Skip to main content
SearchLogin or Signup

To Be and Not to Be: The Self and the Other, Twin Elements in the Affective Ecology of Embodying a Character (With Apologies to William Shakespeare)

Published onMay 19, 2021
To Be and Not to Be: The Self and the Other, Twin Elements in the Affective Ecology of Embodying a Character (With Apologies to William Shakespeare)


What does it mean to ‘become’ someone else? In the context of theatrical performance it means creating and becoming a character, but what is the significance of this transformation? For one amateur actor, “it was a bit of a buzz […] the freedom to be someone other than who you are.” (Respondent K) Yet for the actor their everyday self is also present, and aware of this fact, while engaging with the imaginary worlds of the stage. Based on the experiences of non-trained practitioners in amateur theatre, and drawing particularly on the work of Giuseppe Barbiero (2018) and Thomas Schwinn (2007), this paper focuses on the intimate affective ecology of ‘becoming’ someone else on the stage.

Keywords: Ecology, affective ecology, affect, emotion, empathy, attention, mindfulness, theatre, mimesis, character, acting, enactment, body, self, awareness.

What does it mean to ‘become’ someone else? In the context of theatrical performance, it means creating and ‘becoming’ a character, and breathing life into an abstract idea. This paper explores a link between the process of presenting an entity that is not the everyday self – in ordinary theatrical terms, ‘becoming’ a character – and the philosophy of affective ecology, developed by Giuseppe Barbiero. Discussion of the experience of ‘becoming’ a character is based on material drawn from interviews with 30 actors in amateur theatre. Using a selected group of responses from these amateur theatre practitioners, this paper examines the awareness that those respondents have of the emotional and psychological effect that creating an ‘other’ entity – a character – has had upon them. It then discusses this experience in relation to affective ecology, naturalist intelligence and the mimetic instinct.

The choice of affective ecology has been made because of its relationship to naturalist intelligence and the focus of both these theories on the affective aspects of human relationships to the natural world, and thus to other human beings. I was searching for a theory that could cover the existence of the deep-seated compulsion in human beings to copy other people, or entities, and through this copying ‘become’ (that is, enact) a character. The question I was asking myself was: what is it in the human psyche that makes people want to make these replicas? Michael Taussig’s work unpicks the process of copying, and examines the results of this, but it seemed to me that affective ecology, with its basis in the naturalist intelligence was exploring an intense intrinsic desire for connection. At heart the choice to use affective ecology to theorise that the experience of acting, as described by practitioners in amateur theatre, was a “gestalt” decision (see Schwinn 2007). I made this choice because, as the experience of those practitioners was a deeply personal one, I thought it was correct to act on my ‘feeling’ that affective ecology was an appropriate theory with which to frame this discussion.

Barbiero writes that affective ecology is “a complementary tool to cognitive ecology that conveys knowledge via rational reasoning”, for affective ecology makes “new channels of comprehension [… and] wise use of the affective and emotional competences of people” (2011 p.13). The interviews with a range of amateur theatre practitioners reveal that for many the experience of ‘becoming’ a character is deeply emotional as it provides “freedom to be someone other than who you are,” (Respondent A) and gives performers the opportunity “to take yourself, literally out of yourself” (Respondent B). It was the strength and prevalence of these comments about an emotional attention and awareness of the nature of the transformed self that affirmed the selection of affective ecology as a lens through which to examine the experience of amateur theatre practitioners.

The ability to discern relationships between the self and the other, human or not, is a function of the affective capability of human beings. This can occur in an appreciation of nature, creating an emotional bond between one’s self and aspects of the natural world. This paper theorises a connection between this innate ability to respond emotionally to the world, and, through the process of being both the self, and at the same time someone other than the self – a process driven by what Michael Taussig terms “the mimetic faculty” (1993, p. xv), the ability to create an emotional connection to an imagined entity, that is, a character.


Affective ecology is a “branch of ecology concerned with emotional relationships between human beings and the rest of the living world” (my emphasis), (Barbiero 2011 p. 12). Barbiero proposes that human beings are made aware of their connection to the natural world through their emotional responses to it, writing that;

our feeling of a deep connection to Nature […] is probably an instinct and it is present in all human cultures, including those more technologically advanced, where a scientific understanding of the planet’s living nature has been developing to an ever more advanced level (The Gaia Hypothesis). (Barbiero 2011 p.11)

The concept of affective ecology is based on Howard Gardner’s (1999) theory of multiple human intelligences, Multiple Intelligence Theory. This work is cited in Barbiero (2011), who draws in particular on Gardner’s concept of ‘naturalist intelligence’:

An individual with a high degree of naturalist intelligence is keenly aware of how to distinguish from one another the diverse, plants, animals, mountains, and cloud configurations in her ecological niche (Gardner 1999 as cited in Barbiero 2011)

A deep connection to nature is fuelled by what Barbiero terms the “Biophilia Hypothesis”. Biophilia, which literally means the love of life, is a concept developed by Edward O. Wilson, (2002 p.134). Quoting Wilson, Barbiero notes that this idea refers to:

the basic instinct that guides the evolution and maturation of a well-tuned relationship with the living world [for], our innate tendency to focus upon life and life-like forms […] in some instances, [allows us] to affiliate with them emotionally (Wilson 2002, p.134)

Again quoting Wilson (1993), Barbiero writes that biophilia is;

not comprised of a single instinct. Like all complex behaviours that characterise the human species, biophilia is characterised by a set of learning rules. The sentiments and behaviours that emerge from these learning rules traverse a wide spectrum of different and at times contradictory emotions: from attraction to aversion, from a sense of peace to one of aversion and anxiety (Wilson 1993, cited in Barbiero 2011).

Thus is it not easy to define this human instinct with precision. Barbiero uses the word “attentional” to describe responding and learning emotionally through our contact with nature. This response is also available through theatre and acting, which allows a direct access to emotions. It is the gestalt appreciation of events though emotion which aligns the activity of theatre with Gardner’s notion of naturalist intelligence. Intuitive understanding of abstract ideas like ‘nature’ or ‘performance’ depends to a large extent on emotional knowledge. Thomas Schwinn suggests that the main advantage of affective and emotional knowledge is that it can be obtained through a “gestalt” moment of understanding (2007). These non-cognitive gestalt moments, writes Schwinn, contribute to a deeply informed understanding of the world, for they produce a “simultaneous form of construction of the world”. In a gestalt state, “the details are grasped, not in a differentiated way one after another, but simultaneously and figuratively […] Thanks to their simultaneous character emotions permit a rapid grasp of a situation, whereas a cognitive assessment would take longer” (2007, p.307).

There is a similarity between Biophilia and the experience of theatre. Biophilia is rooted in the connectedness to the natural world, which includes other human beings. Similarly, the tendency to ‘become’ an ‘other’, also a basic instinct in human nature, is rooted in a connectedness; in this case the connectedness is to an alterity (person, animal or even inanimate object) which can be reproduced by the living performer as in the form of a character. Actors are aware that creating a character may take them into hidden aspects of their psyche for, as Respondent A explains, acting is “the opportunity to take risks with what you were doing and who you were.” The dual nature of performance that creates the venture into otherness gives performers the opportunity to be more open to themselves, to who they are, and to form connections with others. I argue that such a connectedness is part of the affiliation to the natural world that Barbiero discusses.

For Barbiero, affective ecology develops from an interaction across a gap, the gap between individual human beings, and beyond this to the whole of nature. Quoting Ursula Goodenough (1998, p.127), Barbiero writes that:

[t]he root of altruism and of responsibility, in the literal sense of the term to marry (sponsum) things (res), has its origin in “our capacity to experience empathy with other creatures and respond to their concerns as our own.” (Goodenough) The sentiment ‘to affiliate with’ seems, from this perspective, like a particular manifestation of empathy, here intended as the capacity to feel, to understand and to share thoughts and emotions with another” (my emphases) (Barbiero 2011 p.14)

Thus writes Barbiero, affective ecology is:

‘affective’ because the capacity of the human species to bond with is only in part genetically programmed, and instead depends to a large degree upon the development of psychological potentials that themselves depend more upon cultural than genetic contexts (Bell, Richerson & McElreath 2009); and ‘ecology’ because ecology is the science of phylogenetically determined connections. 1 (Barbiero, 2011 p.12)

This cultural learning can include the learning derived from Gardner’s notion of naturalist intelligence. Naturalist intelligence, which gives humans the ability to relate and distinguish beyond the self, is thus able to encompass that which is not the everyday ‘I’ and which presents as the ‘being’ of performance characters. Therefore, theatrical embodiment and the response of affective ecology potentially have some common ground.

Theatre, a multi-textural activity covering spoken/sung verbal text as well as scenography, costume, music and movement, including dance, is a human activity which intrinsically allows complex instantaneous access to the intellectual and emotional understanding of complex situations and ideas. Barbiero writes that we are discovering that the natural world affects us “on a deep psychological level, activating our involuntary attention [i.e. our] (fascination) and favouring the restoration of our attentional capacity” (p.11) Affective ecology is, he writes, the way to: “consider emotive and affective connections between human beings and the rest of the living world” (p.11). It can also be suggested that this ecology opens an inquiry into the boundaries between concrete and abstract. Through an examination of a possible origin of the desire for connectedness, i.e. naturalist intelligence, and of a process of its application to the wider world, i.e. affective ecology, this paper aims to present the way in which theatre, through its ability to take actors into hidden aspects of their psyche, and activate an audience’s involuntary attention, can offer similar perspectives to those of affective ecology.


The research material presented in this paper is drawn from a study of the value of amateur theatre to those people involved in this activity. Amateur theatre was chosen because it is a popular activity in Aotearoa/New Zealand. The New Zealand Theatre Federation (now known as Theatre New Zealand) website listed nearly 100 groups who were members of the body and 59 individual theatre societies. If the average society or group has fifty members, then around 5000 people are actively involved in producing theatre, as a hobby, throughout New Zealand.

The 36 interviewees were drawn from six amateur societies. All were provided with a written outline of the project and were asked to sign a consent form for the interview, and for that interview to be recorded on tape. They were all in agreement with these conditions. Participants were also asked to indicate whether or not they wished to remain anonymous. While no interviewee so elected, and though these conversations are not confidential, the decision has been made to refer to interviewees by code letter only, except in the case of two respondents who hold, or have held, an official position with the Theatre New Zealand.

The research used the method of semi-structured interviews which were recorded over a four-month period. Participants were asked about the length of their involvement, the aspect of theatre they participated in, if their involvement enhanced their lives (and if so, how), their experience of acting or directing or other activities, and whether or not they would recommend amateur theatre to other people (and if so, why). Only two of the unnamed respondents had formal or theoretical training in performance. The answers to initial questions led to other questions, and interviewees were encouraged to delve deeply into their personal experience of what theatre did for them.

Thirty of the 36 people interviewed for this project had acting experience, and it is the material from the section of the study that focused on the experience of stepping outside oneself and becoming a character, which is being considered in this paper.


Actors in this study were asked, “what does acting do for your life?” While the responses from the interviewees listed a range of gains including friendship, and having a valuable leisure activity, the response that is being discussed in this paper is the one articulated by Respondent C, who says that people acting on stage are,

learning about the freedom to be […] other than themselves, so that they are now a character, they don't have be [themselves] any more, they can be this new person and this new person isn't going to be judged. And I think that gives them security and freedom.

A key to this process of creating a character is the ability to discern that there is a relationship between the self and the ‘other’ which is the character. This is the process that Respondent C describes. This ability to become someone else, the new person of the character, uses the affective capability of people. This capability can be linked to the naturalist intelligence, and this is the intelligence that Barbiero (2011) makes the basis of affective ecology.

Although the practitioners of amateur theatre may not discuss this process in such theoretical terms they nevertheless have a clear awareness of it as Respondent D illustrates; “you know […] the minute you step out of the wings and onto the stage you’re not yourself, you’re somebody else, you’re in a completely different setting and you’ve got to relay that to everybody.” This requires a conscious attention, and like fascination with the natural world, this alternative reality is able to affect the actor on a deep psychological level. This is because theatre offers more than one view of an event making it, as Bruce Wilshire writes, “both playful and serious, and […] while in one sense it is deceitful, in another it can be truthful” (1982, p.3).

It has been theorised that the ability to copy and create representations, which is the core component of acting, began with rituals designed to achieve success in hunting (Turner 1982, 1990; Schechner 1985, 1990). It may well have been that the first ‘characters’ created by humans were the animals they hunted. Augusto Boal, drawing on this idea of characterisation in ritual, links the development of theatre to human awareness of the natural world. The first step is the development of self-awareness:

When a man hunts a bison, he sees himself in the act of hunting; […] he has invented theatre: he has seen himself in the act of seeing (Boal 2000, p.14)

The ability to see “in the act of seeing” gives a perspective to what were previously innate actions – the acts of obtaining food. This awareness is, suggests Boal, a strictly human ability which allows people to reflect on their actions and to repeat them in a different context. Thus the reproduced action, the facsimile of the everyday event becomes a theatrical performance. It is in this context of conscious reproduction and reflection that “theatre is a vocation for all human beings: it is the true nature of humanity” (Boal 2000, p.14).

Thus, while the link between theatre and the natural world may no longer be as obvious as Boal suggests it is in early performance, the intrinsic impulse to copy and create continues to employ the naturalist intelligence. Gardner has observed that naturalist intelligence is also applied outside the natural world. Even while it provides the ability to discriminate, it also creates the ability to bond with the natural world and thus is the intelligence that most directly relates to that beyond the self. It is possible that the instinct to double, to make a copy, is triggered by a form of emotional response similar to the intelligence which provides a positive relationship to the natural world, thereby making theatre the true nature of humanity, because it employs the naturalist intelligence in order to make a copy of what was previously an unobserved action. In addition, such a connection as that between food gathering and performance links people directly to the natural world.

Writing of the deep-seated desire that human beings have to ‘become someone else’, Taussig (1993) suggests that the ability to imitate – the mimetic faculty – enables people to step outside their immediate experience (p.255) into other realities. Bruce Wilshire states that the purpose of theatre is to manifest what is hidden, and so it assists people to come to truly know themselves (1982, p.204). This mimetic faculty or manifestation of the hidden, notes Respondent E, “is something that's inherent to our basic makeup”, and is something that children do instinctively:

Children from a very young age play dress up. Little girls always have a dress up box, little boys have […] cowboy outfits, Spiderman suits. They put those on and they don't pretend to be cowboys, or Spiderman, they are that character. And you have to talk to them in that character while they're dressed that way. They take the gear off and they're back to being who they were before.

Many amateur actors are aware that the process of ‘becoming someone else’ is a gestalt occurrence through which they can experience the instantaneous transformation and understanding that Respondent C calls “the freedom to be … other than themselves”. Respondent C stresses that the freedom to be “this new person […] gives them security and freedom”. It is the freedom to experience new relationships, new ideas and new ways of being in the world. As Respondent E puts it, “if we feel like being somebody who says things that they really mean, but can't do it in case it offends somebody, if the character we're playing does that sort of thing, we can get that out”. These moments of ‘seeing’, and creating a person who has an alternative perspective, produces the affective moments of connection in performance.

For the participants, amateur theatre is a very positive experience. For Respondent F, “it was just fun really. […] just to become another character, to become somebody else who isn’t you”. Respondent F’s assessment of acting in amateur theatre as a fun and positive experience is echoed by Respondent B, who says, “it gives you a chance to take yourself literally out of yourself”. The experiences of becoming someone else, of doubling and ‘stepping into’ another person has the value of self determination, says Respondent A, for it gives the participant the “freedom to be someone other than who you are”. For Respondent G, the experience is so valuable that they want to share it with a friend who is unfamiliar with theatre:

Basically I’ve told him […] I’ll guarantee you’re going to enjoy the whole process of it. […] I mean […] everyone has a drama of some sort in their lives and they have comic moments […] now all theatre is encapsulating those moments and putting them into a performance. So now I think that is an extremely valuable thing. […] it’s taking what people live, how they live their lives, and […] even if you just spectate that’s the magic that you want people to feel and identify with.

For Arnold Aronson (2005), knowledge of the self occurs when the audience recognise the characters as being themselves, for the stage, “like a mirror, reflects back to us a known world” (p.104). Wilshire elaborates the idea, suggesting that the character is always:

a type of humanity with whom the audience member can identify, either directly as a stand-in for his own person, or indirectly as a stand-in for others who the audience member recognizes and with whom he can be empathetically involved. (1982, p.22)

Such moments of recognition create a connection for the audience with the character, thereby producing the affective moments of truthful connection in performance. Respondent J expresses this experience as being the embodiment of a ‘type of humanity’, and its revelation, pragmatically saying: “You know you’re not you, you’re somebody else.” This ‘being somebody else’ allows the actors to play characters who may be the opposite of their daily selves. For example, Respondent H says of her portrayal of René’s mother-in-law Madame Fanny La Fan in ‘Allo ‘Allo!

I […] spent most of my time in the bed, with an ear trumpet. And I used to have the run-ins with René; I wondered how an old person reacted to someone you didn’t like so you forget that you’re you, and you’ve gotta be that person. And I enjoyed doing that because it wasn’t me and I thought, God, it’s like a Jekyll and Hyde [Laugh].

This is not Respondent H’s image of their everyday self, yet as well as exposing a ‘type of humanity’ on the stage, the part allows them to express an aspect of that self, possibly the ‘Hyde’, which may normally be repressed. Respondent E puts it more bluntly: “we can't throw tantrums [in everyday life], but if we're playing a character who throws tantrums, we can bring out how we feel when we'd like to throw one”.

Wilshire observes that “we must make a distinction between the actor as artist and actor as character” (1982, p.xv). Creating a character involves using memories, imaginings and previously observed behaviours to create a presence, which is not the everyday ‘I’. It can be suggested that the process of creating a character, of stepping outside of the everyday self, utilises natural intelligence, for according to Gardner (1999) that is the intelligence which allows humans to relate beyond the self. This ability to create an external relationship also allows human beings to draw on “empty intentions” (Sokolowski 2000 p. 33), the emotional aspects of their own memories and imaginings, to create a bond between firstly the actor and the character, and subsequently between actor and audience For example, Respondent H spent time in the army, an experience they were able to bring to their performance character:

with this play, this Chunuk Bair, we’re soldiers in a difficult situation, odds are against you and so on and so forth, but you want your audience to be able to go ‘well yeah that’s’ [….] a real life scenario.’

Taussig (1993, p.xiii) notes that creating copies gives human beings the ability to gain control over mysterious or threatening aspects of life, and Respondent A, considering the emotional power of accessing the dark places of their own psyche, observes that; “sometimes it’s scary in that you frighten yourself.” This expression of intense emotion may be particular to amateur actors who have not had the formal training of the professional, and so are less able to distance the emotional response of their acting self from their everyday self. It is certainly a venture into otherness for them. If such a journey does achieve the clarification of self that Wilshire proposes, it may make both performers and audience more open to themselves, to who they are, and to others.

How do actors experience the change in themselves when they ‘become’ somebody else? The amateur theatre practitioners who were asked about their experience of being a character have had little formal acting training and scant exposure to performance theorists, and yet the responses reveal knowledge of a deep emotional connection with the dual nature of embodiment. For Respondent I, the important aspect of performance was the chance to step out of the everyday: “You're in another world really. Just in another world”. The heightened experience of being on stage creates an alternative reality which is compelling. For Respondent I,

You never get sick of it […] I just used to wait for each and every [performance]; you know it was always disappointing when the show ended at the end of the season.

More importantly for these performers, the truthful nature of theatre is often experienced in the revelations that it brings to them about themselves. Respondent J describes the “changes in perception that can take place through engaging with acting”:

I really like getting into the psyche of a character and working with other actors […] It makes me think about what I'm doing and think about what would this person do and how would this person act? […] Also you start thinking about the other actors as well, and you become a lot less selfish I think as an actor […] you can really actually get involved with each other because you're actually thinking about the other person and how they are going to react.

Respondent J then reflects on the personal changes that can take place in their own acting:

I think you become a much more truthful actor because that's what life's really like isn't it. When you're talking to somebody you're [… thinking], what are they thinking, how are they reacting, what are they going to say next? And that's what you need to be doing when you're acting because […] it becomes truthful.

This sense of ‘truthfulness’ relates to an emotional connection between actors themselves, and with the audience. In his study of the development of what he terms a “fascination” with or “involuntary attention” to nature, Barbiero describes a series of experiments with children in which what he terms “active silence (mindfulness meditation)” and play were combined to regenerate “directed attention” (pp.13-14).

Play, in the broadest sense of the word, has important psychic functions. Wilshire suggests that acting, another form of play, may be an essential part of our learning process, for “we grasp what actually is only after we have imaged what it might be” (1982, p.5). Play, observes Respondent E, is part of the process of developing skills of coping with situations that we will later encounter ‘for real’:

we draw on it when we're in a social situation, or a work situation where we're uncomfortable. We reach in and pull out one of those alter egos to cope with the situation […] You may need to assert yourself, but do it in a kind and polite manner and, because you've developed different skills for projecting how you're feeling, you can do that more effectively in your general life.

Though the actor creating the character is not the character, the experience of the character is nonetheless emotionally charged for the everyday self of the actor. Thus, through their presence in and connection with the scene, the everyday self and body of the actor can be affected by the emotion of a scene for, as Peta Tait writes, “emotions are experienced through the body,” (2002, p.171). Therefore, the bodily experience of acting can produce a bodily response in the actor that is similar to experiencing a real emotion, and this bodily effect of the emotion can be transmitted to others. Respondent A recalls such an event:

I remember there was one play that I did called Exorcism. [M] was playing opposite me […] and I had to scream at her, and with her pupils dilating […] the power of that transition became quite real, and that was quite scary.

Maxine Sheets-Johnson (2009) observes that we recognise another’s emotional state – she instances fear – “on the basis of our own kinetic/tactile-kinesthetic bodily experiences” (p.212). This occurs because the movements of those people who are experiencing an emotion, however minute, elicit a corresponding kinetic response in those witnessing the expression of that emotion. It is this recognition of the emotion of another which is harnessed in performance. Respondent A also speculates that the intense emotion that they experienced on the stage may be similar to the emotion occurring in a member of the audience observing the scene for the first time.

When I saw her reaction […] which I hadn't seen before. It created quite an effect because […] it wasn't an acted reaction, or a rehearsed reaction […] the audience would experience that, that same emotion I guess.

Respondent G, who has not studied either Sheets-Johnson or Barbiero, realises the power of this emotional intersection between performer and audience, seeing it as a place of exploration: “[You’ve got] to be at liberty to experiment [with] the characters. You want to be able to play your character in a way that’s gonna let the audience in.” For Respondent G, the importance lies in the moment “when you’re playing it close to your chest; that’s when you can experiment” with how to develop the character. What Respondent G calls playing it “close to your chest” may equate with what other actors might call ‘being real’ or ‘being present in the moment’. What they describe is the complex duality of experience in creating the emotional nature of the scene for the character and for the audience, while their ‘everyday self’ intellectually chooses the best way to make the scene seem real.

Most of the amateur actors interviewed gave spontaneous responses about the nature of acting, from personal experience, rather than drawing on formal training. They did not frame a complex argument about their duality on the stage, but rather produced an intuitive understanding that they simultaneously occupy two positions at once. Not all of the respondents were aware of the depth of their experience, calling acting ‘dressing up’, but even though some people spoke only of the surface aspect of ‘becoming’ somebody other than themselves, they were still transformed by the experience.

Oh it was fabulous because it was dressing up. I was getting out of my comfort zone […] wearing and things that I thought that I’d never ever wear. (Respondent H)

Although Respondent H’s focus is on the costume, they are still aware of a more fundamental shift, for in moving from their everyday attire to the theatrical clothes they are expanding their view of their world. For many of the actors, the empowerment was in the moment of stepping out of the darkness backstage into the lights and connecting with the audience. The audience response is particularly important to Respondent K:

Oh I love being on stage; I really get a kick out of it. […] I think it’s the feeling of teamwork, the fun, […] the buzz of being on stage. I suppose it’s a bit of an adrenaline rush in a way. It’s that contact with a live audience that you get.

These actors recognise the importance of this feeling of ‘rush’ or ‘buzz’. Part of the phenomenon called ‘flow’, it gives a person a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment. Named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (1975), the state of flow is characterised by the complete absorption in what one does, resulting in the loss of one's sense of space and time. Respondent H believes that this state of total absorption can come from the act of performing itself. Being on stage gives them:

extreme calm, so calm. […] Once you get on stage and you know there’s a reasonable audience, you’re prepared, and you know what you’ve gotta do […] you’re just relaxed […]. That’s where I like being as much as possible, that’s where it feels good.

It is also possible to experience a sense of flow from the knowledge that the audience are enjoying the performance. This can make the performer feel socially useful:

I just, you know I guess I feel joyous (laugh). I like making people happy and entertaining them. (Respondent L)

This affective aspect of flow can produce a peak experience. This is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a momentary awareness of joy or fulfilment, akin to ecstasy and of a higher and different quality from ordinary experience”. It can take some performers beyond thrill and calm to the quality of a mystical experience, and for several respondents playing an ‘other’ was a deep encounter. When they spoke about it, they recounted a deep level experience of ‘being someone else’, while being at the same time themselves. It is this relationship with the affective that links performance with affective ecology. Performance can allow people and societies to know themselves more deeply and in so doing, become more open to connecting with the natural world:

You have to kind of leave yourself and kind of go into a whole different space. It’s very strange. It’s almost spiritual. It’s completely coming out of yourself, and thinking about things that are completely different. It’s very strange, I don't know quite how to describe it. (Respondent J)

As Wilshire observes, ‘‘[t]he [total] result of theatre is discovery, and we come home to ourselves as we believe we are: beings of inexhaustible particularity as well as indefinitely extendable horizons of human concern and identification” (1982, p.10) and for many of those involved, amateur theatre acting opens up the world, leading to self-discovery:

Its only when I stepped into those rehearsals and things, that this world’s open for me. That’s what I’m really sort of grateful for and so I try and do my best and work hard, and that’s how I show my gratitude. (Respondent G)

While this peak experience is key to the emotional involvement of both actors and audience, Ian Maxwell, Mark Seton and Marianna Zabó (2018) note in their paper on the precarious lives of professional actors that “being an actor itself entails […] a precariousness not simply of identity, but a gamble, in which the actor invests themselves in what is all too often a high-risk, low-return vocation” (p.151). This leads to “intense distress, self-doubt, loss of motivation, and, in extreme cases, clinical depression and other diagnoses” (p.173). This distinction in experience is profound. While both professional and amateur actors are engaging in the process of ‘becoming someone else’, the source of the satisfaction experienced by amateur actors seems to lie in the freedom they have to choose to participate, and to choose which performances they will act in, most obviously because they do not rely on their theatre work to provide them with a living. They also have the important freedom to ‘become somebody else’, and to act on the stage to the best of their ability, without the risk of professional failure if their performance receives negative reviews. This is not to say that actors in amateur theatre are not self-critical or unaware of the seriousness of what they are doing, but to note that however central to their life and their sense of self performance is, it is one of many aspects, and this gives them the greater freedom to experiment with it.


The idea that drama and nature are linked is not new. Arthur Symons (1905) summarises Richard Wagner’s (1851) idea about the essence of drama and its close relationship to nature. Wagner thought, writes Symonds, that drama is:

a condensation into one action of the image of all man’s energy together with his recognition of his own mood in nature, nature apprehended, not in parts by the understanding, but as a whole by the feeling. (Symonds 1905, 1968 p.300) (My emphases).

Raymond Williams (1961) wrote that art is “literally a way of seeing new things and new relationships” (p.24), and as one of the arts that makes us human, performance offers a complex connection between people and the wider world. Theatre allows people to create representations of things that can be seen and heard, and things that are thought or felt – what phenomenology calls “empty intentions” (Sokolowski 2000 p. 33) – and in so doing, creates the opportunity to change people’s perspectives.

Considering both the impulse to double and the ability to make connections to the natural, it is possible to see that both stem from the naturalist intelligence and are affective in origin. In that sense, the desire to double and biophilia – the love of the natural world – are connected. The bonding that occurs in the affective response to nature and the understanding that one is ‘someone else’ are both moments of gestalt understanding. The experience of ‘becoming someone else’, while still being oneself, copies ‘reality’ and at the same time uses “the real in its realest form: man, his language, his rooms and cities, his weapons and tools, his other art” (States 1985, p.123).

Both theatrical performance and being ecologically responsive to the world alter the way that people see the world, thereby allowing them to connect to their environment in new ways. As Lewis Mumford (1964, 1970) writes, “All thinking worthy of the name now must be ecological in the sense of appreciating and utilizing organic complexity,” and he adds that we must adapt “every kind of change to the requirements not of man alone, or of any single generation, but of all his organic partners and every part of his habitat” (p.393).


Aitken, B. (2014) The Importance of Amateur Theatre. Interview on audio tape. Interviewer A Smith

Anonymous Interviewees (2014) The Importance of Amateur Theatre interview on audio tape. Interviewer A Smith

Aronson, A. (2005) Looking Into the Abyss. In Looking Into the Abyss: Essays on Scenography, edited by A. Aronson. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.

Barbiero, G. Biophilia and Gaia: Two Hypotheses for an Affective Ecology. International Society of Biourbanism. Online at, Accessed 24/10/2018.

Barbiero, G. Biophilia and Gaia: Two Hypotheses for an Affective Ecology. (2011) Journal of Biourbanisn Research Gate, Accessed 21/07/2020

Boal, A. (1995) The Rainbow of Desire. Translated by A. Jackson. London, Routledge.

Boal, A. (2000) Theatre of the Oppressed. Original edition, Teatro del oprimido y otras poéticas polticas.Translated by C. McBride, M.O.L. McBride and E. Fryer. London, Pluto Press.

Brook, P. (1968) The Empty Space. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Gardner H. Frequently Asked Questions – Multiple Intelligences and Related Educational Topics Accessed 9/10/2019.

Gardner. H. (1999) In A Nutshell. Online at Online at: Accessed 9/10/2019

Johnson-Laird P.N., K. O. (2008). Emotions, Music and Literture. In J. M. H.-J. Lewis Michael, Lisa Feldman Barrett (Ed.), Handbook of Emotions (3rd ed.). London New York: The Guildford Press.

Maxwell, I., Mark Seton and Marianna Zabó. (2018) The Precarious Lives of Actors. ADS Journal April, 150-175.

Mumford, L. (1964, 1970) The Myth of the Machine – The Pentagon of Power. London, Secker and Warburg.

Oxford Dictionary Online

Schechner, R. (1985) Between Theatre and Anthropology. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Schechner, R. (1988) Performance Theory. New York & London, Routledge.

Schechner, R. (1990) Magnitudes of Performance. In By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual, edited by R. Schechner and W. Appel. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Shakespeare, W. (1964) Hamlet. In The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, edited by B. Hodek. London, Spring Books.

Schwinn, T. (2007) Individual and Collective Agency. In The Sage Handbook of Social Science Methodology, edited by W. Outhwaite and S. P. Turner. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, & Singapore, Sage.

Sheets-Johnstone, M. (2009) Emotion and Movement. In The Corporeal Turn: An Interdisciplinary Reader. Exeter Charlottesville, Imprint Academic.

Sokolowski, R. (2000) Introduction to Phenomenology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

States, B. (1985) Great Reckonings In Little Rooms: On The Phenomenology Of The Theatre. Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, University of California Press.

States, B. (1992) The Phenomenological Attitude. In Critical Theory and Performance edited by J. G. Reinelt and J.R. Roach. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.

Symons, A. (1905, 1968) The Ideas of Richard Wagner. In The Theory of the Modern Stage, edited by E. Bentley. Penguin, London.

Tait, P. (2002) Performing Emotions: Gender, Bodies, Spaces. In Chekhov's Drama and Stanislavski's Theatre. Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Taussig, M. (1993) Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York, Routledge, Chapman Hall.

Turner, V. (1990) Are There Universals of Performance in Myth, Ritual and Drama? In By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual, edited by R. Schechner and W. Appel. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Turner, V. (1982) From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York, Performing Arts Journal Publications.

Theatre New Zealand. Accessed 24/10/2018

Williams, R. (1961) The Long Revolution. London, Chatto & Windus.

Wilshire, B. (1982) Role Playing and Identity: The Limits of Theatre as Metaphor. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Wilson, E. (1993) Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by S.R. Kellert & E.O. Wilson. Washington, Island Press, 31-41.

Wilson, E.O. (2002) The Future of Life. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.


No comments here