The healing power of live theater: Part 1
Photo by Aly Morrisey

The healing power of live theater: Part 1

At its core, live theater is about (1) the escape and disconnect from daily life and the stress of our external environment and (2) the immersion into a new experience that requires our full attention. While these concepts are not unique to live theater (watching a movie or television program, listening to music, viewing art, reading literature), the immediacy and experience of being in the presence of live performers offers a specific set of health benefits — both mental and physical — that are not accessible in other media (certainly not in the digital age of streaming, email and social media) Nor will AI ever replace live actors.

A lighthearted romp that prompts a spontaneous eruption of laughter is therapeutic.  The Mayo Clinic says that a good laugh can go a long way. Laughter makes you take in more oxygen, which stimulates the lungs as well as your heart. Positive emotions elicited from laughter and similar sources also trigger the brain to release what are known as happy chemicals: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. The immediacy of live theater is intended to transport us to another world and create a unique relationship between performers on the stage and those in the audience.  A seething drama can pull you into a conflict, or an intellectual exercise can challenge us to consider (or reconsider) held beliefs. We in the audience are not merely observers; we are participants in the creative process, as performers need us as much as need them.

“Attending a live performance creates a special bond between the performers and the audience,” says Lakeville and New York City resident Astrid Baumgardner, JD.  She’s the author of "Creative Success Now: How Creatives Can Thrive in the 21st Century," a lecturer at Yale University’s School of Music, and a  TEDx 2020 speaker, Cracking the Code on Creativity. “My students at Yale — all professional musicians — feel inspired by the presence of the audience.  This, in turn, fuels their desire to make great art and to provide the audience with the transformative power of live, communal performance, to elevate us from our day-to-day lives, to inspire us with the beauty and power of music and to comfort us in challenging times.” 

In his book "All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and  Me," author Patrick Bringley describes his transition from a publishing job to a becoming a guard at the Met, following the death of his brother, as a coping mechanism. Unfettered by other responsibilities, he spent his days steeped in works of art, both famous and obscure. He considered in a way not possible when one is rushing through the museum.

Much has been written about the use of art and drama therapy in treating people with anxiety disorders. Yet surprisingly little exists about the therapeutic value of attending live theater as a member of the audience.

“When we’re absorbed in a situation that is created on the stage by talented performers, we can become a part of it, sometimes forgetting time and our surroundings, and losing ourselves in the creative process. This state has been referred to as ‘flow.’ It is a feeling that allows us to focus on the present moment and moves us away from current anxieties in our lives. The experience can expand our own world, facilitate empathy, take us out of our habitual way of thinking, and allow us to discover new ideas and sometimes new ways of coping.

All of these developments are expressions of a creative process that allows us to shift from current anxieties into areas that bring us to a more hopeful place,” writes clinical psychologist Sophia Richman, Ph.D., author of "Mended by the Muse: Creative Transformations of Trauma."

Richman adds: “The experience of good theater is also one that is shared with others and can provide a sense of community. Often when we go to the theater with friends, we have an opportunity to discuss our experiences and reactions to the show. This can expand our perspective and encourage us to look at things in a new way. Discovery, curiosity, surprise are the hallmarks of the creative process. As we watch this taking place on the stage, we experience our own version of the creative process within ourselves.”

Thank you all for your patronage of The Sharon Playhouse’s record-breaking 2023 season. And stay tuned for announcements about upcoming productions and the 2024 season. For more information — and to make a donation to help us keep you mentally and physically fit healthy — please go to www.sharonplayhouse.org.

 

Lee A. Davies is a Member of the Board of Directors of The Sharon Playhouse and a resident of Cornwall Bridge

 

Next Part: Eight Health Benefits of Attending Live Theater.

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