John G Bell
Communication Design
Spring '04 - Woolever

Persuasive Essay – Theatre as Dialogue

Theatre is all about making things happen. It's a participatory modeling of conflict and dialogue that involves a community in collective thinking. Theatre is another way to communicate about truth and provides a way to get at other modes of thinking. It allows people to step outside of themselves and self-consciously examine the culture in which they participate, their own assumptions and behaviour.

Theatre is also exciting, challenging and threatening in the way that all art explores the boundaries of the culture of a community

LeShan argues that humans use war to fulfill two very different, contrary needs. (2003) The need to be an appreciated and recognized individual is at odds with the need to be connected to something larger than the self, part of a community. Theatre is an activity that requires a community of individuals that connects the fundamental human needs to both be unique individuals and to be connected to each other. Theatre is formal, ritualized and structured, much like community, but it can also be surprising, ephemeral and will never be exactly the same from moment to moment, much like an individual.

Theatre is also exciting, challenging and threatening in the way that all art explores the boundaries of the culture of a community. In addition to the exploration of boundaries, theatre is a reciprocal and collaborative process of dialogue. Through theatre a community can become self-conscious about it's own culture. (Havel, 1986)

Theatrical characters are emergent metaphorical representations of potential for individual and community change that develops from the reciprocal matrix of relationships between actor, production staff and audience during a theatrical experience. The theatrical experience is a ritual of conflict, resolution and transformation that examines the balance between the conflicting urges for individual recognition and community participation. The potential for individual and community change comes from an active metaphorical dialogue about conflict, resolution and transformation.

Theatre is Conflict

The theatrical experience is a ritual of conflict, resolution and transformation that examines the balance between the conflicting urges for individual recognition and community participation

Theatre provides a formal model and an active pedagogy of conflict. Theatre connects its model of conflict with its particular pedagogy through several levels of dynamic relationship between material, actors, production staff and audience. This complex web of relationships creates the characters and the performance. The material of theatre is the texual foundation from which the theatrical experience is derived. The actors and production staff collaborate on the production during rehearsals, and the audience collaborates with these other two during performances. Actors, production staff and audience all bring particular flavours to this melange. The characters are complex constructions dependent on collaboration between these rich layers in performance.

Conflict in the abstract is a condition when differences come in contact. Conflict is a fundamental fractal of the theatrical experience. This fractal is the building block of theatre as a model and pedagogy of conflict management.

The primary conflict modeled by theatre is interpersonal, that which occurs between characters. Two or more characters can be in conflict with each other through the course of a scene. A character can also be in conflict with themselves. A typical example of demonstrated intrapersonal conflict is the use of the soliloquy, where a character's internal monologue is voiced for the audience. However, there's also an inner monologue where a character has an internal conflict that is acted but not voiced. There's also extrapersonal conflict that can occur between a character and the forces of nature or divinity, such as characters in conflict with the flood waters of the Mississippi or when King Lear rails against the sky, “Blow winds and crack your cheeks!”

... every conflict that involves a character is a metaphor for personal and community conflict between the participants

The last kind of conflict is one that's present in art that performs its highest calling and is especially dynamic within the theatrical experience. This is ritual conflict is between the characters and the participants. If the character is a complex collaboration between material, actor, production staff and audience, then every conflict that involves a character is a metaphor for personal and community conflict between the participants. The character informs and is informed by a reciprocal communication between the participants. The character is an emergent quality that can only exist in an exact moment of complex interaction between individuals and community within a theatrical experience.

Theatre is Resolution

Theatre presents conflicts in a formal metaphor, but it also offers a formal model of conflict resolution. Theatre is a formal, stylized form of conflict resolution. Typically the flow of events in a plot follow specific rules. This is more true from classical styles of theatre, but is still generally true. The form of a theatrical performance follows a sequence of events from a para-theatrical state to development, conflict, climax, denouement. The final stage after the denouement is a stage of reflection, criticism, in which the plot is carried on past the performance by the participants back to the para-theatrical.

In ancient Greece, part of each religious theatrical festival was the proagon, literally meaning “before the competition,” where the actors and artists addressed the community and talked about what was going to happen during the coming theatre experience. This is a formalized example of the para-theatrical state. This state, which before the action of the play, includes all of the attitudes and feelings and experiences that the audience, actors and artists bring to the performance. Everything that has happened to every participant prior to the performance becomes the context or environment in which the performance takes place. One might characterize this state, after Jung, as the communal unconscious of the theatrical experience.

Exposition will often occur and explains the internal context of the performance. This exposition might be delivered within the context of dramatic scenes or may include a chorus, narrator or prologue. Exposition provides information necessary for the understanding of what comes after. This is the mirror of the para-theatrical context, but is the artificial, internal consistency of the performance that sets the stage for a coming conflict. The characters are placed in conflict and tension mounts. The conflict reaches a peak, or climax. The conflict then moves to a denouement, a resolution or tying together of the threads of the plot. Perhaps this resolution is a catharsis of the tension, but not necessarily. Characters resolve the action, but it is the collective work of the participants to create a sense of meaning from the whole performance. There may be unanswered issues raised in the conflict for the audience to contend with for themselves. The audience responds to this potential ambiguity by carrying the experience beyond the theatrical event. After the performance, the participants are returned to the para-theatrical. The audience and the performers are all transformed by the process of collective thought, reflecting themselves to each other.

The cycle, from para-theatrical through theatrical experience and back, is itself a repeating fractal. The environment before the theatrical event becomes the substrate from which future meaning is derived and constructed. The theatrical event creates a reflection and reaction to the substrate culture which reciprocally is changed by the experience. Theatrical experience is brought forward from the event by the participants back to the larger community, becoming part of the culture itself. Experience of theatre then becomes the substrate of the next theatrical event. The cycle happens on a smaller scale from performance to performance and from scene to scene. Not only is the event a model of systemic relationships, but it is part of a system itself.

Theatre is Transformation

Unlike movies and unlike television, it [theatre] does require the live presence of both audience and actors in a single space. This is the theater's uniquely important advantage and function, its original religious function of bringing people together in a community ceremony where the actors are in some sense priests or celebrants, and the audience is drawn to participate with the actors in a kind of eucharist.” (van Itallie, ix)

Theatre is a reciprocal matrix of relationship between the actors and other actors and the audience from which characters and meaning are formed. This feedback loop exists in theatre more so than less participatory or non-participatory art forms like cinema. Each actor develops their character through the run in relation to the other actors and characters, and in relationship with the audiences that participate in the process. This would not be possible if the whole were divided, or if the theatrical experience did not take place live.

The first place that an actor and the production staff looks for information about the character is in the text of the script. There are clues about the character's history, appearance, and behaviour in what the character says and what other characters say. Primary characters tend to change in the text. This is the arc of character development from where they are at the beginning of the play to the end, and that development is within the context of the play. The character is transformed within the text of the play.

The actors themselves change the character in rehearsal in collaboration with other actors and the technical crew. Each interaction between the production staff and the actor informs the development of a character. This is a collective thinking that involves the entire production process. Discoveries are made about the character during rehearsal and these are chances for the character to transform during rehearsal. The actor changes the character during rehearsal and production in collaboration with the production staff, especially, but not exclusively, with the director.

The actor also changes their character over time during performances in collaboration audience's discoveries about the character. The way that an audience reacts will change the way that the actor acts. This is especially clear when doing comedy because no audience laughs at all the same spots or with the same intensity or length. Each audience brings their attention and focus to the play and the work of the actors and their reactions to the action cause the actors to adjust themselves in the moment. Some of these adjustments make their way into the subsequent performances. The actor changes the character in collaboration with the audience.

Since the character is part of themselves, the actor is learning to be compassionate with themselves. Since the character is part of a collective process, the actor is learning to be compassionate with others

The most important transformation is a ritual transformation of the audience and the actors. The audience and the performers collaborate in transforming each other. There is a transition into a participatory consciousness that involves the actor's performance and the audience's reaction. This is an active feedback loop that not only changes the performance in the moment, but also changes the performance over time. The audience is also moved by the performance to examine through metaphor important elements of their own thinking by this active collaboration. This is a transformation of the audience. The actor brings themselves into the work and explores their ability to be compassionate with their character. Since the character is part of themselves, the actor is learning to be compassionate with themselves. Since the character is part of a collective process, the actor is learning to be compassionate with others. This is a transformation of the actor.

These kinds of transformation are theatrical praxis, the practical application of theatre. This is where skills in metaphor and reflection are actualized collaboratively within a community. These kinds of transformation are interdependent, proportional and reciprocal. The actors are transformed into characters and are transformed by the characters.

Each scene is a model of change. A character enters a scene, having been somewhere, into a transitional space where they are transformed comes from conflict, and then moves on to the next scene, a newly arrived space after change. In other words, the drama of a scene is that there is a character in a transitional space between states of being. Each scene begins with the ending of what the character knows, passes through conflict and transformation, and ends as the character passes into another state of being. During this process, the actor, the character, the audience and the whole are each interdependently and reciprocally brought through this process of transformation.

Theatre is Dialogue

Dialogue, as I define it, is a conversation with a center, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before. It lifts us out of polarization and into a greater common sense, and is thereby a means for accessing the intelligence and coordinated power of groups of people.” (Issacs, 19)

In ancient Greece, theatre was a community event. Plays were part of a public religious festival. The festival was a cultural event and the plays were commentaries on the events of the time. The play was part of the political life of the community and reflected the conflicts in society and was a process of collaborative common sense.

Theatre is a space where reality and disbelief are suspended. This creates a space where one is not required to be the same person, and can explore new ways of thinking and acting. The distance of metaphor allows people an experience of compassion for the shadow parts of themselves they have hidden even from themselves. The distance of metaphor allows people to practice compassion for those others different than themselves. This is the realization of a “capacity for new behavior.” (Issacs, 30) Suspension is an essential element in dialogue.

Theatre models conflicts externally and metaphorically. This allows participants, both on stage and off, to gain a perspective on the conflict, the motivations of the characters, and to see how these elements fit into the way a character changes over time, the character's arc. This is a way to “see the forces that are operating below the surface” of real-life conversations and conflicts that are reflected on stage. (Issacs, 30)

Finally, the ritual conflict between the performance and the audience bring to the surface what William Issacs calls the “architecture of the invisible.” (Issacs, 30) Theatre creates a mirror which reflects the “habits of thought and quality of attention” (Issacs, 30) of the participants to themselves. The performance is a construct that emerges from the interaction of characters. Characters are conceptual constructs that arise from the interdependent nexus in time and place of all ritual participants.

Theatre is the center around which the participants collectively create the performance of characters. The character is a collective common sense that emerges from the participants within an ephemeral moment on stage. Theatre is a process of dialogue.


Dialogue has the potential of conflict resolution through transformation. Theatre is at its best a ritual of transformation that models conflict resolution.

Theatre is a conflict resolution model. Theatre is an interdependent change event, both modeling transformation and transforming everyone involved. Theatre is a way of thinking differently, and is a community in dialogue with itself.

Theatre helps people hear the stories that they have not heard, or been unwilling to hear

Theatre is a model for conflict resolution. It creates a healthy cultural forum for dialogue over contentious issues. Theatre helps people hear the stories that they have not heard, or been unwilling to hear. Theatre develops skills in understanding the Other. Theatre and all arts can take over when traditional dialogue is not available or fails.

The work of Augusto Boal is a modern example of how theatre can be an integral part of community development. “Playback to invite story and healing, T.O. to invite dialogue and action.” (Fox, et al., 2004) “Playback Theatre "serves" the teller; Theatre of the Oppressed "uses" the teller.” (Fox, et al., 2004) Anna Deavere Smith's work Fires in the Mirror is another example of how theatre can be used to develop a safe place to explore and examine differences, conflicts and diversity within dangerously divided communities. (1993).

Theatre of the Oppressed tools and Playback theatre are ways of accessing different modes of thinking and are another way to develop participatory awareness, an awareness of an essential connection to ourselves, others and things greater than ourselves. The theatrical experience is another avenue to resolve the essential conflict between the need to be an individual and the need to connect to something larger. Resolving this essential conflict is an alternative to the impulse toward war. The impulse toward dialogue and theatre is participation in the creation of culture, community and peace.


Issacs, W. (1999). “A Conversation with a Center, Not Sides,” Chapter One. In Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. New York, NY: Random House

Wilson, E. (1988). The Theater Experience. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

van Itallie, J-C. (1969) The Serpent: A Ceremony, written in collaboration with the Open Theater, Atheneum, New York.

LeShan, L. (2003, Jan-Feb). Why We Love War: And what we can do to prevent it anyway. Utne. <>

Boal, A. (1982). Theatre of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Routledge.

Smith, A. D. (1993). Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and other identities. New York, NY: Anchor.

Havel, V. (1986). “Power of the Powerless.” Living in Truth. London, UK: Faber and Faber.

Fox, H., Weinblatt, M., Britain, L. (2004). “Theatre of the Oppressed and Playback Theatre - Cousins with a Common Cause.” The Mandala Center. <>