Need an emotional adventure? Go to the theatre

Shadow puppeteers, dramatherapists and researchers reveal how watching live performances can make you more creative, more connected to others and more human

Audience clapping
Pic: Clive Andrews

While many people enjoy going to the theatre on a night out, few are aware of how instrumental it is to our emotional and cognitive wellbeing. Here, five experts explain why this particular art form can have such a profound impact on our imagination, behaviour, emotions and more.

Theatre creates community and combats loneliness

“There is a tribal element to performance that has been around as long as humankind,” says Ben Walmsley, Director of the Centre for Cultural Value and Professor of Cultural Engagement at the University of Leeds. “Performance binds people together and offers common narratives and ways of seeing the word in a collective way that can help to combat loneliness.”

A 2021 UK HEartS study found that 82 percent of participants felt more socially connected when engaging in the arts, including watching a live theatre performance. While this research was on adults, community theatre performances can benefit everyone.

“We are all in the same space, watching the same thing, feeling the same story – these moments of connecting with other humans on an emotional level can allow us to feel connected to the world,” say Dramatherapists Nikki Disney and Sarah Bradley.

Theatre increases empathy and makes us kinder

A 2021 study found that theatre plays a role beyond basic entertainment, with audiences displaying more empathy for groups depicted in theatre productions they watched. Additionally, audiences donated more money to charities after seeing plays, whether or not the charities were related to the groups in the performance.

“As members of the audience, we go into a room and watch people’s lives. We feel for them and participate in their emotional adventures to the extent that we can feel moved and share some of the characters’ emotions – even though we know it’s all a performance. Isn’t this the foundation of empathy?” says Dramatherapist and Shadow Puppeteer Theo Kostidakis.

Theatre fosters creativity and originality

The effects of theatre on creativity are well-documented, including in a 2020 University of Michigan study showing that improvisation encourages participants to think outside the box. But that kind of spontaneity can rub off on audiences too.

“Going to the theatre reminds us that there are endless possibilities of how to be,” says Dramatherapist Abigail Nelson. “The characters on stage might show us how to feel pain, how to be brave, how to follow our dreams, how to conquer our fears. They don’t do this literally, but symbolically, speaking directly to our subconscious through the language of metaphor about what it means to be human.”

Theatre encourages escapism

“’Bread and circuses’ (from the Latin, panem et circenses), a phrase dating back to the time of Roman theatre, refers to superficial appeasement and the distraction of society from corruption (often governmental),” says Nelson. “Although originating from a cynical context from the satirical Roman poet Juvenal, this concept still holds truth that sometimes, society needs a bit of distraction from the pain and suffering in the world.”

Indeed, while conducting his research on why people go to the theatre, Walmsley found that one of the key drivers for going to the theatre was escapism, with one respondent saying that “[Theatre is] all about leaving your existence at the door and engaging in a new, novel experience”. The ability for people to step outside of their own existence and become immersed in another makes theatre appealing to audiences and helpful in dealing with life’s everyday stressors.

Theatre helps us process our emotions

Watching a situation onstage allows us to process emotions without the added burden of being at the centre of it. This can often allow us to see things differently. “When we are watching a play we are processing issues – emotionally and cognitively – that are possibly important to our lives,” says Kostidakis.

“By taking some distance in this way, we are more able to have deep and meaningful explorations because we are overcoming the possible defences, blind spots, and biases that would possibly be in the way of us thinking clearly otherwise,” adds Kostidakis.

In fact, some people find this distance so useful, they may benefit from dramatherapy. “Stories, myths, play, art-making, puppetry, masks, and role-play are examples of the range of artistic interventions a dramatherapist may employ,” explains Nelson. “The use of metaphor and projection allows for the participant to express themself with an added distance and space to tolerate and explore difficult emotions and experiences.”

Read the rest of ‘The show must go on’, ELL’s three-day series on local theatre, here.

Leave a Reply