Theatre, Performance and Cognition: Languages, Bodies and Ecologies

Theatre, Performance and Cognition: Languages, Bodies and Ecologies. Edited by Rhonda Blair and Amy Cook. London: Bloomsbury, 2016; Pp. 243+xii.

Rhonda Blair and Amy Cook’s co-edited volume Theatre, Performance and Cognition: Languages, Bodies and Ecologies advances the cross-disciplinary discourse inspired by the cognitive turn by interrogating the ways practitioners and audiences make meaning through our varied encounters with theatre. Buoyed by their individual groundbreaking scholarship in the field, the editors curate a complex collection of American and international perspectives that how “the implications of embodied, embedded, enacted and extended minds” impact engagement with a variety of performing arts (3). Their volume invigorates the intersection of theatre and cognition with incisive case studies that partner physiological and psychological research to expand our awareness of how we generate understanding of performance.

Blair and Cook argue that our embodied experiences shape the meanings we draw from theatrical encounters, and they structure their book to explore the three cognitive relationships evoked by their subtitle: interpretation of the text, communication through action, and synergy of performance and environment. This structure subtly mirrors a production process and moves organically from script analysis through the rehearsal process to engaged performance, exposing cognitive revelations with each progression. The editors provide a salient overview of the current landscape of cognitive studies, and they succinctly introduce each section to frame their selected essays. Blair and Cook augment their cross-disciplinary emphasis by concluding each section with a response from a preeminent cognitive scholar. Culminating in an inventive After Words section, this invitingly conversational volume offers practitioners and scholars fresh perspectives on how theatre and performance create meaning on the page and on the stage.

Blair and Cook’s first section explores the way language creates and sustains realities onstage by applying cognitive linguistics and metaphor theory to dramatic texts. Barbara Dancygier investigates how the materiality embedded within the script influences reception. She outlines what she calls the “dramatic anchors” in Julius Caesar and Richard II that trigger deeper meanings and layered connections throughout each play, directly citing Caesar’s mantle and Richard’s mirror as material elements that activate understanding (32). Laura Seymour’s essay also draws from Julius Caesar, focusing on the behaviors of the conspirators prior to the assassination. Seymour studies the act of kneeling and other bodily-situated references to address how these seemingly acquiescent actions engender metaphorical associations in readers and audiences. Vera Tobin moves away from specific dramatic texts to inspect the inherently theatrical elements of irony. She borrows from conceptual blending theory to illustrate how comprehending irony requires the activation of multiple mental spaces derived from “how we move around within a particular viewpoint configuration” (66). Cognitive linguist Mark Turner responds to this section by praising its interdisciplinary endeavors and outlining methodologies that will bolster future partnerships between cognition and performance.

The second section examines the ways the enacted body creates and sustains meaning through a wide variety of artistic engagement, partnering performance strategies with neuroscientific research to investigate the power of perception. Neal Utterback’s essay proposes a theatre training model, for instance, that draws from the psychological and physiological rigors of Olympic competition to create an actor-athlete regimen. To prepare his student actors for sustained engagement in their performances, Utterback developed a process that uses “power posing combined with mental imagery and positive self-talk” to connect the benefits of cognitive perception to embodied results (80). Dance scholar Warburton surveys ArtsCross, an international collaborative event, and zooms in on the psychophysical experiences enacted during the rehearsal process. He compares the physical and mental output utilized when marking versus dancing full-out and concludes that the compression and compartmentalization of marking “reduces the multi-layered cognitive load used when learning choreography” (102). Christopher Jackman furthers the discussion of memory and suggests “an enactive model of cognition” that attempts to avoid the hurdles of self-consciousness in performance (108). Jackman’s mindful approach to training at times feels overcrowded, but his goal to build and maintain the skills of acting through neuroscientific methods is intriguing. Cognitive psychologist Catherine J. Stevens responds to this section by citing recent interdisciplinary studies that seek to deepen understanding of the embodied experiences explored by these essays, specifically attuned to dance and movement.

The final section of Blair and Cook’s ambitious book considers how cognition evolves dynamically through engagement with the environment, stressing the importance of accounting for spatiotemporal realities when assessing potential meanings of a given event. Evelyn Tribble’s essay provides a broad overview of these relationships, using television cooking shows, the English Restoration theatre system, and copious cross-disciplinary sources to support her argument. Tribble contends that “distributed cognition” makes possible the “overwhelming cognitive load” required to perform, and that structures external to the body – a theatre, a school, or a familiar kitchen set-up – play a crucial role in understanding how to navigate a given situation (134). Similarly, Sarah McCarroll parallels the cultural signification of fashion with historical stage performances to argue that conscious “body images” and pre-cognitive “body schemas” coalesce to form what she calls the “body map” (144). Her fascinating study of the costume choices in J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton illustrates how clothing combines with the environment to both enable and restrict embodied action. Shifting modalities, Matt Hayler introduces a new approach to digital technologies and asks readers to actively engage online with his chosen examples. He argues that such engagement results in “reflexive relationships” that impart circular cognitive meaning by continually informing the experience through feedback loops (162). Philosopher Shaun Gallagher responds to this section by applying his “prenoetic” theory of human cognition to each essay, demonstrating the subconscious ways the body interacts with environments, clothing, and technology to make meaning (175).

Blair and Cook further their cross-disciplinary endeavor by crafting a unique After Words section that provides deeper insights into the existing scholarship undergirding the emerging field. Through personal essays and interviews with a wide range of theatre practitioners, Blair and Cook reveal how pervasive cognitive studies has become to scholars and creators alike. Their conversation with Deb Margolis is particularly illuminating as the performing artist, teacher, and playwright discusses her own understanding of the important connection between the physical and cognitive limitations of the body.

In a time when gathering for live performance is no longer an option due to pandemic, Theatre, Performance and Cognition finds a way to ingeniously engage with elements of the embodied experience that are simultaneously obvious and revelatory, and its essays speak to all levels of cognitive curiosities. What is more, the editors curate an excellent balance of dense but illuminating neuroscientific data and complimentary theatre-making examples. Blair and Cook’s thoughtful commentary throughout this book provides theorists and practitioners alike with inventive methods to approach current work and to create new scholarship, cognizant of the dynamic processes within our bodies that shape our understanding. Interest in cognitive/theatrical scholarship shows no signs of waning, and this volume further demonstrates the value of addressing complex aspects of performance with interdisciplinary lenses.

Collin Vorbeck
Texas Tech University

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 32, Number 2 (Spring 2020)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2020 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center