Breaking Down the Elements of Acting

Inspired by ALL CAPS PROPOSAL, what are the factors that go into theatre?

Posted Mar 17, 2017

On Twitter yesterday, there was a hashtag going around: #ALLCAPSPROPOSAL.  Spurred on by recent trends to crowd source funding for science (which I deeply wish did not have to happen; strong federal support for science helps every citizen), as well as the joke that sometimes to make your point clearer, all you have to do is shout it, scientists called out the main points of their grant proposals. Mine was:


And actually, as I got thinking about it, I realized that breaking down these 123 characters (it’s exactly 140 when you add the hashtag) could be very helpful in thinking about theatre from a cognitive and psychological perspective. So, here it is. My breakdown of what things, which kids, and how. Starting with the underlying assumption that theatre does awesome things for kids.

Theatre is a flexible tool. It’s less of a set activity with a manualized, intervention-like progression (although it can be used that way), than types of activities, kinds of mindsets, and ways of exploring other behaviors, mental states, etc.


So, here we’re talking about outcomes. Leaving aside age, population type, and what is causing outcomes (see below), let’s talk about what may change when you are involved in theatre. And note, not all outcomes apply to all age groups or populations or types of theatrical experience. It may be that some outcomes only occur with some theatrical experiences, in some populations. Such questions require careful study and experimentation. Also important: I’m talking about PARTICIPATING in theatrical activities, not watching as an audience, not writing as a playwright, not designing or dramaturgy or directing, although all of those elements are sometimes a part of a person learning acting. I’ll deal with one aspect of this, improvisational versus scripted versus integrated/educational theatre, under “how."

When psychologists and educators talk about the benefits of theatre, there are three main kinds of outcomes discussed: social, emotional, cognitive. If you’re interested in brain changes, I’ll just posit that any change in the brain will cause a change in one of these three kinds of outcomes, so we’ll just assume neurological change if we see behavioral change. For each of these kinds of outcomes, we have evidence, some stronger, some weaker, that some kind of theatrical activity causes change in these outcomes (again, see HOW for kind of theatrical activities).

Cognitive: We have the best evidence here for verbal outcomes being improved by theatrical activities. Several meta-analyses have shown kids in theatre programs improve a variety of verbal skills, including reading and literacy skills, narrative understanding, vocabulary size and richness. And some drama integrated programs have also shown improvements in academic outcomes such as science vocabulary and understanding, and general academic progress, based on this increase in vocabulary and verbal skills.

Emotional: “Emotional skills” is a big umbrella (just like social and cognitive), but subsumed under this umbrella are emotion knowledge and emotional control or regulation. There is some work that suggests that students can learn to control their emotions in more healthful ways (e.g. using less emotional suppression, expressing more), and that while acting, children gain knowledge about emotions, both in themselves and in others. There is also evidence that children can gain in self concept after engaging in theatre, which can be related to emotional knowledge in the self, and also extends to concepts about the self in relation to academic or social outcomes. 

Social: Finally, there is evidence that children gain in empathy and theory of mind from engaging in theatre and acting. Feeling closer to peers and understanding of others may also be positively affected. More general social skills such as friendships are made up of smaller skills such as responding appropriately, social communication, understanding of social scripts, perspective taking, imitation, and even social creativity. All of these underlying skills have small levels of evidence that they are positively affected by theatre, but a lot more work has to be done to untangle this area.


So which kids are likely to gain the above benefits from theatre? We can break this down in all sorts of ways. The first is by population type: typically developing, atypically development (e.g. children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or developmental delays), or at risk of atypical development (e.g. very low SES). The second is by age: babies (yes, there is theater for babies, and it’s amazing), preschoolers who are already engaging in large amounts of pretend and role play, elementary school aged kids, middle schoolers in the play, high schoolers either seriously or casually involved in theatre, college student BFA acting majors, adults just learning to act, adults who are trying to be professional actors, adults who ARE professional actors, etc etc etc. 

I would like to argue that theatre is so flexible as a tool for causing change that almost any population, at any age, can be helped, if the type of theatrical experience is carefully designed, thoughtfully created, and adaptable to the needs of the participants. But this is an empirical question. We can test for differences at different age groups of the effects of theatre, and for differences in different populations.

And there’s always the possibility that involvement in theatre can be negative sometimes. Certainly, in the popular imagination, professional actors are emotionally disregulated, ego maniacal, un-empathic shape shifters with no coherent personality (although how much of that is fame, and how much acting)? How could theatre be beneficial for some and harmful for others? Where you come from matters, your preexisting weaknesses are matters, and most importantly, what the actual experience of theatre, what activities you’re actually doing, matters.

Where do we have evidence?

There’s a great burgeoning research literature showing that kids with ASD, from elementary, middle and high school gain in the underlying skills of social communication from engaging in theatre. Matthew Lerner at Stony Brook University, and Blythe Corbett at Vanderbilt University are really at the forefront here. In my program of research with nonclinical populations, I’ve found different levels of social and emotional gains at different age groups: younger children gain in emotional control and regulation, older children gain in self concept, and empathy, adolescents gain in theory of mind and empathy. And work from the social development literature shows this makes sense: developmentally, children have to learn emotional control and regulation before they can feel empathy for others, and cognitive understanding may come even later.

The work showing gains in verbal skills is across typically developing populations and across numerous age groups. Importantly, I’ve found several times that the lower a child is on a particular skill, the more they gain. It’s almost like children are being brought up to standard levels of skills through engaging in theatre, rather than being pushed ahead of the general population. More research here, to break apart age groups, populations, and preexisting levels, is desperately needed.

There are a lot more anecdotes and programs where the people involved believe strongly in the program’s positive effects than there is research. But that means the base to get started is strong! As long as researchers really pay attention to WHAT is happening in the classroom, in the room where it happens (shout out to Hamilton fans), then we can begin to understand which populations are helped in which areas by which activities.


When talking about how, you’re really talking about “mechanism." That is, what activity in the milieu of theatrical activities is causing change. First, we have to break down the different kinds of theatrical activities where there has been research. Then, what is similar and what is distinct between these kinds of theatrical activities may show us what exactly is causing change, if the change is measured in the same way. Control groups in experiments isolate what “extraneous" (i.e. non theatrical) elements of any program may be causing change. The evidence here is pretty thin on the ground, which is often used as an excuse for not trusting that it is theatre per se that is causing change. My vote, of course, is to use it as an excuse for more and better research!

The elements that could be causing change are many. In a paper by Dr. Wendy Mages on the findings that verbal skills are positively affected by theatre, she breaks down no fewer than 13 separate reasons why. Just the reasons, not even the individual activities. And in intervention science, there is often talk of the gestalt of an intervention (i.e. the affect of the intervention as a whole), compared to the individual elements. The question of where the effectiveness lies is difficult when thinking about human behavior. How molecular do we want to get?

At a broad level, there are three kinds of theatrical activities that children often engage in: scripted theatre classes or performances, improvisational classes or performances, and education or integrated theatre (which rarely has a performative element). Just that split alone could help researchers determine the effects of a script versus no script, integrating theatre with another topic or just doing theatre for theatre’s sake, and performance versus no performance. In my own work, I’ve compared outcomes in theatre classes versus visual arts and music classes, to isolate the verbal and physicalized elements of theatre while keeping the artistic and expression elements common to all the arts. In other work, I’ve compared drama games (without performance) to building with blocks (which is also physical and goal oriented) and story time (which is also narrative and character driven). This holds various group interaction elements constant while isolating what I believe to be key: embodiment of emotions, behaviors, and mental states.

The thing that is consistent across types of theatre, across types of populations, across age groups and settings is the physical transformation of the self. In every type of theatre, children have to embody something that is separated from themselves in the moment, whether it’s a full blown character, a momentary emotion, a piece of wording from a script. How this embodiment is expressed, created, and understood varies by age, by acting theory and method, by the outcome you’re trying to change. But “getting something on your feet” is consistent. Even if that means sitting with a different mindset (you don’t have to be able to walk to do theatre). Separating self from activity. Examining from some distance, and then bringing the self back into it. The most effective way to do this is to my mind the big question. How can children be taught to use theatre to examine emotions, behaviors, words, characters, people, topics, ideas from a distance, and then express it through themselves? What elements of the experience are most important? Which kids need which elements? How can we integrate the knowledge of theatre makers and educators with the questions of psychologists and cognitive scientists? Obviously, this is incredibly complicated, just to lay out the areas, not even to start solving them!

But as I tweeted, I promise to eventually, slowly, painstakingly, scientifically, humanistically, keep trying to figure it out. 

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