Evi Prousali*

Abstract: Various theoretical approaches have been proposed in order to verify the way by which the spectator perceives a performance. Nowadays, neurophysiology along with cognitive neuroscience offer new tools which enable performance theorists to embark on research into the spectator’s receptive procedure. The article highlights the significant aspects of the current scientific evidence that explain theatre spectatorship at a primal level, showing that sensation constitutes the basis of spectator’s empathy. The above mentioned scientific findings supplement the Theory of Theatre with experimental data on spectatorship.

Keywords: Spectatorship, theory of theatre, neuroscience/cognitive sciences, mirror neurons, empathy

In the late twentieth century, a number of important theatre theorists have drawn attention to the significance of the sensory element in the spectator’s perception of performance. In their publications, they introduced a concept of spectatorship which moved away from interpretation, towards a primarily sensory perception. From a different perspective, neuroscience has also turned its interest on the broader issue of “spectatorship” and, through a number of experimental investigations carried out by innovative neuroscientists and those engaged in the cognitive sciences, has reached similar conclusions concerning the process of perception and action-understanding. In many ways, these findings have come to vindicate the assertions of the theatre theorists and make contributions, with crucial neurophysiological evidence, to the study of performance-perception.

Brain mapping
Spectatorship and Theory of Theatre

It is only lately that the issue of spectatorship has been brought back to the epicentre of theatre studies. The unanswered questions about “how spectators make sense or interact with the actor” attracted, once again, the interest of theatre theorists. It was not until the 1980s that new theoretical approaches, concerning performance spectatorship, reappeared in the discourse on Theory of Theatre.

Until then, due to the prevalence of Saussurean semiotics, the signifier-signified model had ignored the third indispensable element in theatre-signification: the interpretant—which, evidently, was given apt attention by Charles Peirce. Indeed, Peirce builds reception directly into his famous definition of a sign as “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity” (Peirce 1932, 2: 228). Peirce’s assertion establishes the interpretant as an equal co-factor of signification that further enriches the field of semiosis, with an individualized parameter, besides the socio-historical one.

Initially, the first generation of modern theatre semioticians had paid less attention to the audience’s contribution in signification, a fact demonstrated by Keir Elam’s book which “devotes only nine of its 210 pages to this subject” (Carlson 1993: 507). Theatre theorists realized that they had to move beyond a mere structural analysis of “signs” and develop a “pragmatics” of performance-communication, embracing the historical and sociological context of both stage realization and reception (Fischer-Lichte 1992).

Various theorists contributed to this distinct turn in the approach to spectatorship as a whole. Patrice Pavis was the first among them who not only inclined towards a new approach to theatrical experience, but also suggested a variety of strategies for analyzing audience’s perception (Pavis 1982: 9). In this way, the issue of “how” spectators perceive a performance was gradually reintroduced.

The traditional concepts according to which the spectator is oscillating between identification and estrangement were too narrow to cover the complexity of performance-perception. Instead, new approaches emerged concerning the spectator’s perception: Anne Ubersfeld, influenced by the Lacanian theory, posited that the performance audience is implicated in an “eternally unfulfilled desire of the primal Other,” giving priority to the spectator’s unconscious (Ubersfeld 1981: 303); Andre Helbo referred to the “mutual work of actor and audience in weaving patterns of energies” (Helbo 1982: 103); an almost identical proposition is made by Josette Feral who advocates that the actor is “the point of passage for energy flow—gestural, vocal, libidinal, etc.” (Feral 1982: 174, 177); Michael Kirby, in an attempt to demystify the spectator/actor interrelation, claims that the audience does not seek to “de-code” the performance, but has a “primarily sensory” experience “dealing with relationships on the perceptual continuum of vision and hearing” (Kirby 1982: 110).

Expectedly, moderate and reconciling approaches were also proposed, such as that of Bert States who suggested a binary view which rescues the “cargo of meanings” on stage, while emphasizing “the perceptual impression theatre makes on the spectator” (States 1985: 6-8). In general, the majority of theatre theorists distanced themselves from what, by that time, was the widely-accepted notion of de-codification of the performance, towards a more primal and naturalistic consideration of the interactions between stage and audience.

Consequently, the tension between theatre as “communication”—that is, spectators’ interpretation—and theatre as site of energy flows—referring to spectators’ sensory perception—was showing signs of attenuation. Sensation was seemingly winning the game over interpretation.

Of course, there were also composite voices, such as that of Herbert Blau, the eminent poststructuralist who, while favouring performance as a realm of libidinal flow and desire, rejected the view that performance perception could be uncontaminated by the process of codification: “There is nothing more illusory in performance than the illusion of the unmediated” (Blau 1983: 143). In other words, for him, spectatorship could never be unmediated.

A few years later, Blau posited that the audience “does not exist before the play but is initiated or precipitated by it” and that the audience observes not only the performance but “itself” as well; therefore, the theatre audience is an entity whose consciousness is constructed during performance and “unfolds in response,” posing questions about “memory, mirroring, perspective and the spatializing of thought itself” (Blau 1990: 25-6). Apparently, this shift in the issue of spectatorship from interpretation towards sensation was also brought about under the influence of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s ideas which radically changed the approach to “embodiment” and the structure of experience in the second half of the twentieth century.

Spectatorship and Neuroscience

In the early 1990s, new discoveries in the field of Neuroscience came to consolidate the validity of the above theoretical assumptions about “sensation” being at the core of spectators’ perception. The new field of Neuroaesthetics—introduced by the neuroscientist Semir Zeki—along with the discovery of the Mirror Neuron System (MNs) in the brain—by neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti—enhanced the relations between Art and Neuroscience (Zeki 1999; Rizzolatti 2004).

On the one hand, Zeki revealed that visual perception consists of a plurality of visual consciousnesses that are asynchronous to each other. Since art is mostly based on visual stimuli, Zeki soon engaged his research with art and with aesthetic perception, in order to detect what happens in the brain when we experience art (Zeki 1999). In the same spirit, other neuroscientists also addressed new problems related to aesthetics, employing brain-imaging techniques (such as, fMRI, EEG, MEG)[1] in order to investigate the concept of aesthetic pleasure (Vessel 2012) or aesthetic appraisal (positive or negative) (Ishizu 2011).

Cortical brain activity associated with aesthetic appreciation. Dahlia W. Zaidel et al. (2013)

In the majority of these neuroimaging experiments, the observers/spectators were presented with paintings, music or photos, inside an fMRI scanner, in order to detect the brain regions activated while experiencing art. The results revealed that brain neural structures correlated with sensations, emotions, and meaning, each with different neural underpinnings.[2] The neural mechanism interrelating sensations, emotions and meaning has not, as yet, been fully elucidated. Sensations correspond to the first neural level of perception, which may also encompass very quick quantitative changes in physiological attributes, such as: changes in pupil size, heart rate, and skin conductance. Sensations are intensified by the arousal of emotions—to the creation of which the mechanism of memories is probably involved.

Emotional experience disperses on different levels—the highest level being the one in which emotions and cognitive systems interact (Roseman 2004). Moreover, the experiments revealed that art-appraisal evokes almost the same rewarding neural circuits as do food and sex and that art-perception is also biased by expertise and personality (Chatterjee 2014: 184-5). Thus, neuroaesthetic evidence purveys the notion that art-perception is primarily sensorial.

On the other hand, Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues, in a number of neurophysiological experiments, have found that, when an individual observes another individual perform an action (for instance, grasping an object), specific neural regions (MNs) are activated in the spectator’s brain, as if the spectator was performing the action himself/herself, but without any overt motor action taking place.

Mirror Neuron System (MNs). Brain regions activated during action observation

These results reveal the existence of a functional brain mechanism through which “the actions, emotions or sensations we see as social stimuli, activate our own internal representations of the body states, as if we were engaged in a similar action or experiencing a similar emotion or sensation” (Freedberg 2007: 198). Rizzolatti further describes action-observation as “a first-person process, where the self feels like an actor, rather than a spectator” (Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia 2010). Consequently, the observer of actions or emotions is virtually “acting without acting.” This neural simulation in the brain—or else, the “internal representation” of the observed action—is, probably, the mechanism by which the observer perceives and makes sense of observed actions. Neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese described the phenomenon with the term “embodied simulation.”

“Motion, Emotion and Empathy in Aesthetic Experience. An fMRI Study of the Brain Regions Activated,” by Vittorio Gallese et al (2007)

Taking his research further he included artworks—paintings and sculptures—that represent actions and deployed appropriate experiments so as to investigate their aesthetic perception. Gallese concluded that “a crucial element of aesthetic response consists of the activation of embodied mechanisms,” meaning neural activations, “encompassing the simulation of actions, emotions and corporeal sensation, and that these mechanisms are universal” (Freedberg and Gallese 2007: 197).

Embodied simulation in aesthetic experience: The gestures of the artists that are only implicit in the marks on canvas are “corporeally” felt by the spectators; a. Jackson Pollock. Number 14: Gray (1948), b. Lucio Fontana. Concetto Spaziale “Waiting” (1960)

It appears, then, that the aesthetic experience of artworks is based on the same pre-conscious and spontaneous brain neural mechanism as the one described by the “embodiment” rule. Additionally, similar findings also apply in the case of language-understanding. A relatively recent review of neuroscience results (Buccino 2016) concerning linguistic meaning showed that an activation of the hand motor neural area occurs during the processing of sentences expressing a transfer action, for both concrete nouns (for example, “I give you some pizza”) as well as abstract ones (for example, “I give you my opinion”) (Glenberg 2008). The available empirical evidence seems to suggest that even words can activate specific sensorimotor areas in the brain. Word-articulation seems to provoke, primarily, an “embodied simulation” (that is, activation of somatosensory neural circuits) in an individual’s brain in order to ascribe meaning. A finding which also stresses the fundamental role which “embodied simulation” plays in speaker-listener’s communication.

Thus, apart from observed actions, certain classes of words are also being understood through sensory processes. Conclusively, the above neuroscience data prove that an individual’s primary response to visual and auditory stimuli is mainly based on the unconscious activation of the brain neural circuits by which the observed actions are simulated. This “embodied simulation” corresponds to the sensory process of the spectator’s action-understanding which is generally referred to as empathic (Freedberg and Gallese 2007: 198).[3]

The main parts of the Brain

Empathy is a concept difficult to define (Titchener 2014). On the whole, it is considered to be the sharing of the other’s affective state, consisting of a complex neurophysiologic and psychological mechanism towards “emotion identification and affect sharing” (Coll 2017). Nevertheless, according to neurophysiology, the primary processing steps towards empathizing involve the embodied simulation. Similar terms, such as “embodied mind” and “empathetic projection” are foundational concepts in the cognitive sciences and are attributed to empathic situations. Hence, a solid framework concerning the issue of empathy is created in which scientific data (MNs) and empirically tested insights (cognitive results) converge (Iacoboni 2009: 654). Within this framework, the assertion that empathy is the “product” of an undoubtedly embodied experience is well founded.

Towards an Interdisciplinary Research on Spectatorship

How, then, could the above-mentioned neurophysiological results concerning empathy be incorporated in the discourse on theatre spectatorship? Since the audience’s perception of a performance is, foremost, based on action-observation and auditory stimuli, actor and spectator communicate according to the above-mentioned sensory process of empathy. Thus, their inter-action is embodied—that is, empathic—and not primarily interpretive.

Significant assumptions by theatre theorists—such as Helbo’s and Feral’s, which moved away from the interpretive model and adopted the energy flows, or Blau’s audience which observes not only the performance but itself as well—seem to have intuitively captured the inner nature of empathy. Accordingly, theatre theorists name empathy as one of performance imperatives, being undoubtedly at the core of spectators’ perception. Bruce McConachie says “empathy is crucial for spectators attempting to negotiate and understand both the theatrical and the dramatic levels of all performances” (McConachie 2013: 191), while Patrice Pavis defines empathy in a more sophisticated manner: “the audience embodies actors” (Pavis 2014: 8).

In the light of the above-mentioned experimental data, the performance spectator finds himself/herself in an “acting without acting” situation, as he/she is unconsciously simulating the performed actions—as well as words—in his/her brain. The alleged passivity of the spectator should, therefore, be abandoned since it is experimentally groundless. The shift of priority from semantics to sensation is becoming increasingly justified.

Of course, more research is still required in order to dissect all phases involved in spectators’ perception—beginning with empathy, progressing with emotion-creation and leading, eventually, to the ascription of meaning. Personal parameters (for example, educational, sociological and historical factors), which the scientific research takes into account, seem to have an influence on the extent, the degree as well as mode of empathy developed. After all, it is generally accepted that performance perception is greatly individualized, leading to a variety of responses by spectators.

Neuroaesthetics Review, an Explanatory Model of Aesthetic Experience, by Anjan Chatterjee et al. (2014)

The fact is that theorists of theatre had intuitively stressed the central role which sensation plays in spectatorship at least one decade before neuroscientists begun to investigate spectatorship thoroughly; not to mention Antonin Artaud who envisioned it more than half a century ago:

In the theatre, poetry and science must, henceforth, be identical. Every emotion has organic bases. To know in advance what points of the body to touch is the key to throwing the spectator into magical trances. And it is this invaluable kind of science that poetry in the theatre has been without for a long time (Artaud 1958: 140).

Artaud is proven to be prescient and precise:

[T]he separation between the analytic theatre and the plastic world seems to us a stupidity. One does not separate the mind from the body nor the senses from the intelligence (86). . . .  Whereas, in the digestive theatre of today, the nerves, that is to say a certain physiological sensitivity, are deliberately left aside, abandoned … Theatre of Cruelty intends to reassert all the time-tested magical means of capturing the sensibility (125-6).

To my knowledge, there are only few scientific experiments directly involved with theatre spectatorship, partly, due to technological difficulties and, partly, due to the inadequate contact between the disciplines of theatre and neuroscience. It is about time that theatre theorists, artists and neuroscientists form an interdisciplinary research platform on an issue of their common interest: spectatorship.

Consequently, it seems certain that theorists of theatre can fertilize neuroscience with their imagination, vision and intuition. The cross-fertilization between Theory of Theatre, Neuroscience and Cognitive Sciences shall be to their mutual benefit. Theatre performance, being the only artistic medium that embraces all aspects of human behavior, stands out as the most appropriate “laboratory” for the investigation of aesthetic perception, as well as action- and intention-understanding; for the same reason it is a model field for making assumptions on social understanding, inter-subjectivity and in positing plausible approaches on human mental processing.

From their part, theorists of theatre, as Jill Dolan argues, should “keep changing their seat in the theatre, and . . . continually ask: How does it look from over there?”[4] in order to reflect upon their own ideas and elucidate their concepts. Apparently, there is need for more sophisticated experiments which could be designed on the basis of such an interdisciplinary collaboration. To this end, a new symbiotic model should be proposed. After all, the brain has been proven to be the “theatre of consciousness.”

Robert Lepage/ExMachina, 887. Photo: Eric Labbe
Works Cited

Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and its Double. Trans. Mary Caroline Richards. Grove Press, New York, 1958.

Biederman, I., and E. A. Vessel. “Perceptual Pleasure and the Brain.” American Scientist 94 (2006): 249-55.

Blau, Herbert. “Universals of Performance; or, Amortizing Play.” Sub-stance 37-8 (1983).

—. The Audience. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Buccino, Giovanni, Ivan Colagè, Nicola Gobbi, and Giorgio Bonaccorso. “Grounding Meaning in Experience: A Broad Perspective on Embodied Language.” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.07.033

Carlson, Marvin. Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey, from the Greeks to the Present. Ithaca/New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Chatterjee, A. “Prospects for a Cognitive Neuroscience of Visual Aesthetics.” Bulletin of Psychology and the Arts 4.2 (2004): 55-60.

—. Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014.

Coll, Michel-Pierre, Essi Viding, Markus Rütgen, Giorgia Silani, Claus Lamm, Caroline Catmur, and Geoffrey Bird. “Are we Really Measuring Empathy? Proposal for a New Measurement Framework.” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 83 (December 2017): 132-9.

Dolan, Jill. “In Defense of the Discourse: Materialist Feminism, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism and Theory.” TDR 33 (1989) 58-71.

Elam, Keir. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. London: Methuen, 1980.

Feral, Josette. “Performance and Theatricality: The Subject Demystified.” Modern Drama 25.1 (March 1982): 170-81.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. “Sense and Sensation: Exploring the Interplay between the Semiotic and Performative Dimensions of Theatre.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 22.2 (2008): 69-81.

—. The Semiotics of Theatre. Trans. Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Freedberg, David, and Vittorio Gallese. “Motion, Emotion and Empathy in Aesthetic Experience.” TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 11.5 (2007): 197-203.

Glenberg, A.M., M. Sato, L. Cattaneo, L. Riggio, D. Palumbo, and G. Buccino. “Processing Abstract Language Modulates Motor System Activity.” Q.J. Exp. Psychol. 61 (2008) : 905-19.

Helbo, Andre. “Problemes d’une rhetorique scenique.” Theatre Semiotics. Ed. Ernest W. B. Hess-Liittich. Tubingen, 1982.

Iacoboni, Marco. “Imitation, Empathy, and Mirror Neurons.” Annual Review of Psychology 60 (2009): 653-70.

Ishizu, Tomohiro, and S. Zeki. “Toward a Brain-Based Theory of Beauty.” PLoS ONE 6.7: e21852. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0021852, 2011.

Kirby, Michael. “Nonsemiotic Performance.” Modern Drama 25.1 (March 1982): 105-11.

Kirk, U, et al. “Modulation of Aesthetic Value by Semantic Context: An fMRI Study.” Neuroimage 44.3 (2009): 1125-32.

McConachie, Bruce. “Introduction: Spectating as Sandbox Play.” Affective Performance and Cognitive Science. Body, Brain and Being. Ed. Nicola Shaughnessy. Bloomsbury, 2013. 183-97.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phénomènologie de la perception. Gallimard, Paris, 1945.

Pavis, Patrice. Introduction. “A Few Improvised and Provisory Thoughts on Acting Today.” Acting Reconsidered: New Approaches to Actor’s Work: A Collection of Scientific Articles. Lithuanian Music and Theatre Academy, 2014.

—. Languages of the Stage: Essays in the Semiology of the Theatre. Trans. Susan Melrose et al., New York: Performing Arts Journal Publication, 1982.

Peirce, Charles. Collected Papers. Vol.2, Cambridge, Mass., 1932.

Rizzolatti, G., and C. Sinigaglia. “The Functional Role of the Parieto-Frontal Mirror Circuit: Interpretations and Misinterpretations.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11.4. 264-74.

Rizzolatti, Giacomo. “The Mirror-neuron System and Imitation.” Perspectives on Imitation: From Mirror Neurons to Memes. Ed. S. Hurley and N. Chater. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2004.

Roseman, I., Evdokas, A. “Appraisals Cause Experienced Emotions: Experimental Evidence.” Cognition and Emotion 18.1 (2004): 1-28.

States, Bert O. Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Titchener, Edward Bradford. “Introspection and Empathy.” DIAL PHIL MENT NEURO SCI, 7.1 (2014): 25-30. http://www.crossingdialogues.com/Ms-E14-01.htm

Ubersfeld, Anne. L’école du spectateur, Lire le théâtre 2. Paris: Editions sociales, 1981.

Vessel, Edward A., G. Gabrielle Starr, and Nava Rubin. “The Brain on Art: Intense Aesthetic Experience Activates the Default Mode Network.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6.66 (2012).  https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00066/full

Zeki, Semir. Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.


[1] fMRΙ: functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, EEG: Electroencephalography, MEG: Magnetoencephalography.

[2] In relation to sensations, see Chatterjee 2004; in relation to emotions, see Biederman 2006; in relation to meaning, see Kirk, et al. 2009.

[3] Gallese explains that “embodied simulation” in aesthetic experience is, for example, “empathy for pain. The viewing of images of punctured or damaged body parts activates part of the same network of brain centers that are normally activated by our own sensation of pain.”

[4] Jill Dolan, 1989, as quoted in Carlson, 1993: 540.


*Evi Prousali is a PhD holder in Theatre Studies (2010). Presently, she is Adjunct Lecturer (Faculty of Theatre Studies, University of Athens) teaching “Contemporary Theatre Performance” and completing a Post Doctorate on “Theatre Perception and Neuroscience.” She also has a BSc. in Chemistry (1990) and a post-graduate research degree in molecular biology (Pasteur Institute of Athens). She is a member of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics and of the Greek Philosophical Society (2011). She has published several papers on theatre performance and has participated in a number of conferences.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Performance Spectatorship: “Acting Without Acting”
Tagged on: