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  • nathanjohnpaul

Theatre as Healer (Part 1)

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

Eugenio Barba was the founder of the Odin Teatret, a Norwegian theatre company comprised of immigrants rejected by the National Theatre School. They became a group of critical thinking artists that formulated new ideas and practices within the context of theatre process and performance by distilling theatre to its core in order to reclaim original intention. Eugenio states,

"It is as though theatre has lost its effigy, as though the erosion and the frenzy of time, or the same human beings, had mutilated its face. It no longer has a profile. Offerings are made to this disfigured theatre and it is adorned with theories and significances. But the only features that can restore its life and wholeness stem from that part of ourselves in which a stammering voice sings and bleeds: our vulnerable identity of wolf and child."

I agree with Barba in a less dramatic fashion, recognizing the lack of clarity within a modern performance profile, while also desiring to acknowledge the imprints and photographs of what once was. The Greeks highly recognized theatre as the face of myth, legend and religion. Shakespeare promoted fantastical escapism, Moliere held a mirror in front of ideas concerning human value and Brecht provided commentary on socio economic and political systems. To suggest that said visages have been mutilated to the point of being entirely unrecognizable would be to ignore the impact our theatrical timeline has with regards to societal development. I see theatre's faces living on in a shadowed format, and would like to add to the profile a characteristic that has been either ignored, overlooked, or largely neglected, but one I believe has been a part of performance from the beginning -theatre as healer.

Barba points in the direction of theatre’s healing components.

"We can reach those who are not yet born by contagion...the performance is the sting of a scorpion, which makes them dance. This dancing does not come to an end on leaving the theatre. The toxic secretion penetrates their physical, mental and intellectual metabolism and becomes memory. This memory constitutes the unimaginable and unprogrammable message that is handed down to those who are not yet born."

The nature of the transmissibility of ideas and emotions taking place amidst theatrical expression is widely accepted, but the implication is that contagion in this context is merely progressing forward. Artistic revolutions and enlightenments have always preceded major political, social and intellectual shifts, making obvious art’s capability of reaching "those who are not yet born". The quote above references a possibility of being stung by a theatrical scorpion (the experience), leaving behind a lingering toxin (effects existing from that moment forward) with so large an impact it is categorized in the brain as unforgettable, resulting in thought patterns and actions that otherwise may not have had the impetus necessary to have been forged and prompted. This gives the role of live performance a vivid face and a lot of power. I’m grateful to Barba for considering our mutual passions within the context of how it effects our psychology and person.

What I’m curious to investigate is the direction of theatre’s impact on our human timeline, suggesting the secretion Barba defined could have been largely undestimated by not considering the ability of said contagion to effect history as well as the future. I submit a possibility that this particular sting’s aftermath has the capacity to overrule current memory, address the past, and write new programs that are meant to replace incomplete (unwhole) thought patterns in need of healing. Can the impact of live performance change our past?

Part two is coming soon.

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