Accessible theatre: the application of human ethology and innate neurobiological systems to full-masked devised theatre practice

  • Sally Cook

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis is concerned with the challenges of devising a full-masked theatre performance that is largely accessible to audiences of every age, social background and culture. The study is original and contributes to knowledge in two distinct ways; it is to this researcher’s knowledge the only such research that examines the relationship between the devising processes of a full-masked performance, neurobiology, human ethology and the accessibility of audience reception (Bennett, 1994). Secondly, this is the first study to investigate how universal innate neurological processes can be used in the making and reception of stage performance to help ensure wide accessibility of information and meaning. The thesis addresses the concept of accessibility by taking a phenomenological approach to devising and audience reception, with particular focus on the role of neurobiological systems and structures, in particular the mirror neuron system, the pleasure-reward system, and pattern recognition systems, in the communication and reception of performance meaning (McConachie, 2008). The research is framed by the concept of a universal theatrical language proposed by practitioners Peter Brook and Tadeshi Suzuki, which has the potential to connect people ‘at the deepest levels of their humanity’ (Pavis, 1996: 6). Practical approaches adopted in the research are informed and supported by anthropological and human ethological claims of universality (Ekman, 1975; Brown, 1991; Eibl-Eibesfeldt; 2007 [1989]; Schmitt et al. 1997). This thesis theorizes that human beings possess innate neurobiological systems that interact with culturally specific concepts, conditions and knowledge in such a way that when deployed appropriately, these innate neurobiological systems can be a platform for human cognition and for the designing of performances accessible to an audience of different ages, social backgrounds and cultures. It also proposes that innate neurobiological systems create a universal framework that makes it possible for the said broad-based audience to read and receive a performance using similar codes of cognition and aesthetic reference irrespective of age, social and cultural backgrounds. The research process led to the creation of an original full-masked theatrical performance and eighteen performances of this piece were given to different audiences in a range of venues and locations in Northamptonshire. Qualitative and quantitative data analysis of how the various audiences received the performance suggest that the devising methods employed did contribute to making the performance accessible to an audience with a ‘broader constituency than theaters normally envision’ (Pitts-Walker, 1994: 9-10). This research enables practitioners for whom a wide audience and accessibility are an explicit focus to adopt devising approaches that will help to achieve the desired wide-ranging reception and accessibility in mixed audiences irrespective of race, age, gender and culture.
Date of Award2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Northampton

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