Friday, January 18, 2008

On Proust, Dopamine, and New Plays

I've been listening (in audiobook format) with great fascination to Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist. In chapters that look at Walt Whitman, George Eliot, cook Auguste Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stravinksy, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf, Lehrer, who "used to work in a neuroscience lab" before deciding that he wasn't cut out for it, reveals how artistic experiments anticipated many of the discoveries of science in the succeeding decades. Each chapter of this book is a gem; I wish that I could create lectures as surprising and erudite as this book. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

The chapter on Stravinksy, and specifically his Rite of Spring that caused a riot at its first performance, got me thinking about our recent discussion of new plays, and of the recent WolfBrown report Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance (h/t Andrew Taylor, The Artful Manager). You may remember that in a post I called "Trust," I put forward the idea that lacking an ongoing relationship of trust with the artists at a particular theatre (the actors or director, for instance), audiences will fall back to trust the known quantity of a classic playwright -- Shakespeare, for instance. And so there is a perception that audiences aren't interested in new plays, when in reality they just don't trust the artists enough to step out completely into the unknown. People will take a chance on a new Kevin Spacey film that might look a little "different," for instance, because they trust Spacey from past experience. But when you rotate actors and directors through a regional theatre at a dizzying clip, that sort of trust is missing. So: trust Shakespeare.

In the WolfBrown study, this ongoing relationship was called the "Context Index" -- "the amount of information and personal experience with the art and artist" that an audience member has. The Context Index was a "significant predictor for Captivation ["the degree to which an individual was engrossed and absorbed in the performance"], Intellectual Stimulation ["mental engagement, including both personal and social dimensions"], Emotional Resonance ["intensity of emotional response and degree of empathy with the performers"] and Spiritual Value ["transcendent, inspiring, or empowering experience"]. The level of satisfaction with a performance was correlated, among other things, to the level of Captivation.

So we are more likely to be satisfied by a performance, captivated by a performance, if we have prior information or personal experience with an art or artist. But here's the weird thing: The Acting Company's touring production of Macbeth was an outlier -- it didn't fit any of the categories to the extent that the WolfBrown folks had to drop it from the final results because it had so little impact on the audience. Here are some samples of how bad it got: the production "reported the lowest Captivation level (3% were 'completely absorbed')" whereas, by comparison, the Alvin Ailey Dance Troup scored 59% on "completely absorbed;" on Emotional Resonance the production of Macbeth scored the lowest rating of all: 6% experienced a "strong" emotional response; and it rated lowest of all on Spiritual Value as well.

Now, it is possible to just write this off to this production of Macbeth just being sort of crummy (although it got some good reviews). But as I listened to Proust Was a Neuroscientist, I got to thinking. Bear with me, because I am going to do some extensive quotations from the book having to do with neuroscience.

One of the central functions of the corticofugal network is what neuroscience calls egocentric selection. When a pattern of noises is heard repeatedly, the brain memorizes that pattern. Feedback from higher-up brain regions reorganizes the auditory cortex, which makes it easier to hear the pattern in the future. This learning is largely the handiwork of dopamine...But what orders the corticofugal feedback? Who is in charge of our sensations? The answer is experience. While human nature largely determines how we hear the notes, it is nurture that lets us hear the music. From the three-minute pop song to the five-hour Wagner opera, the creations of our culture teach us to expect certain musical patterns, which over time are wired into our brain."

So we hear something new, our brain organize it, and our brain releases dopamine, which "is the chemical source of our most intense emotions." In other words, to use WolfBrown language, something new leads to a high level of Captivation and Emotional Resonance, i.e., pleasure and satisfaction. So, Context gets us into the theatre and gives us a headstart on the patterns we might encounter, and then when we are surprised we get great pleasure from the dopamine release that occurs when we identify the new pattern.

So far, so good. This might help us understand the pleasure we get from seeing a new movie or listening to a new album by our favorite band. As long as the new patterns aren't too extreme and we can fit them into our existing patterns, the result is pleasure.

But there is a catch: it wears off. Lehrer writes: "With time, the musicians [who laughed at Stravinsky] came to understand Stravisnky's method. His creativity was seared into their brains as their dopamine neurons adjusted... What once seemed a void of noise became an expression of difficult magnificence. This is the corticofugal system at work. It takes a dissonant sound, a pattern we can't comprehend, and makes it comprehensible...And then it becomes beautiful." However, this system "can also limit our experiences," because it is a "positive-feedback loop". He goes on: "Over time...we become better able to hear those sounds we have heard before. This only encourages us to listen to the golden oldies we already know (since they sound better), and to ignore the difficult sounds that we don't know (since they sound harsh and noisy, and release unpleasant amounts of dopamine). We are built to abhor the uncertainty of newness."[Ital mine.]

"How do we escape this neurological trap?," Lehrer asks. Art. "The artist is engaged in a perpetual struggle against the positive-feedback loop of the brain, desperate to create an experience that no one has ever had before. And while the poet must struggle to invent a new metaphor and the novelist a new story, the composer must discover the undiscovered pattern, for the originality is the source of the emotion. If the art feels difficult, it is only because our neurons are stretching to understand it. The pain flows from the growth." [Ital mine]

Lehrer concludes -- and this is where my ears perked up and I connected to the audience reaction to Macbeth -- "This newness, however tortuous, is necessary. Positive-feedback loops...always devour themselves. Without artists like Stravinsky who compulsively make everything new, our sense of sound would become increasingly narrow. Music would lose its essential uncertainty. Dopamine would cease to flow. As a result, the feeling would be slowly drained out of the notes, and all we would be left with would be a shell of easy consonance, the polite drivel of perfectly predictable music." [Ital mine]

Or perfectly predictable plays. OUr regional theatre audiences, starved for the context that comes from an ongoing relationship with specific artists, are drawn to see Macbethor The Sound of Music because they trust them enough to bet their money. Once in the theatre, however, what they often find is so predictable that it isn't engaging, doesn't promote the release of the dopamine that leads to emotional resonance much less spiritual transcendence. The result: dissatisfaction. The surveys reflect a shrug. There was no excitement generated because no patterns were broken -- everything lived down to expectations.

When asked, the WolfBrown audience members said that, despite their tepid response, the experience was worthwhile. And while the researchers suggest further research into this, we recognize the spectators' response as one similar to someone who has just swallowed a big spoonful of nasty medicine: it didn't taste good, but I'm sure it was good for me. We taught them that one -- check out Danny Newman.

My point is that the only way, in my opinion, the theatre will revive in popularity is if we create greater captivity, emotional resonance, spiritual value. In short, we need more dopamine, and that means more NEW things, not more CLASSICS. Because let's face it, the buzz we get from seeing a "new interpretation" of a classic is pretty weak compared to discovering something new. But if we need Context to get us into the theatre in the first place, and we can't rely on an Old Name playwright, then we need to have an ongoing relationship with the artists to get them in the door. Once they're there, let the dopamine begin!


The Director said...

Fascinating read, Mr. Walters.

At my undergrad program, the audience is slowly dying out. Literally. The mean age of our audience has to be in its 50s or 60s. The only times students (or, to be more precise, my generation) attend performances are when they're our friends or when they're forced to attend because of a class.

That was true until two years ago, when we brought two new professors into the department. This was the first addition of new, permanent professors in nearly 15 years. They brought a new energy and new vibe to the theatre that brought more and more people. Our audiences are still skewed to Boomers, but we did a performance of "Seussical: the Musical" which was above and beyond any practical boundaries our program had set years ago.

The audience came to expect golden oldies, and when we brought Seussical to the stage, they went ballistic. They loved it. They ate it up. It had the same people and familiar location (I guess you could call that the normal "pattern" they're used to), but a new vibrant energy and reckless abandon and visual feast that they loved (the "new" pattern).

The plays following that were good, if you want to be strictly technical. The acting was good, the set was good, the lights were good, etc. But the audience didn't respond -- it was the same old thing again.

My friends and I were discussing this last night after Fiddler rehearsals. We discussed how we'd like to do Shakespeare every year, instead of every other year, and how we'd like to do more 20th century drama's (Death of a Salesman, Long Day's Journey into Night, RENT, Seussical) than the older, more Boomer-oriented stuff, like Carousel, Showboat, Arms and the Man, and Guys and Dolls.

While I enjoyed those plays, and others such as Sound of Music, if you asked me to list my top 20 plays or musicals, none of those would be listed. They're good, but they don't connect to my generation the same way. We want new stuff. Every once in awhile, let's do a golden oldie. But when it's golden oldie after golden oldie, and no contemporary stuff... it gets dull.

Not bad. Just dull.

ilannoyed said...

really interesting stuff

like i mentioned in an earlier comment - why couldn't local theaters (like some of the bigger chicago companies such a Chicago Shakespeare, or the Goodman or Court) hire a core group of actors every year as a rep company? it would have the effect of giving the audience something to connect with.

The American Rep theater at Harvard had a core company (not sure if they still do) and often brought back certain actors year after year. I wonder if that has helped them? They do an awful lot of challenging work.

another thing i mentioned - why doesn't theater try things like the MET in NY has done with Opera, streaming simulcasts or pay per view for current productions? At least give people a taste of what is out there. If the mountain is not going to come to mohammed....?

give them a taste of it in 2 dimensions and get them interested and MAYBE one day they will even GO to a play LIVE! but lets at least see if we can get them interested.

the other thing that really helps, lower ticket prices - i recently got 2 college students to a production at the Goodmand because they could get $10 tickets. I don't know if enough people know those kinds of programs are out there. and the goodman also has 1/2 price tickets available every day for their mezzanine seats on the day of performance.

Signature theater in NY found that by offering $15 tickets, the make up of the audience was changed too include many more playgoers under 30. (the program does have big subsidies)