Why Does Social-Specific Theatre Matter

A Glimpse into the Work from the Perspective of Social Sciences by Merve Mutafoğlu, M.A.

As a person who comes from a psychology background specializing in autobiographical memory and as someone who has simultaneously been involved in theatre, social-specific theatre was a great intersection point for me in terms of its bringing together personal stories with the unique aesthetics of theatre. This intersection was what struck me when I first saw New Bohemia (by Jana Svobodová, created in Cedar Rapids, Iowa with the local community in 2014). That was what I had been looking for: the chance to meet with individualities of real people without sacrificing theatrical aesthetics. The paradox of finding what is real in an unreal situation (the stage) creates a beautiful “moment of illusion” and becomes a transitional experience, maybe more than it does in any other theatrical situation.  It struck me that this was very similar to what a prominent British psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott (1971), was trying to communicate when he was talking about the suspension of reality during a variety of human activities. As this statement implies, my personal interest in social-specific theatre led me to think about its value from the perspective of social sciences. Besides the commonly acknowledged importance of working with “real people” from the perspective of post-dramatic theatre, I believe that the transforming power of doing social-specific theatre on psychological and sociological levels is worth mentioning.

Social-specific theatre seems to have many psychological benefits for those who take part in the creative process. I believe “extraordinary listening” (Bogart & Landau, 2005; or “extreme listening” in Jana’s words, which is one of the major working principles of her methodology) is one of the reasons for that. Regardless of where it occurs, either in the dyads during Jana’s interview exercise or between the audience and the performer, the listener gets a chance to empathize with the storyteller seeing life from their perspective. Meanwhile, the storyteller gets the chance to be heard, which is an invaluable opportunity especially for the members of marginalized groups. As most of us know very well, storytelling has a healing and integrative power. Being able to tell stories of our lives gives us the chance to make sense out of what we have gone through. It is also an invaluable part of the psychological healing process, because in this way we are able to create a coherent picture of what we have experienced (Schafer, 1981), therefore our sense of who we are is constructed, maintained, and reinforced (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). Talking about these experiences gives us a sense of mastery over what has happened to us, a sense of control over these experiences by working through them. Sharing thoughts and emotions about our experiences with another person improves our psychological well-being (Pennebaker et al., 1988), and creates a strong bond between us and our listener (Aron et al., 1997). An interesting finding in psychology research shows that telling a story to a person who pays close attention to it increases the likelihood of its being remembered by the storyteller, compared to telling it to a distracted audience (Pasupathi & Rich, 2005). It points to the possibility that we might be creating our life narratives relying more on the stories that seem to be worthy of others’ attention, in the same way we create our identities based on how we are perceived by others (a phenomenon known as “looking-glass self”; Cooley, 1983). In this sense, “extreme listening” seems to have a huge influence on the storyteller in many ways.

Besides this positive influence on the storyteller, listening to others’ personal stories also has a transforming effect on the listener. For this reason, it is crucial to take a look at the effects of social-specific theatre also from the perspective of the audience. By giving a voice to those who did not have the chance to tell their stories to large crowds before, we introduce the possibility of “contact” among various groups, which has the great power of breaking stereotypes and alleviating prejudice (Allport, 1954). Providing a chance of contact might be more relevant to our current social reality than ever, since stigmatizing certain ethnocultural groups has been one of the longstanding problems of human societies and has escalated during the coronavirus outbreak. While stigmatization and stereotyping are persistent and widespread, their solutions do not always require a major reorganization of society. The starting point might be as simple as to get individuals to see the other’s individual uniqueness. When there are people telling their own stories on stage, it is a unique moment of encounter, both for the performers and the audience. At that moment, theatre is composed of members of various social groups having the chance to be presented with unique, real stories. Watching a documentary theatre piece, the audience is confronted with the immense reality of the people they may never have had the chance to meet before (but about whom they may still harbour negative stereotypes in the abstract). As presented in this handbook, Jana has worked with members of various groups who were not trained as performers. I believe the result of the transformative process of working with “real people” leads to a unique communicative channel. These people’s telling their own stories on stage paves the way for an invaluable contact among different agents of theatrical creation, which I believe matters a lot on a societal level. 

Another contribution of social-specific theatre is that these practices bring different social groups together not only in the context of the contact between audience and performer, but also in terms of the contact among various communities that take part in the creation. The existence of a superordinate identity that different groups share improves the relationship among them (Dovidio et al., 2000). Educational and creational practices in social-specific theatre is the perfect basis for this kind of interaction. Co-creating a performance creates a superordinate identity (“the artistic team of the performance X”). I think Jana’s site- and social-specific work At 11:20, I’ll Be Leaving You, which took place in a refugee camp in northern Bohemia, is the perfect example for creation of a superordinate identity. The creation of this performance involved refugees coming from different countries, as well as Czech artists. As vividly seen in Koutecky’s documentary A Beautiful Life I Will Have, collaboration on such a project created a closer bond among the residents of the camp, and also between them and the visiting artists. I think Jana’s and her artistic team’s approach in this context, as in their work with all other social-specific groups, is crucial in the creation of this kind of collaborative atmosphere. As seen in earlier chapters, respect for autonomy and authenticity of people who were not trained as performers is the most important starting point in social-specific work and the major ethical responsibility of the artist. In every performance presented in this handbook, Jana and her fellow artists try to create a common ground where all members of the team can experience and experiment together, rather than setting the rules themselves with a modernist attitude. They try to become a part of the given context and give all the time it takes to build an environment based on trust, always considering the fragility of the stories they are trusted with. 

It is remarkable how much emphasis Jana’s methodology puts on the importance of the ultimate awareness of one’s internal state and surroundings during social-specific work. In this way, the Obstacle Method and exercises Jana uses in her workshops highlight the experience of being here and now, which is the primary focus of mindfulness practices. Since ancient times, mindfulness practices have been a major tool for humans to overcome the difficulties of existence and for increased well-being. These practices have been acknowledged by clinical psychologists and are incorporated into their practices (Goldberg et al., 2018; Kang & Wittingham, 2010). Scientific evidence suggests that mindfulness practices are useful in the treatment of various problems ranging from addiction to obesity to depression (Keng et al., 2011; Wielgosz et al., 2019). In this sense, it can be said that the activities Jana uses lead to a general increase in performers’ awareness of spontaneous reality, resulting in an improvement in their psychological well-being. 

Last but not least, I find it extremely important that Jana’s method leading to creation starts with playing. Playing games is the main starting point of her work with untrained performers. The first thing she tries to do is to create an environment of trust in which members of the artistic team are able to discover things together via playing. The necessity of a reliable and secure environment (which Winnicott calls a “holding environment”, like a mother holding her baby just right) to be able to develop a capacity to play and the relationship between playing and creativity are two important points of Winnicott’s (1971) theory. According to him, playing and playfulness are the major components of healthy psychological functioning. He even sees psychopathology as an inhibition of playing and argues that the main duty of a therapist is to invite the client to play (literally with children, metaphorically with adults) in psychotherapy. He thinks that playing is certainly not limited to childhood, even though it emerges during this period. It can take different forms in adulthood such as humour and creativity, but it is always there if things have gone well for the individual and forms the basis of authenticity, which he calls “true self”. In that sense, Jana’s open invitation to play and create based on this playing activity can be actually seen as an invitation to find one’s own voice / authenticity / true self, therefore, to be psychologically healthy. 

It is needless to say that we have been going through extremely challenging times. Navigating through life has been more difficult than ever with the onset of a pandemic. Covid-19 has given us a sense of urgency. Even though our initial focus has been on the physical survival of ourselves and our loved ones, time has shown us that we should give a similar importance to our psychological survival. We have learned painfully how dependent we are on social support systems and our society in general. Even though involvement in any kind of creation improves our wellbeing, I believe tools of social-specific theatre carry a special importance in terms of giving us the chance to connect with ourselves and others in a deeper way. We always have needed and always will need people and their stories in our lives. To talk, to listen, to touch, to hug, to lean on, to fight, to evolve, and to know ourselves better. I believe this handbook stands as a unique opportunity in terms of not only being an invaluable educational tool regarding how to involve in social-specific theatre, but also providing us with the specific means to be closer to people, especially with those who speak for themselves. 

Merve Mutafoğlu, M.A.

Merve Mutafoğlu is a psychologist and performing arts coordinator based in Istanbul, Turkey. She completed her B.A. in Psychology and M.A. in Psychological Sciences at Boğaziçi University, during which she specialized in autobiographical memory and its relation to culture, self, gender identity, language and sightedness. She is currently pursuing a second master’s degree in Clinical Psychology at Yeditepe University and working on a project focusing on neuropsychological testing. She is also involved in contemporary and social-specific theatre and has worked in various theatre companies, festivals and cultural institutes. She has been collaborating with the Archa Theatre since 2016 on various projects. 


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