Rynell, Erik Lectio Praecursoria

Action Reconsidered: Cognitive Aspects of the Relation between Script and Scenic Action

According to many definitions, an action is something we do with an intention, or a purpose.

The concept of action is frequently connected to questions about the possibility of human deliberation. This is also how it becomes important within theatre, an art form that crucially deals with human actions.

But action is also a contested notion. In the behaviouristic approach to the human mind that dominated the 20th century there was no place for free deliberation. Human activities were described as behaviour rather than actions, and behaviour as predominantly a matter of stimulus and response.

In consequence, the notion of human action became more or less banished from scientific discussions about the human mind during the 20th century.

In theatre and acting, on the other hand, action had been a central notion ever since antiquity, and the concept retained this position in writings on the actor’s art until the present day. Thus also, the central figure in the theatre performance is someone called an “actor”, someone who acts.

But in the 20th century action came to be questioned in theatre also, and there were many attempts to replace the idea of the intentional agent with that of the individual as steered by outside forces. In my dissertation I account for finds within contemporary cognitive science, which in many ways go against paradigms about the human mind that dominated the 20th century. And I conclude that at the beginning of the 21st century there seems to be many reasons to reconsider the role of action in theatre and acting as well.

Cognitive science is a rather novel approach to the human mind. It took its origin in the computer science of the nineteen fifties and the quest for AI, Artificial Intelligence (the term AI was coined in 1956). Today Cognitive science is a cross-disciplinary pursuit, bringing together disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, neurology, computer science, and linguistics. The idea within the “first generation” cognitive science about the human mind as crucially based on computation gradually, in the “second generation”, gave way to ideas about the human mind as first of all situated and embodied (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, Varela, Thompson and Rosch 1991), which also increasingly opened for comparisons with experience made within acting and actor training.

Needless to say, I am not a specialist in all the above-mentioned scientific. But at Lund University, where I am active as a teacher, there are today two centres of cognitive science, headed by internationally renowned researchers, and in the course of the last seven or so years I have been able to attend seminars in this milieu, and also had opportunities to discuss some contributions of my own. But my main competence in this context is the one of being a teacher at a practice-oriented theatre education at Malmö Theatre Academy, Lund University, where I am also responsible for the dramatic writing programme. The landscape for the study of the human mind is undergoing significant changes, and, in consequence, the landscape for the study of theatre too, as theatre crucially deals with the embodied human mind.

What is an action?

In the dissertation I use the following definition by theatre semiotician Keir Elam:

“There is a being, conscious of his doings who intentionally brings about a change of some kind” (Elam 1980)

The definition is consistent with how many practitioners in theatre look at scenic action, as first and foremost purposeful and taking place in an assumed context. Descriptions of this basic condition for the actor’s art can be found in writings on acting at least down to the 18th century, and, as I argue in the dissertation, probably earlier.

The definition is also consistent with the philosopher Donald Davidson’s basic idea in his influential essay “Actions, reasons and causes”, where he states that actions have reasons, not causes (Davidson 1997).

Notably, conscious and intentional actions do not stand in a dichotomic opposition to unconscious and unintentional doings. While being intentional and conscious we, and figures in dramas alike, also do things that are unintentional, or that the agent is not conscious of. Being unintentional in some sense is generally just another side of being intentional in another one. Konstantin Stanislavski is one of several writers on the actor’s art who stresses this interplay between conscious and unconscious, intentional and intentional.

An action takes place in a context, or, to use a word that is more common within the practice of acting, in a situation.

“Situation” implies a background, i.e. previous events, a past.

The background and the situation spark the individual’s intention in the situation.

Thus, in action according to the definition and in acting based on the possibility of deliberation there is:

  • a background
  • a situation
  • an intention

In my dissertation I use the abbreviation BSI for this general, basic template.

BSI is a narrative pattern that is present in Western drama and acting throughout most of its history.

It is a pattern that resists even important changes in terms of aesthetics and style. In a section of the dissertation, I try to demonstrate this with reference to one of the most significant changes within Western acting, the transition from the oratorical style of acting that was common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries into the more every-day-life-like acting that was gaining prominence in the middle of the 18th century. I argue that both these approaches to acting were based on BSI.

This incites me to make comparisons with research within cognitive science. I start with Lucy M Suchman, who coined the concept of “situated actions”, and who significantly contributed to the fact that situated actions became an important element in the “second generation cognitive science” (Suchman 1990).

I point to the fact that acting in accordance with BSI does not equal realism, or naturalism. Much theatre, and even non-fictional performance art comply well with a BSI scheme. Even “theatre without action” or “postdramatic theatre” that is not conceptualized in accordance with a BSI scheme, is nonetheless frequently acted according to this.

I also argue that acting according to the BSI scheme does not equal “psychological realism”: theatrical grotesque and different forms of “theatricality” frequently comply well with the BSI scheme.

I make a selection of some practitioners of acting methodology who have attempted to put words to the mostly tacit knowledge involved in acting and actor training. I argue that, rather than representing a particular style in theatre and acting, these writers account for experience produced in their practice that transcends aesthetic and stylistic approaches.

These writers are:

  • Konstantin Stanislavski (1986, 1985, 1983)
  • Richard Hornby (1992)
  • Declan Donellan (2005)
  • Radu Penciulescu (1989, 2000)
  • Robert Cohen (1978)

All of them treat the relation between text and scenic action, with a view on the text as crucially also providing non-verbal material for the actor.

– Konstantin Stanislavski in his emphasis on what he calls “the given circumstances”, and the Objective

– Declan Donnellan in his observation that an actor must have a “target” in the situation

– Radu Penciulescu, when arguing that “the character is the sum of the responses given to the situation”

– Robert Cohen in his focus on the aims of the character in the situation

These writers all implicitly embrace the idea about action as situated.

Their writings imply a mentalistic, non-behaviourist idea about human action and volition. Still none of them advocates introspection as a part of the actor’s preparation.

According to them acting is based on:

  • action and action understanding
  • Situatedness
  • Free deliberation
  • Empathic understanding of others (intersubjectivity)
  • Narrative as a mode for understanding action
  • Non-dichotomic relationship between fiction and real

Action and action understanding are central elements in most acting.

Situatedness means that the action takes place in a context that crucially influences the action.

Free deliberation means that the character’s actions are not just the outcome of external causation. The actor acts according to how (s)he experiences the situation, which also presupposes some kind of freedom.

Empathic understanding of others: the actor obtains his/her own embodied understanding of the character’s actions according to the script. The scenic actions are subsequently understood intersubjectively by the audience.

Narrative as a mode to understand action: The drama forms a story that makes us understand actions in context. The events presented onstage are actions that enable us to follow a story.

But BSI could be present even in cases where the sequential built of the story is disrupted, and even in plays/performances that lack a specific story.

Non-dichotomic relationship between fiction and real: all writers I refer to in this section underscore the element of the real in acting. The story is fictive and based on assumed situations, but the actor’s actions are real actions in the scenic context.

Action, will, intention, consciousness and empathic understanding were extensively banished from scientific discussion in the 20th century. At the beginning of the 21st they are making a comeback within cognitive science.

As regards action, the following themes, which have bearing on the actor’s art are discussed within cognitive science

  • situated action (Suchman 1987)
  • a neural substrate for intersubjectivity in the form of mirror neurons (Rizzolatti, Fogassi, Gallese et al.)
  • the child as an intentional agent (Tomasello 1999)
  • action as dynamic systems (Juarrero 2002)

The theory of mirror neurons: the mentioned researchers, active at the University of Parma, found in the brain, first of monkeys, then of humans also a certain kind of neurons that fire not only when an individual performs a certain activity, but also when (s)he sees others perform this. Thus these writers found a neural substrate for action understanding, and showed that the understanding of actions and intentions is part of basic cognitive abilities. On the other hand, it should also be stated that the theory of “mirror neurons” cannot account for more complex, higher-order action understanding which is distributed across several regions in the brain, and not only confined to the one where these researchers have located the mirror neurons, the premotor cortex. However, the discovery of the mirror neurons is an example of how one today can gain more knowledge as regards the connections between mental phenomena and neurology. The neural circuitry that underlies perspective taking and other mentalizing tasks is beginning to emerge. These findings also bear witness to the relevance of the concept of intentional action.

In the dissertation I refer to the following writers on situatedness:

  • Suchman (1987, 1990)
  • Zahavi (2006).

Suchman specializes in man-machine communication. It was in her seminal Plans and Situtated Actions (1987) that she coined her notion of Situated cognition. Suchman stresses action as interaction with the environment in a way that comes close to Stanislavski’s idea about how scenic action takes on meaning in relation to “given circumstances”.

Cognitive scientists such as Lakoff and Johnson, Evan Thompson, and Jordan Zlatev often refer to phenomenological philosophy which has aroused much interest in part of contemporary cognitive science. A writer within this tradition that is frequently referred to is Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose descriptions of human world interaction has also attracted interest within theatre.

As regards free deliberation I refer to writers such as:

  • Lakoff and Johnson 1999 (“Limited by crucial freedom”)
  • Searle 1998: (“presupposition about liberty and choice”)
  • Juarrero 2002 (“we are not passive products of the environment or external forces”)

These writers testify to how the idea of free deiberation has made a comeback in scientific discussion

As regards empathic understanding of others I refer to writers such as Lakoff and Johnson (1999), the mirror neuron theory, Tomasello (1999), and Zlatev (2007). By “empathic understanding” I do not only mean emotional empathy, but the many-faceted human capacity to put oneself into someone else’s situation. Lakoff and Johnson (1999): empathy as a projection of the subject.

Mirror neurons theory (and other theories) within contemporary cognitive neuroscience: talk about the neural underpinning our capacity to understand others.

Tomasello (1999) points to the importance of empathy for the acquisition of language. At the age of nine months the infant begins to engage in what he calls “joint attentional behaviors”, which is an important part of the ontogenesis of language readiness, i.e. in the way the child learns to use and understand the language. Children conceptualize their own mental states only after they have managed to conceptualize the mental states of others.

Not least, the connection these scholars make between empathic understanding of other’s action and language understanding is interesting from a theatrical point of view.

As regards narrative as a mode for understanding action I refer, in the first hand, to Juarrero (2002). And as regards non-dichotomic relationship between real and fiction I refer to Saltz (2006) notion of infiction, as well as Fauconnier and Turner’s notion of “conceptual blending” (2002). The central aspect of fiction is not that it is untrue. Fauconnier and Turner have coined the notion of “conceptual blending”. They also use theatre to exemplify this notion: the role appears “in the blend” between the fictional character and the actor (Fauconnier, Turner 2002).

Juarrero undertakes a revision of the concept of causation whereby she stresses the historical character of the Western idea about causation and demonstrates that this is in fact unfit to deal with human action. Approaching the concept of action from information theory and complex systems theory, she suggests that the very concept of causation behind mechanistic descriptions of the human mind is irrelevant. And she ends up with presenting narrative, and in particular narrative in the form of theatre and acting, as a privileged way to account for human action, better than any descriptive means.

Drama without action

From the early stages of theatrical modernism there has been a questioning of the individual-based idea about human action. This is an aspect of what I call “Drama without action”. In the dissertation I exemplify this with plays by

  • Maurice Maeterlinck
  • Oskar Kokoschka
  • Vassili Kandinski
  • August Stramm
  • Lothar Schreyer
  • Samuel Beckett
  • Peter Handke
  • Martin Crimp
  • Sarah Kane

There is a through-going tendency in the works of these playwrights

  • to question the element (possibility) of deliberate action
  • to seek for the causes of volition in external forces, rather than in the intentions of the acting persons

I find that some ideas behind this trend draw inspiration from science, and some from different forms of religious mysticism, but I find it beyond the scope of the dissertation to present a detailed account for these influences.

Hans-Thies Lehmann, a contemporary German theatre researcher, states in a quote that I recurrently come back to in the dissertation: “The reality of the new theatre begins precisely in the fading of this trinity of drama, imitation and action” (Lehmann 1999, 2006).

In the plays I analyse there is a scepticism towards

  • human action
  • the possibility of language to deal with reality (Sprachskepsis)
  • representation

Lehmann talks about fatalism as a common trait in the new theatre of the 20th century. Here also, interestingly, there is a linking between action and language. In the dissertation I make the observation that scepticism towards the one often comes with scepticism toward the other.

Lehmann talks about his own concept of “post dramatic theatre” as “the concretism of theatre”, something I exemplify in the dissertation with a subsection on Kandinski’s seminal The Yellow Sound from 1909.

In the section about “Drama without action” I conclude that empathic, intersubjective understanding of others’ actions became extensively as much anathema in experimental theatre in the 20th century as in behaviouristic psychology.


In my dissertation I do not support the view that acting methodology can be subordinated to scientific theory. Rather I treat the scientific and the artistic approaches to action as two separate fields of research, two different ways to investigate human interaction with the environment, and I point to what stands out as important commonalities between experience from acting and acting training on the one hand, and finds within cognitive science on the other.

The writings I refer to within the latter domain by no means form a unified, coherent theory about the human mind. Accordingly, my aim in the dissertation is not to extract out of cognitive theories a general theory that could be applied to experiences within acting. It suffices to point to the fact that mechanistic and behaviouristic ideas about the human mind that held sway during the 20th century and that also made imprints on the theatre of this century, have been questioned within important part of contemporary science about the human mind. I also point to the fact that, extensively, finds within these scientific fields are consistent with experiences made within acting and acting methodology. Thus:

1. New discoveries about the human mind challenge ideas that have been strongly influential in modern theatre throughout the 20th century

2. Theories within important parts of cognitive science comply well with knowledge implicitly involved in dealings with the transition from the script to scenic action in the form of acting and acting methodology, which opens up novel possibilities for exchange between the scientific and artistic field.



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