Psychology and Theatre

I met Andero Uusberg, a doctor of psychology, in the old cafe of the University of Tartu, now the Jazz Music Club run by Oleg Pissarenko. The breakfast costs just one euro. I really like it there – both the breakfast that costs you just a euro and the crazy musical choices.

I start by postulating that I went to the appointment interested in how theatre connects with people, what the rules are at hand, but we soon started talking about the ways in which psychologists are studying us, the people, nowadays.

Andero Uusberg

Doctor of Psychology Andero Uusberg. Photo by Raivo Tasso / Maaleht

It feels good to sit here. How do psychologists explain the word “mood”?

The first thing that comes to mind is that a mood is not the same as an emotion. An emotion always requires some kind of object that causes it, it is always a reaction to something. The same components causing an emotion are present, but not related so clearly to a specific object.

How about an example?

For example, thinking about a demanding conversation set to occur in the morning of the day after tomorrow can bring about the emotions of fear and anxiety. You know the reason why you are scared.

Anxiety as a mood, on the other hand, is a state where you notice signs of danger in your environment. The level of stress is rising, as well as the blood pressure, but these bodily symptoms do not have a single cause (or it’s not accessible to the consciousness, at least).

Then again, while in anxious mood, I might start behaving as a really happy person…

It might be your way to regulate the mood, be it consciously or as a habit. You might not consciously think that you’re going to start applying a particular technique to overcome your anxiety. However, every person has many mental techniques to change the mood in his/her toolbox. Forcing oneself to be joyful is one possibility. This may be achieved through humour.

The other mechanism isn’t entirely clear to researchers, but one thing we know well is that both emotions and moods do bring about a bodily change — they cause a state that absorbs the whole body. Your face allows everyone to see your emotion, if you are not making an effort to disguise it. Similarly, an emotion may be detected by observing the poses of the body.

The feedback from actors sometimes includes a claim that while watching a play in the theatre my face looks angry. But I’m not angry, so why the impression?

Being interested and concentrated make the face change in ways that can be interpreted this way. It is known that all facial expressions of emotions involve sets of quite particular muscles. Mostly, a frown indicates anger. But my studies have shown me first hand that a frown can appear when the person is getting deep into something. The coming about of a frowning expression is relatively inevitable. It’s hard not to notice it and it makes one interpret it as well.

An actor is in a situation where there is no time to think through all the information. Just one glance and then the brain quickly picks up a little piece of information about how Margus has such an angry face…

Still, facial movements are usually quite useful for scientific research about what a person is feeling at the moment. There is even a special training program where one can learn to observe what the facial muscles are doing. A slightly more objective method includes attaching electrodes to the skin, so the muscle activity can be measured. Then there’s third, the most modern and interesting way: using a video to detect the feelings, with the help of intricate algorithms.

Andero Uusberg

Andero Uusberg. Photo by Raivo Tasso / Maaleht

So, the actor’s reaction – the reading of another’s face – is like playing Chinese Whispers, where a word is again and again whispered into another’s ear, which can eventually bring about a totally different word than the initial one.

It turns out that people pass judgments about other people during a really short amount of time, and these judgments are not arbitrary. When a circle of people is shown the same picture of a face for a couple of hundreds milliseconds, their judgments mach. For example, they all might perceive you as angry. And then it turns out that nobody knows exactly what leads to such judgment.

A study that I recently read offered quite a logical explanation: some people’s faces do simply look more like an expression of a certain emotion than some other people’s faces. For example, if you have strong brows low above the eye, you look kind of angry. When you have big eyes and big mouth, it makes you seem smiling. Inbred morphology of the face can make some people look angry and it can lead to the first expression that the guy is really self-assured – or even mad. At the same time, what goes inside might be something completely different.

During my long life, I have noticed that my initial judgment about people – the first impression – has usually turned out to be the right one.

Yes, such mechanism does exist. Judging by the “face value” can lead to a wrong verdict, as well, but it is absolutely possible that the human brain picks up additional fragments of information, something that you have, through the years, learned to link to the greater meaning. You might not acknowledge all this, as the human brain tends towards automatic performance of the processes that used to involve conscious thought. A typical example would be driving a car – at first you think about switching gears, and then you don’t.

Draama Festival

Estonian Theatre Festival Draama has always been visible in Tartu city space. Photo by Inga Külmoja

While listening to you, it occured to me again that for the public, the good actor is the one that acts as though…

As though he or she wasn’t even thinking about it?

Yeah, but in addition, I had the thought that in the case of a “special” performance by an actor, the “special” means something ordinary that the public can recognize easily. And then the actor does some kind of original thing as well, and it would be something that the public notices…

It might be so. Psyche and consciousness can be seen as a sort of apparatus for predicting. You have a picture of what would happen, some kind of expectation. But then it goes differently… It is basically the same mechanism that makes you think.

My colleague Jaan Aru had a good illustration for this: in a dark staircase, if one of the upper stairs is missing, you immediately lose your balance. Your body has counted upon the existence of one more step, but the calculation turned out to be wrong.

And when you are coming down the stairs, the steps always end one too early…

It proves that moving around is based on predictions, in addition to direct experience. To be walking, you have to constantly predict, simulate – how is it if I put my feet on the ground, etc. It is the same with the whole environment, psychically: after entering into a situation, you immediately make some kind of prediction as to what starts to happen. And when these predictions don’t come through, higher resources get involved – hold on, now it’s time to figure stuff out and learn things.

Returning to the topic of good actors, simulation as the perception mechanism of empathy must be mentioned. Some areas of the brain are active when I raise my coffee cup, but also when I see you raising your coffee cup. It’s like my brain is simulating your movements. And then I can really see what is happening to you.

Theatre must be largely based on that. A precise actor performs in such a way that when I see the poses and movements of his or her body and face, the act of watching activates such states in me where my body would act in a similar way. Besides simulating single movements, one can simulate action and being in general. I put myself into your situation and simulate my actions in this situation. If I’m reading that because of the earthquake in Nepal somebody got trapped in a schoolhouse, it might make me angsty – not because I had such an experience myself but because I’m imaging how would it be if I was there. Of course, this is important in theatre as well.

In theatre, it all can be amplified with the light, music, decorations… whatever comes to mind, actually. Or subdued…


So everything that you as a lecturer and researcher in the field of psychology are saying really applies to those involved in theatrical arts – there are just different terms being used.

Yes, I think so. And it’s also true of cinema. In the future, there will be an interesting co-operation with a cameraperson named Elen Lotman. In theatre, senses can be amplified with music and lights, and in the film there are specific ways to do it as well.

According to Elen, cinematographers know how to present a person so that the viewer is forced to get more into his or her skin, to live through his or her experiences. They have other tricks too, ones that leave the spectator more as a bystander. We have a plan of joint study to understand it all. We show the same scene twice, but both representations have been filmed differently. Then we observe if it’s possible to detect that on one occasion the person is living through the emotion more intensely. We definitely question those people, but in addition to this I would like to use the measurement of facial muscle activity that I mentioned before.

Margus Mikomägi is a theatre director, critic, and journalist. A longer Estonian version of this interview appeared first in the Estonian weekly Maaleht and Mikomägi’s theatrical blog.

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