Information Age Education
   Issue Number 129
January, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, three free books based on the newsletters are available: Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments, Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education, and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This newsletter is the fourteenth in a series on complexity. Our informal and formal educational systems, and our everyday life experiences, help us learn to deal with the complexities of complexity.

Understanding and Mastering Complexity:
Using Theatre Education as Sophisticated
Play and to Embody Cognition

Xan S. Johnson
Professor of Theatre
University of Utah

Theatre is a very important and complex human endeavor. As an art form, theatre has historically added a thoughtful, sometimes provocative level of sophistication to the concept of play, play in which the initial informal moves toward understanding and mastering complexity have typically begun. And in doing this, it has spanned millennia from amphitheater to opera to pageantry to proscenium to film to radio to television to YouTube. All these modes of theatre are live enactments by actors at some point in the playmaking process, even when distanced by media technology. Like a child playing out experiences yet to come, actors and theatre artists are at play, working to make sense of the complexity already here. Theatre is thus simply sophisticated play.

Charlotte's Web

When creating formal theatre in Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA), I have often been asked as a professional theatre artist to direct stage adaptations of E. B. White's Charlotte’s Web. I recently staged my sixth production of the popular stage adaptation by Joseph Robinette (2008). I never say no because I have a deep affinity for this modern narrative classic, and it’s fun to escape the university to work with career actors whenever I can. There is more to my story, so let's go back to early in my career.

I spend my summers in Wisconsin near a small rural burg. A sign on the downtown one-room library says, “Open when the librarian is in.” When I approached one morning, the librarian was locking the front door and about to leave. I rushed over and pleaded my case. She said she was going over to the elementary school a block away to bring back a class of third graders for a reading fair. She told me go in and she would be right back. She locked me in and off she went. I found a copy of Charlotte’s Web, sat in a way too small chair, my knees up to my nose, and read quickly. I had read the book when it first came out, so I was thinking about staging possibilities as I scanned through the chapters.

As I reached the dramatic heart of the piece in which Charlotte tells innocent young Wilbur that she is about to die soon, my reading slowed as I automatically took time to “live in” the story. I didn’t even notice that the small library was now abuzz with third graders searching for books. Just after Charlotte died alone, I noticed a boy looking right at me from about six feet away. He seemed concerned and a little scared. I then realized that I was crying, tears coming down my face. Here I was, a grown man, sitting in a ridiculously small chair, looking at a nine year old and crying. I immediately became self-conscious and my emotional connection paused. But the boy didn’t move, as if waiting for me to explain. The only words I could muster were, “Charlotte died.” I held up the book. The tears returned, though stoically. Nearly without pause and with great courage the boy walked to me, put a comforting hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s OK, she dies every time.”

From an Event to a Career

This early career event helped me to understand the powerful ways in which literature and art linger for us after experiencing it. This also occurs in live theatre, which is temporal and lingers in us only as an embodied memory. Here's what occurred: A young boy at a reading fair comprehended the complexity of my feeling state and my pain in response to art. He then understood his need to empathize an adult's behavior through an act of genuine caring. He was inspired by the maturing courage of Wilbur and the selfless compassion of Charlotte. And he took the risk to reach out. Why did he do it?

Iacoboni (2008) suggests the boy’s impulse to imitate fired in his brain causing his social mind to imagine a re-experiencing of related memories. This reconstruction is virtually relived and performed live in us “as if” our body and brain were experiencing it for the first time, like experiencing live theatre. Because this performance is embodied, the boy used this “as if” experience to understand what is happening in the minds of others and to predict and to simultaneously anticipate what the appropriate action should be in response. Moral reasoning and judgment live and mature at this intersection.

This all happened in the blink of an eye. Can the act of reading narrative literature cause all this? Or, is it because, like live theatre, we are innately wired to perform reenactments of our past experiences “as if” they were happening for the first time now. When my students attend live theatre, they are in fact cast in the show. Hence, participating in live theatre comes with interpersonal and cultural responsibilities. Live theatre is dependent on the concepts of intimacy and immediacy (Machon, 2013). Like our social minds, live theatre demands an intimate and immediate response to “live in” actions on stage. This is what is happening in life in the millisecond before we must act for real, but in theatre we are safe to live in the moment without real risk—a process we call the willing suspension of disbelief.

When reenactments of previous experiences happen in an embodied mind, such as in childhood play and in theatre, memories often merge, shuffle, and transform. New configurations emerge, new possibilities, new hopes, and creativity surprises. Theatre is simply sophisticated play, but in an art form that seeks to unravel the most complex circumstances of living. The work of the theatre artist and theatre educator is anything but simple in revealing meaning.
Where literature is likely to fall short as a way of knowing, and where theatre education is likely to succeed as a powerful learning medium, is when social emotions launch unsafe feelings, when interpersonal experiences come too fast, when threat neurology fires unexpectedly, when cultural situations become unpredictable, when nations consider war, and when the complexity of day-to-day, moment-to-moment “live in” experiences become physically and psychologically overwhelming. In today’s world of rapidly expanding social and technological complexity, children often enter K-12 education unprepared to handle the social learning dynamic of an average classroom. Even worse, children become victims of chronic stress when they come into schools suffering from the “less syndrome”—less safe home and social environment, less early quality learning experiences, less socially enhancing use of technology, etc. Less love and less everything else. This shuts down children’s learning and greatly diminishes their innate potential. Theatre education methods are especially equipped to help such young learners deal with any degree of the “less syndrome” and with play deprivation issues.
Young theatre goers experience the complexity of the pathos “as if” it was happening for the first time through the artistry of the entertainment. Such complexity helps to provide distance. Meaning comes from the audience’s ability to move rapidly between engagement in the moment and reflection about the art experience. The craft of theatre design helps this process take place, such as a 25-foot web, actors as humanized animals, imaginative costumes, stylized action, and magical and moody lighting. Watch this 90-second preview video clip used as publicity for Charlotte’s Web, which I guest directed at First Stage Children’s Theatre in Milwaukee, WI: (Robinette, 2008).

Sophisticating Play

Much of my average day is spent away from formal theatre. As a professional theatre educator specializing in child drama and child psychology, I often tell people that I have the best job in the world because I get to literally play with students day in and day out for a living. As theatre educators, we spend our days sophisticating play. Our specific intent is to help students build strategies for understanding and dealing with the complexity of being human. This can involve sharing a fancy pretend meal with three-year-olds at a preschool and accidentally dropping my entrée (actually a transformed Frisbee) on the floor just to see what comes next, roughhousing a second grader under my bridge in my role of the leader of the trolls when “we” don’t hear a fair negotiation for coexistence, devising an original piece of theatre with fifth graders that explores the historical and contemporary violent/peaceful symbolism associated with the American Bald Eagle as part of a U.S. history unit, taking Title I seventh graders to a nursing home to collect personal stories from seniors and then performing bits and pieces the next visit as a conversation stimulating, life-validating theatre collage, and working with high school drama students to write a script on bullying to tour elementary schools (complete with teacher guide and post performance debrief strategy). Shakespeare clearly understood the power of theatre to help people of Elizabethan times unpack human complexity, and it's still popular and effective today. The Bard even uses a play within a play as a plot device. “The play is the thing,” said Hamlet.

In making the case for sophisticating play as an intrinsic and powerful way of knowing, it is enjoyably contradictory to remember that one of the defining and intrinsic qualities of play is purposelessness. The intent of play is to play. It is like an artist insisting, “art is for art’s sake.” The concepts of telic and autotelic psychological states of mind help understanding. Someone in a telic state of mind is clear of purpose, directed toward an external intellectual background goal that is not embodied in the moment. Traditional education methods are sometimes characterized as being too telic in design. Conversely, autotelic refers to someone living in the moment—playful, spontaneous, embodied in the moment with little commitment to abstract background goals. This is what is meant by the purposelessness of play—it’s autotelic learning and innate to the way we actually learn many critical things. In fact, to not play, particularly in childhood, is to risk “play deprivation,” a serious condition existing most frequently in imprisoned violent offenders who seemingly have reduced empathy and limited nuanced social perspectives.

Actors, like young children at play, seek to “live in the moment,” to give the illusion “as if” life is happening for the first time. Yet, theatre is an art form, action is the art object, immediacy is the context. High intentionality evolves through this very distilled craft, leaving participants of the event rich in autotelic experience, in imaginative memory, free to replay the experience over and over in search of personal meaning. Telic repetition risks moving into boredom and limiting learning. When teaching encompasses autotelic methods, repetition brings immediacy, ritual, excitement, emotion, and longed for complexity. As stated earlier, our brain’s ability to move rapidly back and forth between telic and autotelic, and at times simultaneously blending these modes of learning, is the key. A former musical theatre major of mine became the first Madame Thénardier in Les Miserables when it opened on Broadway. She played that role for seven years, nearly 300 performances annually, and told me she cherished every moment of it. Theatre leads with autotelic fun and engagement and integrates lasting telic understandings. Actors talk about the need to put their character’s lines and actions in their body to create a meaningful performance.

Using fMRI brain scan imaging, Immordino-Yang (2011) studies social emotions and embodied brains. She suggests that we come equipped with dual empathy systems. The first empathy system focuses on external physical empathy, more closely related to the role of mirror neurons (located principally in front of the motor cortex). We grimace when we see someone fall off a ladder and break an arm or we feel excited and cheer when we see a football player return a kickoff for a touchdown. Sets of neurons fire in our brain as if we were experiencing the same actions. The second empathy system exists in the primitive subcortical brain systems that control and regulate our biological survival (circulation, respiration, heartbeat, etc.). If these systems fail, we die. These homeostatic biological platforms are recruited by our social minds, thus making our most complex social emotions literally a matter of life and death. This is an internal “as if” system used for reflection and, as mentioned earlier, for re-experiencing memories. She speaks of people in this state as manifesting a “gaze” that reveals their inward focus. Such a gaze is also critical to the acting process. If you ask someone what they had for breakfast, nearly 100% of the time you will see them briefly look away for a fraction of a second as they reconstruct this “as if” memory complete with the context in which it was experienced.

A child suffering from “less syndrome” risks biologically being short-changed and emotionally mal-wired. Literally, such a child’s brain architecture may be a house of straw in that a child who grows up in an unsafe, perhaps abusive and violent prone environment, will live almost exclusively in the first empathy system, constantly on the lookout for external danger, wired with a hair-trigger to activate the fight or flight survival mechanism. A child held in a mother’s arms seeks to be educated by the more experienced adult, the greater expert on living. This interdependency between social emotions and biological mechanisms requires constant updating in sophistication in order to survive living in the complexity that is our embodied social reality (Immordino-Yang, 2011).

The purpose of theatre education is to help young people build a more complex self through socially responsible practice (Lazarus, 2012). More specifically, students who learn in a theatre education context learn by “living in” endless scenes with problems to solve that enhance their understanding of complexity. High expression and embodied communication are intrinsic to the art of acting. Process drama, a theatre education teaching method based in improvisation, most often existing just for the participants and ending without a formal performance, gives voice to a child’s need to experience the “mantle of the expert” (Heathcote & Bolton, 1995). Immordino-Yang (2010) suggests that this is where contemporary education falls short and where arts education must pick up the slack and infuse arts learning methods into mainstream education. It's more than enrichment; it's a critical way of knowing through embodied cognition. Playing at and in theatre exponentially increases a child’s library of those “lived in” experiences that are critical to understanding the complexity of human experience.
Immordino-Yang and Damasio (2007) clearly and passionately state what social cognitive neuroscience sees as the purpose of education, a mirror to how an actor trains and to what a child learns from engaging in theatre. “From the perspective of affective and social neuroscience, the purpose of education is to increase children’s abilities to recognize the complexities of situations, and to help them develop increasingly nuanced and sophisticated strategies for acting and responding.”
What about cognition and academic rigor? Uri Hasson’s (2011) social cognitive neuroscience research team argues,

Cognition materializes in an interpersonal space. The emergence of complex behaviors requires the coordination of actions among individuals according to a shared set of rules. Despite the central role of other individuals in shaping one’s mind, most cognitive studies focus on processes that occur within a single individual. We call for a shift from a single-brain to a multi-brain frame of reference. We argue that in many cases the neural processes in one brain are coupled to the neural processes in another brain via the transmission of a signal through the environment. Brain-to-brain coupling constrains and shapes the actions of each individual in a social network, leading to complex joint behaviors that could not have emerged in isolation.

Vygotsky got it right; we are social learners (Kozulin, 2003). Theatre exists to go into the cracks of humanity in order to better understand the complex intra- and inter-personal conflicts within, and with the moral intent to understand, heal, and consider possible solutions. Theatre education is a complex meta-cognitive process.


Immordino-Yang (2013) expresses the need for integrating neuroscientific research with ethnographic approaches.

Now the challenge will be to develop bridges that align neurobiological measures with psychocultural ones, adapting qualitative methods for studying meaning making to a laboratory setting, or perhaps developing methods for working with participants in their daily settings before bringing them to the lab for the neurobiological phases of the study. These methods will certainly not provide the richness of ethnographic data collected by field anthropologists, but they may make a substantial contribution toward formulating a neuroscientific account of meaningful variation in the social world.

Theatre educators are, by nature, ethnographers. With our students in tow, we often choose to go into our communities to witness first hand the diverse social and cultural worlds we live in, often one character at a time. We combine ethnography and drama to create a new genre called ethnotheatre. Because we are of theatre, we are focused on human struggle and cultural unrest. Our intent is to help imagine new lives and new communities of well-being. We publish our research findings by transforming these “lived in” experiences into shared performances. Saldana (2011) believes that when we choose to write ethnodramatic play scripts and produce ethnotheatrical productions we do so because we have “determined that these art forms are the most appropriate and effective modalities for communicating observations of cultural, social, and personal life.” Theatre is the art and science of how social minds learn.

Understanding complexity takes practice and rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal. We move theatrically from the impulse to imitate others as a child to the impulse to imitate life through art and science, through innovation and technology as an adult. Learning to think and perform like an actor and theatre artist, through sophisticated play, may well help prepare us to deal more effectively with the ever increasing moral dilemmas that make up our life drama—guns, sex, friendships, betrayal, disease, crime, violence, ecology, gender, money, government, technology, careers, family, love, and war. We are such stuff that great theatre and day-to-day living are made on. Education needs to act.

An Invitation

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (referred to above) will be the keynote presenter at the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America’s Annual Medallion Event in conjunction with the 2014 American Alliance for Theatre in Education’s Annual Conference, July 30–August 3, 2014, in downtown Denver, CO. See


Brown, S. (2008). Play is more than just fun. Ted Talks. Retrieved from:

Diamond, D. (2007). Theatre for living: The art and science of community-based dialogue. Vancouver, BC: Trafford.

Hasson, U., et al. (2011). Brain-to-brain coupling: A mechanism for creating and sharing a social world. Retrieved from:

Heathcote, D., & Bolton, G. (1995). Drama for learning: Dorothy Heathcote’s mantle of the expert approach to education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Iacoboni, M. (2008). Mirroring people: The new science of how we connect with others. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Immordino-Yang, M.H. (2013). Studying the effects of culture by integrating neuroscientific with ethnographic approaches. Retrieved from:

Immordino-Yang, M.H. (2011). Embodied brains, social minds. Neurobiological and developmental perspectives on emotion, culture and learning. Part 1 of 7. (Note: watch all 7) Retrieved from:

Immordino-Yang, M.H. (2010). Our bodies, our minds, our “selves.” Neurobiological perspectives on emotion, social learning and creativity. Retrieved from:

Immordino-Yang, M.H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Retrieved from:

Kozulin, A., et al. (2003). Vygotsky’s educational theory in cultural context. Cambridge: Cambridge U.

Lazarus, J. (2012). Signs of change: New directions in theatre education. Chicago: Intellect.

Machon, J. (2013). Immersive theatres: Intimacy and immediacy in contemporary performance. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Robinette, J. (2008). Adaptation of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. Publicity video clip produced by First Stage Children’s Theatre, Milwaukee, WI. Directed by Xan S. Johnson. Retrieved from:

Saldana, J. (2011). Ethnotheatre: Research from page to stage. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast.

Sofia, G. (2013). Achieved spontaneity and spectator’s performative experience: The motor dimension of the actor-spectator relationship. (Translated into English.) Retrieved from:’s+


Xan S. Johnson, Ph.D., is a full professor in the Department of Theatre at the University of Utah. He is an Honors professor and a member of the Graduate School faculty. Between 1995-2009, he served as Utah Theatre Consultant for the Utah State Office of Education, where one of his many challenges was writing the current K-12 mandated Core Curriculum in Theatre. He founded the internationally recognized youth theatre program at the University of Utah, a program that has been invited to showcase across the USA, UK, and Russia. He has directed over 200 stage productions across his career. He earned his doctorate in Child Drama from Northwestern University. He continues to serve on the Children’s Theatre Foundation of American Board. He can be reached at

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