We Need Theatre to Exist, and Maybe Research Can Prove Its Necessity

Is theatre necessary? This is an age-old question. It is so old that perhaps, at times, we grow tired of asking it. We shouldn’t. In its answer lies the Holy Grail. Proving theatre necessary to the mechanical function of the human body might lead to a renaissance in its funding, attendance, and growth. Imagine a world in which theatre practitioners, when asked why theatre should be funded, could answer definitively, “Because it is necessary to human life.” Perhaps that world is not as far away as it seems.

For years, theatre administrators and practitioners have been making salient arguments as to why theatre is important, as opposed to necessary, with little result. It has been proven, empirically and statistically, that theatre is valuable in promoting student learning, driving economic growth, encouraging urban renewal, and fostering technological innovation. However, funding and audiences have continued to shrink.

An article in the Atlantic from January 2016 reported that, as of 2014, “only 4 percent of all arts funding in America ($1.2 billion) [came] from public sources” and “while funding [had] increased numerically it [had] not kept up with inflation, leading to a decrease of around 26 percent in public art grant money since 1995.” Moreover, a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report on arts participation concluded that, since 1982, there had been “a steady decline in the rates of adult attendance at … musical and non-musical plays.”

In this light, arguments for the importance of theatre seem to find little traction with audiences or funders. Many appear to consider theatre dispensable. So, perhaps it is time to reframe the discussion. Maybe arguments for the necessity of theatre might gain more ground. Thankfully, the NEA seems to be taking new strides in that direction.

In 2011, the organization “convened” an interagency task force to “encourage more and better research on how the arts can help people reach their full potential at all stages of life.” The task force is comprised of federal agencies (including the National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation, and the Department of Education) whose purpose is overseeing policy on healthcare, science, and education. In September 2012, they held a one-day workshop of researchers, scientists, and artists to determine whether current research methods were effectively measuring the impact of the arts on human health. The workshop was created in response to a growing body of evidence that arts therapies should play a larger role in traditional healthcare.

In theatre, this can be seen in programs like the following:

  • Timeslips, based in Milwaukee, which treats patients with Alzheimer’s through group storytelling.
  • Trauma Drama, developed by the Trauma Center in Boston, which uses theatre as a means of treating children who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • The research of Tony and Helga Noice at Elmhurst College in Chicago, which measures the physiological benefits of acting classes for older adults by using neuroimaging to capture brain function data.
  • The research of Blythe Corbett at Vanderbilt University, which indicates drama classes can be beneficial therapy for improving social skills in children with autism.

While the benefits of these programs have been closely documented, current research methods have not been able to precisely measure their effects.

Imagine a world in which theatre practitioners, when asked why theatre should be funded, could answer definitively, 'Because it is necessary to human life.' Perhaps that world is not as far away as it seems.

At the end of the NEA workshop, the participants reached consensus that new research methods would have to be developed in order to understand the exact way the arts impact the human body. As a result, the task force called for the funding of new and non-traditional research methods that could provide better empirical evidence. This call convinced the NEA to take action.

In December 2016, the NEA published the Guide to Community-Engaged Research in the Arts and Health, which offers a blueprint for partnerships between arts, science, research, and health institutions to develop new research techniques and includes a database of government grants that could provide funding. That same month, the NEA’s Office of Research & Analysis published a new research agenda for 2017–21 that features, among other things, a refined focus on developing new research techniques to measure arts impacts on both individual and societal health outcomes.

These steps are significant and represent a top-down approach to proving the beneficial impact of music, art, dance, and theatre on our physical health. They herald the possibility of significant advancement towards understanding how our basic survival is related to the arts. But will the results lead to understanding the necessity of theatre, or will they simply lead to more findings about how important the arts are as a palliative to human ailments? If empirical data can prove the arts positively impact biomechanical function, perhaps connections can be drawn to the indispensability of theatre as an art form. But is there another level of inquiry that can be engaged simultaneously, and in complement, with this scientific, top-down approach? If one has a tree whose branches are in ill health and whose leaves are withering, one’s first impulse might be to treat the leaves and branches. Another might be to look at its roots.

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In Aristotle’s Poetics, the philosopher attributes the existence of drama to the human need to mimic. Aristotle’s recognition of humanity’s mimetic instinct has since become the subject of ongoing scientific research and is generally accepted by scientists as an essential element of human composition. In 2017, researchers from the University of California, Riverside concluded that mimesis comes from an innate urge of the brain to “empathize and affiliate.” The study’s lead researcher, Professor Lawrence Rosenblum, was quoted in a Telegraph article saying: “Humans are incessant imitators. We intentionally imitate subtle aspects of each other’s mannerisms, postures and facial expressions. We also imitate each other’s speech patterns, including inflections, talking speed and speaking time.”

This lends scientific acknowledgement to what Shakespeare so insightfully intoned centuries before us: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.”

Could the Holy Grail of why theatre is necessary lie somewhere between the studies of why theatre cures and why mimesis is essential to physical health?

In his book The Necessity of Theater, recognized philosopher and classicist scholar Paul Woodruff defines theatre as “the art of watching and being watched”—theatre, derived from mimesis, is all around us in the daily practice of human life. Mimicking is ubiquitous in public behavior: judges mimic impartiality, politicians mimic genuineness, the bored feign interest while the interested feign boredom. We mimic confidence in our job interviews, bravery at the funeral of a loved one, happiness so as not to spoil a good party. Even on social media, we mimic being the perfect cook, having the perfect vacation, having the perfect family, simply so others will follow our posts.

a mime and man sit on a bench
"The Mime and His New Best Friend" by Thomas Hawk.

Woodruff’s definition echoes the observations made by the University of Edinburgh’s renowned sociological scholar Erving Goffman, who, in his groundbreaking book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, frames human interactions in dramaturgical terms and posits that humans use their mimetic instincts (empathizing and affiliating) to obtain the things required to sustain and enrich our psychological and physical well-being. From Goffman’s observations grew the paradigm of dramaturgical sociology, which argues that human behavior depends on time, place, and audience, just like theatre.

The recognition of our biological impulse to empathize and affiliate through mimesis (i.e. theatre) can also be found in the hard sciences. Growing bodies of scientific inquiry, such as the work of Matthew Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger at University of California, Los Angeles, indicate socialization actually changes the physical structure of the brain and that loneliness, isolation, and social rejection can produce negative physiological impacts on the human bio-mechanism, including high blood pressure, the erosion of memory and cognitive function, and the breakdown of cell tissue. Taking this into account, perhaps the reason we possess an instinct to empathize and affiliate through mimesis is to protect our biological mechanism from physical harms resulting from disassociation.

This line of reasoning can be taken further. Alzheimer’s, post-traumatic stress disorder, and autism share a common symptom of disassociation. Data affirms theatrical mimesis as a therapeutic treatment for these conditions. It is logical, then, to conclude that the conditions of these diseases arise from the lack of ability to empathize and affiliate through the mimetic impulse—in which case this ability could be deemed necessary to human biological function? Is it not then possible that theatre, which arose from the biological drive to mimic in order to protect our physical well-being, could be inextricably bound to biomechanical function? Could the Holy Grail of why theatre is necessary lie somewhere between the studies of why theatre cures and why mimesis is essential to physical health?

In its 2011 report, the NEA identified the number one reason people attend arts events: to socialize with friends. This fact is vital to drawing the link between mimesis, theatre, and socialization as a routine of biomechanical maintenance. Perhaps the root of why theatre exists lies in that very simple fact: it gives us a significant dose of the socialization our body requires to function.

While we fund new ways to measure how the arts can treat our physical ailments, might it not also be worthwhile to fund new lines of inquiry into what basic physiological need caused theatre to exist in the first place?

Why is theatre necessary? Perhaps the answer is only a research step away.

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Thank you for this thought-provoking article. As a researcher, I imagine a number of questions (lines of inquiry) that may be worth exploring more fully:"Necessary"? For whom? Those who perform? patrons? the public at large?In the performing arts, what do audience members gain beyond socialization? To what degree, if at all, do they benefit from the performers' performance? From watching mimics?What is the short-term and the long-term benefits? What are the biological v. the emotional effects?And, of course, are these benefits essential to a healthy life or superfluous?If essential, what are the aspects in our daily lives that mirror these effects and keep less-theatre-going individuals healthy?Thanks again.

"We Need Theatre to Exist" but you don't define "theatre" at any point in the article. When most people think of theater, they think of a dedicated building-- a stage, lights, scenery and seats for the audience. At the very least, they will think of a workshop. To me this is not theatre itself, it's a delivery method.

This primal need of which you write was possibly better served by the earliest form of theatre (before the Greeks) which was the open-air festivals. There were no formal scripts, everyone was free to join in and tell stories as they saw fit. And, of course, no admittance fee was charged.

To me, "theatre" is simply the telling and/or showing of a story. It can be a father reading out loud to his daughter or Meryl Streep acting in a film or the fine folks who produce the "Welcome to Night Vale" podcast. Maybe even someone telling a joke. It's all theater to me.

And yes-- it is necessary because we keep doing it. We just find different delivery methods over the years. From the amphitheater to YouTube-- I see no difference.

So the primal urge is there-- I see that without the science. But trying to tie this possible discovery to a specific delivery method? That is where it falls apart for me. I don't see revenues of brick and mortar theatres going up simply because some scientists say it's necessary.

Theatre can, contrary to a lot of opinions, be done at any time, in any place, in any form, by anyone.

And should be!

Unfortunately "simply the telling and/or showing of a story" is not a step up on no definition at all. You will always have gossip, but that doesn't mean it's worthy of federal subsidy.

Theater is natural. The Greeks took it a step beyond, and Aristotle (I believe) defined it—not that I ascribe outright credibility to his precepts, some of which, such as the unity of time, have been disproven in practice.

In the Western tradition, "drama" is characteristically divvied up between "tragedy" and "comedy" but those designations don't appear to be universal. In Chicago I wish we had more of one or the other, but most fare is simply telling a story.

(Almost by chance a "classics" company mounted a trilogy of Aeschylus-Sophocles-Euripides and the result was decidedly unique, and certainly beyond "telling a story" but "purgation of the soul" would look odd on a grant application, and our audience tends to prefer cheap spectacle anyhow.)

So we have circus gymnastics as theater, pyrotechnics as theater, and so on. You are right, the impulse toward acting out a story appears inherent. People enjoy it. Mugging the fool or mocking a stereotype may always be with us, when recounting some neighbor's or colleague's foible. As to broader societal applications, who can say, but biological ones?

As the author writes, maybe the answers are merely a funded study away. He is certainly right in that the old justifications ("it is good for the economy") have grown tired and tiresome. Under the changed political dynamics in the US everything's in flux, and old mission statements can be expected to fold. The future arts historian may determine how the dust settled.