, voices, and minds to portray fictional characters in a fictional world.
Yet at the same time, theatre is particularly real. All art relies on a language of representation. Visual art uses paint, sculpture, decoupage, etc, to express an idea. Music uses sound; literature, the written word. Dance uses the body and face, but in a way we hardly ever see in daily life. Theatre is unique. Theatre uses real humans, saying real words, and interacting with each other in realistic ways. Even if the play is not realistic, even in the most experimental of theater, humans are still there, behaving. How do we understand this realness? How do we balance automatic reactions (e.g. person processing) with an imagined, presented scenario?
Add to this a complication: In some cases, directors and actors play with the fiction/reality boundary by using typecasting (think nice guy Tom Hanks always playing a nice guy character) or the real stories of actors to get audiences to react to the characters. In a recent version of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway, director Sam Gold cast actress Madison Ferris as Laura. Typically, Laura is portrayed as shy, perhaps with a limp, and therefore the disability that keeps her inside and pulls in her mother may be more mental than physical. For the recent Broadway production, the actress Madison Ferris has muscular dystrophy, and actually, really, in real life uses a wheelchair to move around the theatre and the stage. This set off a number of discussions about both whether this is what the play calls for, and what it means as an audience member to watch someone who needs a wheelchair to get around have to actually pull herself up stairs and around a stage while in character. In that moment, she’s not acting the need to use only her arms—that’s the actual truth. Where does the audience draw the line between imagined reaction and actual reaction?
Acting teachers such as Stanford Meisner claimed that acting is “real reactions under imaginary circumstances.” But what does this mean in the face of disability or tragedy? Actors are not regularly killed on stage, or maimed in order to get into their parts. Is Meisner therefore only speaking of emotional truth? Behavioral or body truth? It is not healthy for an actor to feel the depths of despair of Hamlet every time he must portray the part (note, for example, that The Public Theatre recently cancelled several of its Hamlet matinees for the health of its actors). Film is different, an actor need only get the scene right once for the camera. But on stage, night after night, for many weeks, months, or even years, an audience must be satisfied. Actors cannot survive full involvement. Whether or not this means audiences believe they are seeing the truth is an open question.
There are a number of autonomic psychological reactions that happen in the presence of real people, and may even happen in the presence of imagined people. An unexplored question is whether these processes are parallel or sequential, and what happens to these processes when real people are portraying imaginary characters. Do audience members react to the live people in theatre in an overlapping way with the ways everyone reacts to live people in every day life, as they walk down the street? Do audiences process actors on stage in the same way they process their neighbors and friends? Or is the framing of fiction and pretense in theatre enough that engaging with actors as real people does not happen—are actors treated at the same distance and detachment as other art forms?
Particularly when directors try to use the qualities of actors to imbue the characters, audiences must determine the line between their: 1) reaction to real life 2) reaction to real, but on stage 3) reaction to realistic, but not real, on stage and 4) reaction to non realistic and non real, on stage. For option #4, there is obviously much overlap with any sort of aesthetic reaction, to music, film, visual arts, etc. And where psychological science has the most research is on point 1: reaction to real. There are a number of known automatic processes that happen when you first approach or even look at a person: a number of decisions that you make and bodily reactions you have. These include, gender, age, personality, emotional state, power status, and possibly mental states, beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. The level of automaticity to these reactions varies both depending on who you are reacting to (known versus unknown), the context (familiar versus unfamiliar), and the complexity of the target you are reacting to (e.g. is the behavior stereotypical in some way?). Most theorists would agree that we don’t have to consciously process most judgments, and only when something is out of the ordinary (their face is hidden, or a normally scowling, authoritative boss is suddenly looking scared and powerless) does our conscious awareness take over.
And the body reacts too, outside of awareness. If they are having the same reactions as they do in everyday life, audience members may unconsciously mimic an actor. They may begin to have an emotional reaction via emotion contagion. And this may happen first, before thinking about the fictionality of the situation. Think about if you've ever interacted with someone, started to feel uneasy, and then only later found out they were lying. This echoes basic cognitive theories of “system 1” which is automatic and unthinking, and “system 2”, which is slower and requires more cognitive resources, but also allows for complexity and subtlety in a way system 1 thinking does not. (Echoed in some theories about theory of mind and empathy, or Gendler’s “alief” and “belief” to explain benign masochism).
The question then becomes whether seeing live humans in a theatre prevents these automatic reactions, increases these automatic reactions, or does not affect these automatic reactions?
I can make arguments for all three.
Theatre prevents automatic reactions. We know what we’re seeing is fake in some way, because it’s not just people who wandered in off the street and are now on stage. These are actors, who have rehearsed and prepared to do this performance. Even in an improvisational show, the actors have rehearsed and prepared the games, activities, and types of performances the audience is about to see. Therefore, audience members have no automatic reactions, because such reactions may only happen when people are really interacting with other people. Since everything is already grounded in fiction, system 1 takes a snooze.
Theatre increases automatic reactions, because theatre deals in archetypes and clearly defined charactersistics. When the real people come out on stage, they are behaving realistically. They are expressing what they feel and what they mean, often clearly and explicitly. There is a performative nature to their personality, emotions, status, etc. So it’s even easier to read them than people in real life, and our automatic reactions happily hum along. This does open up the question of whether the realization of fictionality comes in (and maybe it doesn’t, hence actors continuously having to remind interviewers how different they are than their characters).
And the third option, of course, is that theatre doesn’t affect our reactions. We react to real people onstage as real people, and the characters they are portraying as characters, using different systems of person reading for each. Unlikely, though, given the reasons above.
Young children have to develop an understanding of the difference between the real people they’re seeing on stage, performing a scene as if for the first time (one of the central tenants of modern theatre being that the characters should be acting and reacting as if they’ve never experienced the events of the play before). The actor Jason Alexander explains this succinctly in The Best Worst Thing that Ever Happened. As a child, he loved going to the theatre, but couldn’t figure out how it happened nor how he might be a part of the performance. But then, he saw Ben Vereen in a production of Pippen, and realized (as the show Pippen is all about the artifice of theatre) “It’s an illusion! A magic trick! I could do that!”
While most audience members are unlikely to come to the realization that the artifice of a performance is reason to become a performer, at the same time, audience members are also unlikely to see multiple nights of the same performance, and therefore may believe the performance they are seeing to be particularly truthful or emotional, even when it’s actually highly technical and planned. This crosses the boundary of what is imagined and what is real again, and adds a layer of confusion onto our understanding of actors and acting. Yet it’s not enough to look to filmed acting. Having the person in the room, in the same space, is critical to think about reactions to live people portraying imagined circumstances. Research that would be able to isolate reactions to something happening live, where there are various levels of awareness as to its fictionality, could begin to clarify types of reactions to actors and theatre. But without even clear theory of how people think about actors, this facet of imagination remains underexplored.