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Volume 21 of Theatre Symposium presents essays that explore the intricate and vital relationships between theatre, religion, and ritual.

Whether or not theatre arose from ritual and/or religion, from prehistory to the present there have been clear and vital connections among the three. Ritual, Religion, and Theatre, volume 21 of the annual journal Theatre Symposium, presents a series of essays that explore the intricate and vital relationships that exist, historically and today, between these various modes of expression and performance.

The essays in this volume discuss the stage presence of the spiritual meme; ritual performance and spirituality in The Living Theatre; theatricality, themes, and theology in James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones; Jordan Harrison’s Act a Lady and the ritual of queerness; Gerpla and national identity in Iceland; confession in Hamlet and Measure for Measure; Christian liturgical drama; Muslim theatre and performance; cave rituals and the Brain’s Theatre; and other, more general issues.

Edited by E. Bert Wallace, this latest publication by the largest regional theatre organization in the United States collects the most current scholarship on theatre history and theory.

Cohen Ambrose / David Callaghan / Gregory S. Carr
Matt DiCintio / William Doan / Tom F. Driver / Steve Earnest
Jennifer Flaherty / Charles A. Gillespie / Thomas L. King
Justin Kosec / Mark Pizzato / Kate Stratton

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817370084
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 12/31/2013
Series: Theatre Symposium Series , #21
Pages: 152
Product dimensions: 10.90(w) x 7.30(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

E. Bert Wallace is an associate professor of theatre and the codirector of the Honors Program at Campbell University.

Read an Excerpt


Ritual, Religion, and Theatre Volume 21

By E. Bert Wallace


Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-7008-4


Transferring Belief

The Stage Presence of the Spiritual Meme

Cohen Ambrose

As performance practitioners, we hear a lot about the so-called power of theatre. Yet not all live performances are powerful. So when they are, what makes them so? This essay uses the neuroscience of spectating and imitation to make the argument that live performance has the ability to transfer certain units of cultural information—including those with spiritual content—from performer to spectator. These transferable units, called memes, can be as specific as a simple melody or as sophisticated and individualized as a spiritual belief system. I am interested in how certain units of spiritual ideology can be spread from character to spectator in the theatre. It is important for us as artists to consider the biological impact of the transmission of ideas from the stage space to the audience.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the controversial term meme, an abbreviation of the Greek root mimema, "to imitate." Dawkins uses the term to define units of culture including "tunes, ideas, catchphrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches." Just as genes are passed on from parents to children, memes, Dawkins argues, can be passed on from brain to brain via cultural transmission. This transmission takes place via the subconscious imitation of the behavior of others and through formal and informal education. Susan Blackmore similarly argues that memes, like genes, evolve by "memetic selection." She also suggests that religious memes eventually have an impact on which genes are successful.

In Breaking the Spell, cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that we should "set aside our traditional reluctance to investigate religious phenomena scientifically, so that we can come to understand how and why religions inspire such devotion." He argues that religion is such an influential natural phenomenon that it must be understood in order to make informed political decisions. I would argue that as performance practitioners, we benefit from understanding the science of spiritual belief systems in order to make informed aesthetic decisions.

In the past decade, theatre scholarship has crossed disciplinary lines with the cognitive sciences to better understand how spectators become engaged with the subject matter represented on the stage. In Engaging Audiences, Bruce McConachie examines how various cultural concepts, empathy, and emotion are working in the minds of spectators during a theatrical performance. He argues that the cognitive sciences can tell us, as theatre practitioners, how to better understand and stimulate the spectator's brain. He writes: "As actors and spectators, we want to be pushed to emotional extremes," and so "audiences must engage with actors ... and the artists ... must engage with the spectators." Using recent neurological research concerning imitation, McConachie argues that while witnessing a staged event, the brain itself imitates the event, thereby effectively experiencing it. In other words, what the senses perceive, the brain translates into actual experience on the neuronal level. Once the spectator's brain has simulated the experience of the event onstage, a unit of cultural information—a meme—has been transferred.

Building on McConachie's argument, I suggest that the brain, through a series of cognitive and psychosomatic processes, has the capacity to share in the representation of spiritual experiences onstage. Theatrical performances can act as neurological rehearsals for real-life scenarios, forming new neural pathways that create or reinforce belief in specific spiritual ideologies. Performative representations of spiritual experiences can, like the genetic code found in our DNA, carry and transmit elements of spiritual culture.

In Mystical Mind, Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg explore a possible evolutionary development of the brain that includes spiritual experience. They define the "cognitive imperative" as people's inherent need to "organize their world cognitively" and to "use their rational mind/brain to wonder about God and the mysteries of religion." The process of witnessing the representation of a spiritual experience onstage encourages the development of new neural pathways that make room for a cognitive organization of the unseen world.

The notion that the human brain—indeed, the mind itself—and the human body are interconnected is substantiated by consistent discoveries by neuroscientists. Humans undergo most motor development after birth. Unlike ungulates and other large mammals that can walk moments after birth, humans are effectively helpless as newborns. We learn motor skills by watching others perform them. Because infants cannot physically perform the tasks they are attempting to imitate, they are really imitating the intent of the task. As infants develop the ability to embody some of these goal-oriented tasks, they begin to link the intent to a specific meaning. As the meaning becomes clear, McConachie suggests, these mental mirror systems of imitation begin to "link ... to the general dynamics of cultural learning, maintenance, and change." Our brains develop in such a way that by first imitating physical actions, we develop an understanding of intent, which then informs how we perceive social processes. The ability to "read" another's physical behavior is an evolutionary trait that allows humans to make quick judgments about social status and risk of threat.

Neuroscience research is showing that the performance of tasks learned by imitating others is a physical phenomenon unique to humans and select species of monkeys. In the mid-1990s, a team of neuroscientists led by Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma, Italy, working with macaque monkeys, discovered what is now called the "mirror effect," or mirror neurons. Mirror neuron systems make up about 20 percent of the brain's neurons in some monkeys and humans. These systems contain a concentration of neurons that teach the brain how to perform basic tasks by imitating others. When we observe someone else reach for a glass of water, for example, the same network of neurons begins to fire as if we were reaching for the glass of water ourselves. Not only do the observer and the performer have the same neuronal experience, but the observer can also read the difference between whether the performer is reaching for the glass for a drink or to clear the table. Marco Iacoboni, one of the Parma scientists, calls this the "ideomotor model of human actions," which "assumes that the starting point of human actions are the intentions associated with them, and that actions should be mostly considered as a means to achieve those intentions." This is significant because the brain behaves as if the body is actually physically performing the task. A single active neuron can simultaneously code for an action (grasping the glass) as well as a perception (observing the grasp).

The ability to predict the intentions of another—whether of others in real life or of a character onstage—is the direct scientific link between the performer and the spectator. Because we make direct links between physical behavior and psychological intent during the process of imitation, we cannot consider this process without implicating the role the physical body plays in live performance. McConachie suggests that our main avenue of connection to the characters onstage is through physically determined intentions because "our mirror systems bridge actor-audience communication where intentional physical movement is concerned." Similarly, as Iacoboni points out, imitation processes are located in the motor and movement areas of the neocortex. Therefore, he writes, "it makes little theoretical sense to think about the imitation process in general, abstract terms without considering the body parts and type of actions involved." In other words, humans cannot read one another's minds, but we can attempt to read one another's bodies and predict the intentions of one another's minds. This may be effective on a basic level, for example, to determine whether or not another is a threat. But to assume that a body is telling the truth about its mental processes is not always reliable. This is where live performance becomes so significant: it addresses phenomenological intersubjectivity, an experience we all have every day.

Intersubjectivity is the sharing of significance and meaning between individuals. By observing the embodied expression of emotion in others, we register what they are feeling before we can even describe their specific body language. While this all happens on a prereflective level, Iacoboni argues that mirror neurons allow humans to have interconnected social interactions between one another. He maintains that this interdependence creates a "concrete encounter between self and other [that] becomes the shared existential meaning that connects them deeply."

As the human brain's use of mirror neuron systems creates a neuronal copy of the observed action of another, it can also use simulation and imagination, or motor imagery, to have the desired neuronal experience. Again, by imagining ourselves performing a physical task or having a specific type of psychophysical experience, we are having the same neuronal experience as we would if we were actually physically performing the action. Shortly after the experiments at Parma, for example, neuroscientist Jean Decety published a paper in which he examines whether or not the timing of mentally simulated actions correlates with actual physically performed actions. Using mental chronometry—measuring the brain's response time to a stimulus under both actual and imagined circumstances—Decety found that subjects mentally responded to a stimulus in the same amount of time as if they were physically experiencing it. "Motor imagery," he writes, "can be defined as a dynamic state during which a subject mentally simulates a given action. This type of phenomenal experience implies that the subject feels himself performing a given action."

The theatre is a space that allows experiments that encourage the expansion of cognitive organization through symbolic representation and the projection of metaphors. Reading the physicality of the characters onstage helps spectators shape subsequent cognitive processes in such a way that they begin to generate symbolic social meaning about the characters. For example, if performers kneel, clasp their hands at their chest, close their eyes, and begin to murmur softly, prayer immediately comes to mind. A prayer posture or gesture is an image that is translatable and universally recognizable. Iacoboni argues that by tapping into the minds of others via the symbolism of their physicality, "our brains are capable of accessing other minds by using the neural mechanisms of ... simulation." By mentally simulating a spiritual experience through the observance of another's (real or staged) concrete experience, an individual is potentially able to construct his or her own spiritual encounter.

The ending of part 1 of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, Part One is arguably one of the most spectacular recent examples of spiritual encounter in American playwriting. To witness the actor, dressed as an angel and suspended from visible wires, come bursting through Prior's bedroom ceiling is a blatant staging of a spiritual meme. Kushner does not use the image to promote any kind of spiritual or religious ideology but rather appropriates an iconic religious meme in order to make a specific comment on historical and current tensions between gay and religious communities in the United States. Though the spectator knows it is not a "real" angel, Kushner asks the audience to join the actor performing the role of Prior in mentally simulating a spiritual encounter. Allowing oneself to suspend disbelief in order to simulate extraordinary phenomena is perhaps driven by a need to reify experiences that do not conform to everyday physical limitation.

In their book, d'Aquili and Newberg coin the term neurotheology. They examine the neurophysiology of theological thought processes and experiences. They explain that they are not exploring any one type of spiritual structure; rather, they hope to develop a kind of "metatheology that does not have specific theological content, but explains the essential components of any specific theology." They argue that the cognitive imperative and the activity of specific cognitive operators are why humans create spiritual structures in the first place. The authors propose that when humans have witnessed a spiritual event—real, imagined, or simulated onstage—the cognitive imperative "takes over such that we have the burning desire to understand what the experience actually represented." As the name implies, the cognitive imperative derives from our rational brain, which relies on organization and an intense need to make sense of otherwise abstract experiences. The need to attach symbolic meaning to such events comes from the desire to reify the experience, and, the authors conclude, there is thus "a strong emotional drive to explore the ultimate since these are perhaps the most emotional states that can be achieved." If spiritual experiences are indeed the most emotional states humans access, the more powerful the representation of the experience, the more "spiritual" neurons are created.

This process of organization that we seem to need in order to make sense of the world requires exercise. This "mental fitness routine" is possible due to neuroplasticity. Just as our muscles are malleable and able to expand and contract, our brains need stimulation in order to form new neural pathways and operate effectively in real-life thought situations. Just as we rehearse a scene in a play to exercise our memory, we need to perform the scene's text and movements and rehearse thought processes in order to form new neural connections. What we observe in others, we experience ourselves on a neural level, and so we exercise the connections between those regions of the brain involved in the experience. Neuroscientist Daniel Siegel explains in his book Mindsight that "when we focus our attention in specific ways, we create neural firing patterns that permit previously separated areas to become linked and integrated." Thus, the cognitive imperative encourages our brains to make symbolic, empathetic, and representational connections between what they are observing and potential future scenarios. Using the imitative capabilities of our brains while observing a simulation of a spiritual encounter encourages the development of neural pathways dedicated to facilitating spiritual experiences.

While concepts of cultural transmission and evolution date clear back to the early nineteenth century, the actual definition of a unit of culture is relatively new. Dawkins's theory has been embraced by some and disregarded as unscientific by many. While geneticists can measure and define specific genes by the structure of DNA strands and their particular subunits of nucleotides, it is impossible to measure memes. An evolutionary biologist himself, Dawkins essentially builds his idea on an analogy: genes are to hereditary evolution as memes are to cultural evolution. He seeks to organize and examine the process by which ideas are passed on from individual to individual and spread through out social structures. Because humans are able to adopt, copy, and reproduce ideas brain-to-brain via the subconscious imitation of ideas, the potential power of live theatre in the transmission of spiritual ideology is significant. The proliferation of spiritual ideology is so effective that the memes associated with religion may even drive the positive evolution of genes for religious behavior.

In The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore argues that there is a correlation between the evolution of mass religions and the evolution of certain genes. By tracing archaeological discoveries of jewelry buried with remains of the dead, Blackmore makes the case that Homo sapiens developed some idea of an afterlife nearly fifty thousand years ago. "Brain development," she writes, "is under genetic control and it is known that some brains are more prone to religious belief and experience than others." She argues that people with damaged or unstable temporal lobes—the region of the brain responsible for the development of long-term memory, perception, and recognition—are more prone to reporting supernatural experiences. Blackmore suggests that religious memes are "stored, and thus given improved longevity, in the great religious texts." She argues that the Bible is deserving of the accolade "survival of the fittest" because it actually gives the instruction to pass its ideas on. The Bible, Blackmore writes, "is extremely adaptable, and since much of its content is self-contradictory it can be used to justify more or less any action or moral stance." Perhaps because religious texts are such successful memes in themselves, plays and theatrical performances of ten incorporate elements of their stories and characters. Just as memes can generate the proliferation of successful genes, memes also take over after the hereditary process has done its work.


Excerpted from THEATRE SYMPOSIUM A PUBLICATION OF THE SOUTHEASTERN THEATRE CONFERENCE by E. Bert Wallace. Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 5

Keynote Address: "The Blessed Assurance of Perhaps" Tom F. Driver 7

Transferring Belief: The Stage Presence of the Spiritual Meme Cohen Ambrose 26

Ritual Performance and Spirituality in the Work of The Living Theatre, Past and Present David Callaghan 36

Top Brass: Theatricality, Themes, and Theology in James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones Gregory S. Carr 54

Pretty's Got Me All Bent Out of Shape: Jordan Harrison's Act a Lady and the Ritual of Queerness Matt DiCintio 59

Clash with the Vikings: Gerpla and the Struggle for National Identity in Iceland Steve Earnest 69

Heaven and Earth: Confession as Performance in Hamlet and Measure for Measure Jennifer Flaherty 78

Treasure in Clay Jars: Christian Liturgical Drama in Theory and Praxis Charles A. Gillespie Justin Kosec Kate Stratton 90

Between Piety and Sacrilege: Muslim Theatre and Performance Thomas King 104

Cave Rituals and the Brain's Theatre Mark Pizzato 116

Excerpts from "The Book of My Awkward Perspective" William Doan 137

Contributors 141

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