The Psychology of Theatrical Illusion
April 6, 2015 5:37 PM   Subscribe

This is a long shot, but I am writing a paper on the psychology of theatrical design (or at least trying to) and am having a hard time finding good resources on the subject. Looking for books, films, scholarly articles, ANYTHING discussing how any and all aspects of live concerts or theatrical productions (music, lighting, architecture and theater design, etc) effect the audience to create a "magical" or transcendent group experience.

So far everything I am finding with Google is about the psychology of acting and "drama therapy". The library isn't much help either. Since this is for a theater art and architecture class, I am more focused on the use and manipulation of the physical space than "'how to get into character" etc.

Anybody out there into this sort of thing?

(and yes, I plan to ask the instructor, but he's an art historian so this isn't his specific area of expertise to begin with)
posted by evilcupcakes to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
You might like the book Magic and Meaning, which is very hard to buy but which you can probably obtain through inter-library loan. In a related vein, you might enjoy some of the literature on how to create interpretive experiences and immersive environments in museum settings.
posted by carmicha at 6:01 PM on April 6, 2015

This is reaching deep back into my own studies, but when I studied the Theater of the Absurd (and both Dada and Futurism too) I remember that a lot of that thinking was to take the emphasis away from psychology and to move the audience into a dream-like state. While some of the focus was on the actor and his/her movements, a lot was on the setting and the scene. You may find some good material if you look that direction.
posted by frumiousb at 6:03 PM on April 6, 2015

You might need to get into Ritual Studies. Theater started as ritual, and a lot of that transcendent group experience overlaps with ritual. My wife did her thesis on worship arts in this area, looking at things like Blue Man Group. Grimes and Schechner might be a good starting point. And of course anything related to Peter Brook, from the theater end. I can't help with the pure psychology.
posted by rikschell at 6:05 PM on April 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

You might also look into the work of Jennifer Tipton. I believe there is quite bit of material on her lighting work.
posted by frumiousb at 6:05 PM on April 6, 2015

If you haven't already, researching and examining the theatrical experience of phantasmagoria will lead you to many routes, I think. That kind of magical illusion-making was especially prevalent in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and most of the literature that I've scanned over dealing with theatrical illusions come from that era as well. (Magic lantern projections, the Pepper's Ghost trick, etc)
posted by suedehead at 6:25 PM on April 6, 2015

Response by poster: carmicha: I hadn't thought of going the direction of actual magic. I will check that out! Thank you.

frumiousb: That sounds like the direction I am trying to go but can't seem to articulate well. I will check out the Tipton thing too.

rickschell: That's actually more like what I am getting my degree in. I am studying the transpersonal experience in Indo-European mythology and folklore with an emphasis on music. I actually saw Blue Man Group a few years ago on a date and was dubious going into it, but wow, that was an incredible experience.
posted by evilcupcakes at 6:27 PM on April 6, 2015

Response by poster: suedehead: YES! Phantasmagoria is one of the words I was trying to remember! Thank you!
posted by evilcupcakes at 6:28 PM on April 6, 2015

Take a look at the work of Adolphe Appia, a designer working just when electric lighting was being introduced. Also see if you can find anything by or about Arden Fingerhut, who did a ton of lighting on Broadway and in experimental theater up through the 90's.
posted by expialidocious at 7:29 PM on April 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm sure some ink has been spilled about the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, source of the footage for Triumph of the Will and featuring Albert Speer's Cathedral of Light. Speer talked about his designs for the rally in Inside the Third Reich, starting on page 55. ("Early in 1934 Hitler surprised me with my first major commission....")
posted by clawsoon at 7:37 PM on April 6, 2015

I'm just going to toss this out without any cites, sorry, but I strongly suspect that the addition of narrative to a musical performance can work to make the performance more engaging and compelling.

Granted, theatrical performances should (you'd think) offer a strong narrative. But concerts often do not: your average rock show is just a bag of songs about random topics. But if you add a narrative thread - then it becomes opera. (Or musical theatre or whatever). I don't know actual numbers, but look at the band Pink Floyd: their biggest selling albums had a storyline, or at least some kind of unifying theme or message.

That said, I really like the suggestions about magic and ritual. And maybe drugs, too. Look at all those people at Grateful Dead concerts.
posted by doctor tough love at 10:20 PM on April 6, 2015

I think you're looking for Norman Klein's book From the Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects which focuses on how architecture creates certain feelings and illusions. he starts from church architecture and moves through theatrical design towards the immersive environments of Vegas, which are similarly designed with a sense of wonder and magic in mind.

I'd also encourage you to look at Arnold Aronson's work--his essays on scenography can be really enlightening in terms of understanding design in theater.
posted by geryon at 11:10 PM on April 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Magic and Showmanship may be what you're looking for. The same author also apparently wrote about set design and other aspects of theatrical productions, although I haven't read those books.
posted by pie ninja at 5:28 AM on April 7, 2015

This has already been somewhat suggested, but I think you might have better luck searching for what you need by looking for papers and books specific theatre companies and artists instead of a broad overview. And if you find something that works about those artists/companies, those sources might have broad overview sources listed in their discussion.

I remember reading this book about Julie Taymor and her saying a lot of things about her design of shows and puppets in the ways that you're asking about.

Artists and companies that I would think have articles about them include Taymor, Mary Zimmerman and Lookingglass Theatre, Punchdrunk Theatre -- specifically Sleep No More (as that is far more about environment than performance), and Complicite.

Another thought is to look through books on the principles of theatre design without searching specifically for the psychology component. When I was in a conservatory theatre program for playwriting, I had a take a basic design course and while we didn't have a book, we spent a lot of time talking about how design effects an audience. What you're looking for might be naturally in there.

Also, your instructor may not be a theatre person, but they might know someone who is. If there's a theatre program at your institution, maybe you could ask your instructor for an introduction to someone in the theatre department. I bet professors of theatre design would have great ideas for resources.

This paper idea sounds fantastic, by the way. I'd love to read it when you're finished.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 5:58 AM on April 7, 2015

I don't have specific references, but you may want to go down the rabbit hole of the theatrics of fraternal rites -- Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Oddfellows, etc., integrated very theatrical elements into their rites, like shadow puppetry, magic-like tricks, elaborate sets and costumes and lightning cues. They're not explicitly religious, but include religion-like elements, I don't know how 'seriously' the members took the theatrics aside from wishing to perform their rites correctly.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:18 AM on April 7, 2015

Dance is better at this than theater in some ways. I would add that to your search bag.
posted by edbles at 6:59 AM on April 7, 2015

Teller (of Penn & fame) has done this.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:11 PM on April 7, 2015

A quick glance at my bookshelves produced a couple of books that might be somewhat relevant:

Ancient mystery religions might be an angle to explore, and 'The ancient mysteries - A source book', edited by Marvin W. Meyer, is one place to start.

Somewhat in the same vein, though with a much more pop-science approach, there's 'Das Geheimnis der Orakel' by Philipp Vandenberg. The title of the English translation appears to be 'Mysteries of the oracles'. The book discusses the ancient oracles, and how they achieved their effect on their audiences.

From a different angle, there's 'Theatre of the World' by Frances A. Yates and 'The Chemical Theatre' by Charles Nicholl. Both discuss occult / philosophical influences on Renaissance theatre.

More in general, Shakespeare might be worth looking into, for instance Henry V (which discusses the 'magic' of turning a bare theatre space into the battlefields of France) and The Tempest (which is about magic and illusion, among other things - while you're at it, check out 'Prospero's Books' by Peter Greenaway).
posted by rjs at 1:53 PM on April 7, 2015

Adding to my previous comment: 'Theatre of the World' by Frances A. Yates discusses theatre architecture, and the book by Vandenberg discusses the spaces where the oracles resided and how they influenced the audience's experiences.
posted by rjs at 2:00 PM on April 7, 2015

This is also a longshot, but because of the word "magical" I suppose, your question reminded me of some things I read in Jodorowsky's book "Psychomagic" about the "Theater of Panic" he was involved in as well as the use of shamanic techniques to affect the subconscious through symbolic acts.
posted by yoHighness at 3:54 AM on April 8, 2015

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