- Theatre & Mind by Bruce McConachie
Bruce McConachie’s Theatre & Mind is a new addition to the Palgrave Macmillan Theatre & series edited by Jen Harvie and Dan Rebellato. Each petite volume is intended to provide a general readership with a straightforward introduction to theatre’s intersections with other fields of study. While envisioned for an undergraduate readership, Theatre & Mind serves as more than an overview of the field of cognitive studies in theatre; rather, it is a proposal to a new generation of practitioners and scholars to consider investigating the cognitive foundations of theatre. McConachie presents a compelling argument for cognitive studies in theatre, connecting the biological cognitive processes of human [End Page 258] play and neocortical brain development to the processes intrinsic to acting and spectating.
McConachie begins with a discussion of the title word “mind,” demonstrating not only its insufficiencies to describe the intended topic, but also our problematic cultural conceptions of it.
He notes that the word “mind” is problematic on two counts: (1) it is not indicative of the active process of cognition and consequently strips the mind of its interactive properties; and (2) it suggests a Cartesian separation between the body and the mind, between feeling and thinking, a notion that is antithetical to both cognitive studies and theatre. The principle that frames this book and the larger body of cognitive scholarship is that the mind, like theatre, is both embodied and interactive, which seems to make both fields natural corollaries to each other. McConachie advocates that theatre scholarship and practice must move beyond poststructuralist paradigms and behaviorist perspectives in order to join the current cognitive conversation, and more importantly to move our understanding of theatre and its processes forward.
The book draws from McConachie’s larger body of work and that of other leading scholars in cognitive studies. His essay is organized around three main areas: playing, acting, and spectating, which guide the reader from the fundamental cognitive functions in human evolution into in-depth examinations of the same cognitive processes in actors and spectators of theatre. Through analyzing theatrical processes, McConachie demonstrates how cognitive operations inform theatre participation and practice. While just breaking the surface of cognitive studies, he maintains the integrity of its complex ideas and makes their concepts comprehensible to a general reader. McConachie also provides a list of publications that informed his essay, including works by both prominent cognitive studies scholars and performance theorists.
McConachie introduces readers to the fundamental cognitive functions in a concise tutorial on human evolution, focusing on the key cognitive theories involving the processes of empathy, emotions, conceptual blending, and role-playing, each of which is a critical survival skill that evolved out of hominid and human play. Starting with the impact of play on the human brain, he leads the reader through 50,000 years of cognitive development and demonstrates that our ability to pretend has allowed us to move beyond developmental play and into theatrical performance.
Furthering his argument on the role of cognitive processes in theatre, McConachie then weaves cognitive operations into acting processes. He challenges the commonly held binary assumption that actor training is either mental or physical and argues instead that it is an embodied practice. He advocates that [End Page 259] the methods of Jacques LeCoq and Michael Chekhov are favorable approaches as they link intentional physical practice with embodied emotional expression. He reminds the reader that the concepts explained earlier in terms of human evolution are central to the processes of acting. Improvisation and rehearsal require the additional cognitive process of decision control, another skill necessary for human survival as well as creating the embodied art of theatre.
The final section of this concentrated volume focuses on the spectator’s processes of selective conceptual blending between actor and character, emotional engagement with narratives, and navigating individual and cultural memory. Entwined throughout his examination of the spectator is a thorough analysis of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which helps to illustrate the multiple and complex processes at work in the spectator during a single performance...