Theater has been around forever even though people don’t attend performances that much. Most people I know see more paintings and read more books than they see performances on stage.
Have you ever wondered
… why theater has stood the test of time as an art so much?
… why so many cultures have theater of some sort?
… why Shakespeare ranks so highly among cultural icons?
… why we like watching performances that make us cry? Or feel fear, anxiety, and other emotions we don’t like outside of theater?
Some plays and movies change me. I may find them difficult or uncomfortable to watch, but I feel better for having watched them. I don’t watch that many plays. I watch TV and movies, but more often for entertainment, which I value, but I don’t consider changing or improving me beyond the moment.
In school I learned Aristotle’s concept of catharsis, which I understood to mean that experiencing the emotions from watching a performance would lead to freeing myself from their grip. Usually I see that written as their being purged or my being purified.
Catharsis worked as an explanation, but lately I’ve changed my perspective.
I think dramatic performances increase my awareness of emotions I normally don’t notice. Normally we make ourselves insensitive to subtle and nuanced emotions. The verb to dramatize means to intensify the emotion of something. I like dramatic works—plays, TV shows, movies, etc—that evoke emotions a lot but not so much that they take me out of the moment, and I want them to evoke emotions I identify with but don’t notice.
I think most of our lives most of us suppress intense emotions. We know that showing emotional intensity makes us vulnerable to people judging us, taking advantage of us, manipulating us, and things like that. They can’t do that with mild feelings. So we hide intense feelings, even from parts of ourselves. The more we hide some, the more we hide more until we share mostly superficial emotions, hiding meaning, value, importance, and purpose (MVIP) from our communities.
We experience less of life, if we measure life by its MVIP.
Dramatic works let us experience feelings we normally hide. It’s not that they purge us of these feelings. They increase our awareness of important parts of us that we normally hide. I think of it like a busy day when you step in a puddle in the morning. Your sock is wet all day but you can’t do anything about it. At the end of the day, when you finally take your sock off, it feels great. Only then you realize you’ve been trying to ignore the misery, however mild, that it caused. Then you can enjoy the feeling of fresh air on your skin.
Dramatic works let you enjoy the feeling of unsuppressed emotions without vulnerability. The more aware I am of my emotions, the more I can work with them, which enables me to improve my life and relationships.
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