Extra Sensory Perception

How the stage allows us to get inside another person’s experience

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, TheEthel Barrymore Theatre

Alex Sharp in The National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

“You never know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes,” goes the popular adage about trying to be less judgmental and more compassionate. The key to getting in someone else’s shoes is to imagine what his or her experience must be like, to feel what she or he must be feeling. This exercise is known as empathy.

One place that’s crackerjack at making empathy 3-D is the theater.

Since its invention, theater has served as a platform for dramatizing the human experience with all the joys, humor, complications, tragedies, injustices and awkward awakenings of the human heart. The stage also acted as a mirror, reflecting back at society what it refused to see—or, in many cases, was unable to see about itself until other people literally showed humanity what it looked like. The stage is a safe place to say uncomfortable things, to challenge the status quo, to make people laugh at themselves and others, to experiment with how to make abstract concepts concrete and in-the-flesh. Sometimes a play does all of these things while singing and dancing. (We’re looking at you, Book of Mormon.)

With the rise of interest in human psychology at the turn of the 20th century, a new challenge cropped up for playwrights and actors: how to capture the workings of the mind? We know Freud relied on his knowledge of Greek theater to name two of his bigger concepts (Oedipus and Electra complexes) and that psyche is the Greek word for “soul,” from the eponymous goddess. So, drama in real life goes hand-in-hand with the drama of the mind.

However, putting that mental activity on paper in dialogue and stage directions is not so natural. The key rests in the collaborative, team-based nature of manufacturing make believe: on stage and screen, other designers lend their skills to bring the vision of the mental landscape to completion. Set design, lighting, color palettes, sound and choreography become crucial to pulling the lofty, abstract ideas of “torment,” “sensory overload,” “insanity,” or “schizophrenia,” “addiction,” or “depression” into a detailed, concrete picture that audiences can see and understand. These elements help bring audiences to empathy, to the shift in perception that allows us to see into the soul of another—or ourselves.

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Some of the best representations of the wacky, disjointed nature of thought occur on film. We’re thinking here of Charlie Kaufman’s body of work (Human Nature, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or Chris Nolan (Memento, Inception) or Pixar’s 2015 offering, Inside Out, the animated film where even emotions get emotions.

Theater plays tend to explore psychology not as a setting (like literally finding a portal into John Malkovich’s brain in Kaufman’s delightfully bizarro screenplay) but as character traits or as a theme. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf scarred several generations with its unflinching examination of alcoholism and head games, and Peter Shaffer’s boy-who-blinds-horses drama, Equus, continued to make audiences squirm even when Harry Potter’s actor played the lead. And let’s quickly nod to Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, a frightful interweaving of psychological cruelty and children’s storytelling, that proved illuminating the deep, dark perversities of the minds of men was alive and well for this 2004 Laurence Olivier award-winner.

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Daniel Radcliffe, Lorenzo Pisoni, and Richard Griffiths in the Broadway revival of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus.” (Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

Back in the day, playwright Arthur Miller wrote in his stage directions to Death of a Salesman that the set should indicate titular salesman Willy Loman’s varying psychological conditions, and Ntozake Shange’s fierce use of dance and poetry to reveal the psychological effects of racism and sexism on black women pushed For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf to be nominated for a Tony® award for Best Play in 1977.

Yet theater still experiments with finding ways to do what Kaufman’s and Nolan’s films are able to do—namely, make a character’s mind the landscape of a story. Finding plays or musicals that take place inside a person’s experience of the world to put the audience inside the character’s worldview are few and far between.

Then there’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, TheEthel Barrymore Theatre

Original Broadway Company of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

This play (it’s not a musical), based on Mark Haddon’s novel of the same name, takes theater one step further. Curious Incident follows the events of the main character, Christopher, a boy who has a rather brilliant and extraordinary mind, after a neighbor’s dog is murdered. That mind, however, processes the world unlike most people’s minds. So, how does a production team build a play to spark compassion and empathy for Christopher? It puts the audience in Christopher’s shoes. Or, literally, in Christopher’s sensory experience.

The set itself serves as Christopher’s psychological boundaries. His mind, a grid-based thinking system (as opposed to our floaty, nebulous artists’ minds), becomes the walls of the set, the grid illuminated in different ways throughout the performance. As audience members, we are thrust into Christopher’s perception of the world with its numbers, noises, chaotic choreography, indirect and disorganized language and baffling array of incomprehensible adult reactions to facts. Christopher and his pet rat Toby must solve the murder, and we tag along for the ride, strapped into the observer’s seat in Christopher’s worldview. Often, like Christopher, we find ourselves overwhelmed by the onslaught of movement, sound and unpredictability of every day living.

Frankly, it’s a stunning theatrical achievement. Perhaps, at least in this case, we can say we know Christopher by the end of the show, not because we’ve walked a mile in his shoes, but because we’ve watched two hours from the inside of his mind.

Curious about Curious? Then come see the show.