The study of theater has always been a slightly odd fit with higher education. Theater’s departmental needs are so different from the norm: Where other programs require smart classrooms, desks, and Wi-Fi, we seek vast, empty spaces with sprung wood floors and natural light. The inner life of a chemistry major should not affect the outcome of an assignment; for theater majors, the inner life is the assignment.
The craft of acting involves human behavior. Constantin Stanislavsky, the father of American acting style, was a Russian actor who became frustrated with the inconsistencies of his own work. He sought to define a “system” for creating believable behavior on stage, which involved an in-depth study of a character’s motivations and circumstances.
Some of the precepts of Stanislavsky’s technique for embodying life on stage include fierce concentration and the ability to focus one’s attention at will, significant mind/body reciprocity, a developed and practiced imagination, and the exploration and study of the outside world (other people, other art forms, literature, and one’s own life experiences). Acquiring those skills could be an antidote for college students who are said to be lacking empathy, isolated and narcissistic, distracted and jaded.
Theater (slow, communal, physical) may be the cure for what ails us in the digital world. Social psychologists, neurologists, and doctors tell us that cellphone use (in the way our students do it, more than eight hours a day) is altering modes of attention, reducing eye contact, hurting necks and hands, and changing our brains and sleep cycles. Apparently nothing feels as good as the dopamine rush that floods our brains every time the phone “pings.” We are all of us, to a degree, nomophobic (the term coined to describe the anxiety that results from being without one’s phone).
A colleague tells a story about assigning a scene from a 1970s play in which one character waits on a park bench for some time. The actor was unable to conceive of any kind of “waiting” that did not involve having a cellphone to mitigate the boredom. She simply did not know what to do.
Our students (and this will very likely increase in the next couple of years, as the first cohort of 21st-century children goes to college) are unfamiliar with the experience of being alone with their thoughts or of following their thoughts, unimpeded, wherever they might travel. Solving a STEM equation is important, but discoveries in the sciences will occur only when people know how to be alone with their thoughts. Who is teaching that?
In acting classes, students grapple with the effects of technology on their brains, bodies, and social selves. Cellphones must be turned off and put away. The goal is to disconnect with technology and to connect with one another and themselves. Students struggle to maintain eye contact; they work to develop a psycho/physical connection for what they think, feel and do; they concentrate for longer and longer periods of time. They read plays; they memorize text; they learn to follow their impulses to create movement, gesture, intimacy, community. If this scene were unfolding in a movie in which computers were threatening to destroy humanity, you’d be cheering for the theater majors to save us.
A colleague recently despaired because her students no longer understood the action “to flirt.” Accustomed to soliciting one another via text, and more used to hookups than dates, this verb was no longer a touchstone for college students, and “flirting” did not elicit any specific physical or emotional behaviors (sustained eye contact, light touch, smiling, playfulness) from the actors. When asked to flirt, they went straight to simulated sex. There was no in-between. Bottom line: Even though technology has become what we do all day, it isn’t human behavior.
From 2011 to 2014, the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation worked with theater artists in Chicago through an online survey and a battery of aptitude tests to determine whether there are innate skills shared among theater workers. The aptitude called “foresight,” which is the talent to envision many possible outcomes or possibilities, was present in all theater workers (playwrights, directors, designers, actors). When actors try out various line readings or interpretations of a scene, when they improvise or create backstory, they are using foresight.
But foresight would be impossible without empathy. The actor’s ability to envision multiple outcomes or motivations in a play must be based on the character’s circumstances, not the actor’s. That requires a kind of stepping into another person’s shoes that social scientists say is dwindling among college-age students.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in “Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.”
When he played the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Philip Seymour Hoffman explained that his preparation each night included sitting for at least a half-hour at the cramped kitchen table onstage, experiencing his shabby surroundings, sipping coffee, and allowing his imagination to wander as Willy’s would have. Our student on the park bench would have had trouble with that.
Algorithms recommend music based on what we’re already listening to, books similar to others we’ve read, and “friends” from among people we already know. As a result, we are less frequently confronted by the other, the unknown, the different. Stanislavsky’s technique requires a thorough study of a character’s situation — whether geographic location or state of physical health — and asks that actors explore the effects of those circumstances on their own selves. In a semester, a college actor will play multiple characters, stretching to inhabit another psyche, another intellect, another body. It’s a veritable empathy boot camp.
Businesses have long recognized that elements of actor training can be used to develop creativity, improve communication, and resolve conflicts. Many corporate consultants have bachelor’s degrees in acting and make a good living teaching improvisation, role play, and collaborative problem-solving to M.B.A.s. Yet universities with theater departments have failed to recognize that they have this resource in their own backyards.
Whatever your feelings about the legitimacy of theater as a college major, or its eventual earnings potential, there are important struggles and discoveries happening in the acting classroom. As technology and machines consume more and more of life, perhaps theater can help us remember what it means to act like a human.
Tracey Moore is an associate professor of theater in the Hartt School at the University of Hartford. This post appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
An aspiring actress on the Fountain Theatre stage.
by Scott T. Barsotti
Most of us who make theatre have found ourselves, at one point or another, in a conversation about why we do what we do. No matter the reason for one’s passion for theatre, a sentiment that is common among theatre artists is that theatre is what they were born to do. Believe it or not, there’s now data to back this up. Researchers at Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation began studying theatre artists in 2011 in an attempt to understand how this group differs from the average population in terms of aptitude.
Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, named for its founder, is a Boston-based nonprofit that studies differences in human abilities. Generally speaking, an individual is considered to possess an aptitude if they show ability that meets or exceeds the 70th percentile in their age-norm group. Among Johnson O’Connor’s twenty-two standard aptitude tests, results show long-term relative stability, meaning a person who has a particular aptitude at age fifteen will still have that same aptitude at age fifty-five regardless of his or her education, experience, or acquired skill. The suggestion is that talent—or at least talent of certain types—is natural rather than created.
Where a skill is something that is developed over time, built up by practice and refined in the foundries of repetition, an aptitude is something present in our mental framework, something inextricable from our natural selves that allows us to complete a task or learn something more quickly and easily than our peers can. O’Connor discovered through his research that professionals who possess aptitude for their chosen field are markedly more satisfied in their work.
One way in which the Foundation broadens its research is to conduct career validation studies, in which a group of professionals in a specific field or job are tested to see if there are similarities in how they score on aptitude tests. This is where theatre artists come in.
Scott T. Barsotti
The Theatre Artist Study
I myself am a playwright. I had my first play produced professionally in 2003, and moved to Chicago to get my MFA and pursue a career in theatre. Like many artists, I’ve had to supplement my creative work with a stable job. I discovered Johnson O’Connor’s Chicago lab through a friend and found the company’s history and mission to be fascinating. The tests are standardized, so to give and interpret them one must simply learn how to give and interpret them. Once I completed my training, it didn’t take long for me to become curious about how my fellow theatre people might score on O’Connor’s tests. The Foundation had never researched theatre artists before, so my pitch for a new study was met with enthusiasm.
From 2011 to 2014, the Foundation collected data from theatre professionals—primarily Chicago-based artists—by having them complete an online survey about career goals and preferences, followed by the aptitude tests. Over one hundred and thirty participants ended up taking the full test battery. To qualify as a “professional,” for our purposes, a theatre artist was expected to be currently active in the field, as well as meet at least one other criterion, such as a degree in theatre arts or affiliation with a trade association/union. Acknowledging that many theatre artists wear multiple hats in the industry, a participating artist also had to self-identify his or her primary role in theatre. This was a forced choice and, for many, the most agonizing part of the testing. These categories were necessary so that we could not only see how theatre artists differ from the average person in a broader sense, but then also study how they differ from each other. Ultimately, we ended up with six groups: actors, directors, playwrights, designers, technicians (including stage managers, production managers, and technical directors), and then a sixth group which included all theatre professionals together in one sample.
Theatre and Divergent Thinking
One category of aptitudes that stands out for all theatre artists, regardless of primary role, were the abilities classified as divergent thinking. Briefly, divergent thinking refers to thought processes by which a person generates new ideas or considers many possible outcomes (as opposed to convergent thinking which follows logic and rules to arrive at a specific or correct solution). The Foundation administers two measures of divergent thinking, one called Ideaphoria (literally: flow of ideas) and another called Foresight.
Let’s start with Foresight, as it is the singular aptitude shared by all groups of theatre professionals we studied. Foresight is a name given to the talent for “seeing possibilities.” Those with an aptitude for Foresight may traditionally find outlets for it in entrepreneurial ventures, research and development, nonprofit work, and other areas that encourage a future-oriented approach to big picture questions and problems. High Foresight scorers are often viewed as dreamers, though they may think of themselves as visionaries, those people who are primarily concerned not with what’s happening today, but with what possibilities might exist or emerge down the road. Foresight is about creativity in concept.
Playwrights use Foresight in imagining characters, plot points, and themes. Directors use Foresight while exploring production and staging concepts in order to realize the world of the play, or in re-envisioning a classic text. Designers use Foresight in everything they do; theatre designers, like visual artists, have to take raw materials and imbue them with storytelling and expression. Actors use Foresight in testing various readings of a character, scene, or line, and in imagining backstory and situations outside the play that may inform their characters’ choices. And perhaps most interestingly are those in stage and production management, who also scored high in Foresight but for whom the ability likely factors in as less a creative ability per se, and more an ability to see a theatrical project as a long-term series of phases, problems, and competing deadlines.
Foresight tends to influence people in other ways, as well. High Foresight scorers are more likely to be motivated by long-term challenging goals; in some cases that may be a more nebulous goal with no distinct end date (like, for example, mastering one’s artistic craft). High Foresight scorers also tend toward a dogged persistence in their endeavors; once they have a goal in mind it can be difficult to knock them off that path. Sound familiar?
As mentioned, the other divergent thinking aptitude measured by Johnson O’Connor is called Ideaphoria, the aptitude for idea flow. Ideaphoria is useful for generating content and maintaining a fluency in communication; it’s commonly seen among journalists, schoolteachers, salespeople, and professionals in typical “creative” fields like marketing and public relations. All groups of theatre artists registered above average scores in Ideaphoria, but the statistical spike was most notable among directors and playwrights. While not as prominent in the sample as Foresight, Ideaphoria makes sense as an ability shared by directors and playwrights, as they are the artists most frequently in the position to have to communicate, or even sell, their ideas.
The theatre artist sample did not show significant scoring trends in numerical aptitude, clerical ability, inductive reasoning, or fine motor dexterity. There were, however, significant trends in:
Theatre artists as a group scored significantly above the Foundation mean in a type of convergent thinking called Analytical Reasoning, which is the ability to arrange ideas and concepts into a logical sequence or system. Often seen among editors, computer programmers, and urban planners, Analytical Reasoning was found to be highest among the playwrights we tested. Carlos Murillo, a playwright and the head of playwriting for The Theatre School at DePaul University, had this to say about his high score: “In a sense, at least in the way I work and teach, convergent thinking can’t really happen without divergent thinking,” he says. “When you make an ideaphoric mess it requires analytical [reasoning] to make heads or tails of it and shape it into something that has coherence.”
The aptitude for Structural Visualization (the ability to visualize objects and structures in three-dimensional space and rotate them mentally) is an aptitude we commonly associate with most types of engineering, physical sciences, and architecture. In this area, theatre designers as well as technicians scored high. Spatial aptitude seems like a more obvious fit for technical directors as well as scenic, costume, and lighting design, but sound designers in the group also fit the trend. In music, structural visualization tends to be higher among composers than among performing musicians; perhaps sound designers use the ability in building cues, planning how sound interacts with the action of the play, and in composing original music.
Designers and technicians scored similarly to each other in another way: they both scored high in Memory for Design (the ability to retain and recall two-dimensional images and patterns) and Observation (the ability to recognize small visual details and remember their positions). These abilities are generally useful in artistic and design fields, but also have applications in certain scientific and medical roles. Considering the amount of diagrams, plots, and plans that any designer or technician has to keep track of, these aptitudes surely make the job easier. (It will delight stage managers to know that among all of the groups, Observation was lowest among directors.) Additionally, designers were found to score high in a third visual aptitude: Color Discrimination, the ability to recognize very fine differences in color.
The Foundation measures three auditory abilities that are generally considered to be “music aptitudes,” and the theatre artists tended toward higher auditory scores across the board; however, actors scored higher than the other groups on the tests of Tonal Memory (tonal sequences and melody) as well as Rhythm Memory (timing patterns and cadence). Tonal Memory would find some clear uses in musical theatre or other plays with songs, while Rhythm Memory can also aid a performer in dance, movement and fight choreography, and comedic timing. Additionally, auditory aptitudes may help actors during the process of memorization or in picking up a new dialect.
Personality and Work Approach
In the Johnson O’Connor test battery there is one solitary personality test, which takes the form of a Word Association exercise. An examinee is prompted with a series of words, and is asked to respond with the first word that comes to mind. Responses on this test help to categorize examinees into two broad groups: those with an “Objective” work approach, and those with a “Subjective” work approach. Those with an Objective approach tend to favor generalist roles in which they find success working through others (e.g., managers, executives), whereas those with a Subjective approach tend to prefer operating as a specialist and finding success through individual effort (e.g., surgeons, artists). Group contact and variety tend to be extremely important to Objective personalities; expertise and autonomy tend to be the desires of the Subjective scorers. Most people who are tested by the Foundation fall into one of these two broad categories, although there is a segment of the population that scores “Intermediate,” or right on the border. Intermediate scorers may find aspects of both approaches to be relatable and not need to strongly honor one over the other.
Accepting that, we anticipated more Objective scores from the theatre artists, in particular among groups like directors and stage managers, who must always find success by coordinating the efforts of other people. In fact, directors did trend toward somewhat more Objective scores, but not to the extent anticipated. Theatre artists in general scored much more Subjective than expected.
“It affirms the idea that none of us can go it alone; teamwork is essential,”
Dorothy Milne, Artistic Director of Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre, has some insight: “My own aptitudes are sharply demarcated between what comes effortlessly to me and what is near impossible,” she remarked, citing a common experience with aptitude testing. “It affirms the idea that none of us can go it alone; teamwork is essential,” Milne said. “I bring my area of expertise to every theatrical enterprise—but I also count on mining each team member’s areas of specialty.” When considering the production of a play, each artist has a unique role to fill. So while collaboration is vital to the successful creation of a piece of theatre, perhaps it is a specific type of collaboration—not group-work as we often think of it, but rather the sum total of like-minded experts.
Objective theatre artists were less likely than Subjective scorers to report that they were currently satisfied by their theatre careers. That could suggest that theatre as an industry does not provide as many fulfilling opportunities for generalists. Or it could be that Objective theatre artists need to be very careful about what kinds of projects they seek out; for example, it would stand to reason that Objective artists may find devised, large ensemble, or community-centric work to be more gratifying than other modes of playmaking.
So what does all of this mean? For one thing, it tells us that artists who gravitate toward certain specialties are often driven by more than just creative ambition and personal interest. In many cases, they may be following a path that’s more biological than it is deliberate. This is not to say that we are predestined to be one kind of artist and only that.
Take my aptitude pattern, for example: I score much more like a designer than I do like a playwright. Does this influence how I write plays? Without a doubt. When I write, I have a strong sense of how the play will look in motion; I like to invite bold design choices, often including physical hindrances and complicated mechanics in my plays, but I always have an idea of how these elements might be realistically achieved. I also like to layer and weave dialogue in a quasi-spatial way, almost like composing a song. Since I’m wired to think more visually and spatially, that seeks outlets in my approach to writing, and my awareness of this is extremely beneficial. I don’t have the Ideaphoria aptitude like many other playwrights, so the pages aren’t just going to flow out of me like water from a open hydrant; I don’t have an aptitude for Analytical Reasoning either, so it behooves me to be open to structural feedback from directors and dramaturges.
In theatre, our roles are often fluid and we have room to explore and discover as well as magnificently fail. Especially in university drama programs across the country, young artists have opportunities to challenge their perceptions of themselves and their abilities as they search for their theatrical niche. Murillo remarked that what he learned from his test results has helped him in his thinking, not only about his own writing, but also about how he structures his playwriting courses. “I have incorporated [Ideaphoria and Foresight] into my teaching vocabulary,” he said, “[I encourage my students] to say yes to all ideas good and bad, let free associations flow, embrace the multiple possible directions any given idea might lead you.”
The mission of Johnson O’Connor is to unlock human potential. It’s a lofty mission that is, in various ways, shared by many practitioners of the theatre. What does it mean to be human? How can we better understand ourselves? Our partners? Our fellow citizens? Why do we behave the way we do? What are the difficulties we face? There are myriad factors at play that make up who we are as people, as artists, and as a community. This study provides empirical evidence that while we are all individuals, there is a certain sameness among those of us who make theatre, common curious energies that seek to find expression in this most limitless of art forms. What do we do with those energies—indeed, those gifts?
We see possibilities. We make worlds.
Scott T. Barsotti is a playwright and performer originally from Pittsburgh, PA. This post originally appeared in Howlround.