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Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and


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Acting: An altered state of consciousness


Eberhard Scheiffele

Online publication date: 18 August 2010

To cite this Article Scheiffele, Eberhard(2001) 'Acting: An altered state of consciousness', Research in Drama Education:
The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, 6: 2, 179 — 191
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Research in Drama Education, Vol. 6, No. 2, 2001

Acting: an altered state of consciousness


EBERHARD SCHEIFFELE
West Chester University, West Chester, PA 19380, USA
(e-mail: scheiffe@ math.berkeley.edu)

ABSTRACT Actors often report that during acting their conscious experience is altered.
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Many are, in fact, drawn to acting by their desire for this experience of heightened
awareness. This paper will use notions from the Želd Psychology of Consciousness,
including an explanation of how psychologists deŽne and investigate Altered States of
Consciousness (ASCs).
Following the deŽnition in The Psychology of Consciousness by Farthing, the author
argues that actors (in performance, drama classes, or in psychodrama) routinely enter
an ASC. Acting is seen as altering most of the 14 dimensions of changed subjective
experience which characterise ASCs according to Farthing, namely: attention, percep-
tion, imagery and fantasy, inner speech, memory, higher-level thought processes,
meaning or signiŽcance of experiences, time experience, emotional feeling and ex-
pression, level of arousal, self-control, suggestibility, body image, and sense of personal
identity. This result is established by drawing on the writings of theatre theorists, actors,
directors, educators, drama therapists, and psychodramatists.
The theoretical observations are supported by empirical Žndings from studies in
which actors are given questionnaires to capture their subjective experience during
acting. After establishing acting as a way to enter an ASC, there is discussion on why
theatre artists, educators, and advocates need to be aware of both the dangers and
beneŽts of experiencing altered states.

Throughout history humanity has been drawn to experiment with different means to
alter consciousness, such as drugs, meditation, mysticism, hypnosis, drumming, ritual,
ecstatic trance, sex, peak experience, sensory deprivation, biofeedback, and even pain.
Many theatre artists aspire to transform their consciousness through acting and for
some this desire for heightened awareness and living in the moment is the main reason
they are drawn to acting. The Living Theatre, for example, proclaimed: ‘Acting is not
making believe, but living exquisitely in the moment’ (Neff, 1970, p. 74). Forms of
improvisational acting are especially prone to altering the actors’ consciousness, such as
Ruth Zaporah’s Action Theater: ‘This practice turns the mind inside out’ (1995, p. xxi).
There are, however, also schools of acting and approaches to theatre which would
discourage the actors (and the audience) from leaving their ordinary, rational state of
consciousness. First and foremost among those is Brecht’s idea of the Verfremdungsef-
fekt (usually translated as alienation but sometimes as distancing or estrangement).
ISSN 1356-9783 print; 1470-112X online/ 01/ 020179–13 Ó 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/ 13569780120070722
180 E. Scheiffele

Brecht’s epic drama requires an objective, detached attitude so that it may instruct the
audience. This in turn requires the actor not to be immersed in the character and thus
not to alter his ordinary, rational consciousness, but rather to introduce the character
while at the same time distancing himself from the character. But even in his vehement
opposition to any form of hypnotic trance in the theatre, Brecht seems to imply the
strong possibility of the occurrence of altered states of consciousness. ‘Any attempt at
hypnosis, at producing disgraceful rapture, or cloudiness, has to be eliminated’ (Brecht
in Lazarowicz & Balme, 1991, p. 488f, translated by the author).
We will now investigate how acting as an experience relates to research in the Želd
of Psychology of Consciousness, using the deŽnitions and classiŽcations presented in a
prominent graduate textbook (Farthing, 1992). Acting will be seen to Žt Farthing’s
deŽnition of Altered State of Consciousness (ASC). Note that we are not necessarily
promoting that ASCs should be encouraged in acting, rather we will show that they
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occur, whether we encourage them or not. (The point that ASC experiences are
beneŽcial has of course been made by many others, most prominently by Timothy Leary
and Stanislav Grof.) In the second part of the paper we will look at the implications,
both desirable and undesirable ones.
The states that Farthing himself classiŽes as ASCs are sleep, dreaming, hypnosis,
meditation, and drug-induced states. Farthing’s deŽnition reads:

An altered state of consciousness (ASC) may be deŽned as a temporary change


in the overall pattern of subjective experience, such that the individual believes
that his or her mental functioning is distinctly different from certain general
norms for his or her normal waking state of consciousness. (Farthing, 1992,
p. 205)

Note that Farthing deŽnes an ASC as a subjective experience. At least until now,
psychologists have not found an objective way to determine from the outside whether
someone is in an ASC. In particular, there is no consistent brain wave pattern
corresponding to ASCs, nor any other measurable physiological response (1992, p. 206).
So we are left with questioning the subjects directly about their experience.
Farthing goes on to list 14 dimensions of changed subjective experience, several of
which need to be altered to be in an ASC. Thus to establish that actors typically enter
an ASC, we need to show that during acting several of these dimensions are altered. The
following observations are meant to hold for actors in performance or class, improvisa-
tional or text-based, as well as in drama therapy and psychodrama. Below are
arguments for most of the 14 dimensions demonstrating how they are altered during
acting. As in all ASCs, the degree of alteration will of course vary among different acting
experiences.

Dimensions of Altered Consciousness


1. Attention
Acting involves highly focused attention to everything that happens in the moment. This
living in the moment is of course a goal that is not easily reached. ‘To relax our
Acting: an altered state of consciousness 181

attention into the present moment is extraordinarily simple, but, for most of us, it
demands a lifetime of practice’ (Zaporah, 1995, p. xx). We employ many techniques to
help the actor to be fully present and to make it ‘real’, i.e. to help her to experience the
scene as if it were happening right now. To this end we use detailed scene setting,
imagination exercises, and inner monologue. Heightened awareness is mostly directed
toward the external, with an increased ability simultaneously to be conscious of
everyone in one’s environment. Actors of the Living Theatre experienced ‘an increasing,
an uncanny, an extraordinary sensitivity to one another. … We sense each others’
details like lovers’ (Beck & Malina, 1970, p. 655).

2. Perception
The actor’s perception can be altered in that she sees or hears imaginary objects. Jacob
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Moreno, M.D., the father of psychodrama, uses this phenomenon in his work. ‘Delu-
sions and hallucinations are given esh—embodiment on the stage—and an equality of
status with normal sensory perceptions’ (1946, p. a). The legendary acting master
teacher, Sanford Meisner, in fact deŽnes acting as ‘living truthfully under imaginary
circumstances’ (Meisner & Longwell, 1987, p. 15). His idea can already be found in
Stanislavski’s Method: ‘An actor can make himself actually see anything on the stage—a
vase, a picture, a book—by building around it some imaginary details which will make
it attractive to him’ (Moore, 1960, p. 31).
Through concentration, actors might experience feeling cold, including the physio-
logical signs of being in a cold room, even though they are in a warm theatre. This point
is not diminished by the fact that the actor might be aware that these perceptions are
imaginary and he might not ‘really’ believe it, as this is also often the case in psychedelic
drug-induced ASCs.
During character acting or in psychodrama during role-reversal we can even take on
someone else’s perception, which often facilitates empathy. ‘When you truly role-reverse
there is a shift of perception either during or after the process’ (Moreno et al., 2000,
p. 15).

3. Imagery and Fantasy


The ability to imagine detailed fantasies is greatly enhanced on the stage. Experienced
improvisers can create and immediately enact fantastic stories. The scenes evolve
naturally without much thinking or planning. There is a ‘sense of fantasy, absorption
and imagination which is involved with creating drama’ (Pickering, 1997, p. iv).
The reality of the stage can best be compared to the reality of dreams (which are
recognised as ASCs). Anything is possible: time is non-linear, time and space can be
changed at any moment, animals and even furniture can speak, fears as well as fantasies
get acted out, dead persons can come to life, we can experience the past and the future,
both as it happened, or should have happened, or will happen, and with all kinds of
modiŽcations. This different reality is what Moreno coined Surplus Reality (Fox, 1987,
p. 7f) and it is ‘one of the most vital, curative and mysterious elements of psychodrama’
(Moreno et al., 2000, p. ix). The ability to enact fantasies is at the core of what
182 E. Scheiffele

psychodrama is about, as when we are able to ‘Žnish unŽnished business’ with a dead
person. If we allow ourselves to make this experience authentic, we can get close to
feeling as if it had actually happened.
Dreams are, of course, often the subject of psychodramas (and other theatrical events,
such as plays and improvisations). Here the purpose is not to interpret the dream, but
to allow the dreamer to re-experience the dream on stage and to amplify the experience.
‘The objective of psychodramatic techniques is to stir up the dreamer to produce the
dream instead of analysing it for him’ (Moreno in Fox, 1987, p. 199). In dream
enactments it is often most apparent that the actor is in an altered state. Working with
dreams is one of the author’s specialties, and this may very well have been where I Žrst
had the thought that acting often seems like entering an altered state. After dream
enactments protagonists frequently declare that they felt as if they had been back in the
dream. This of course implies that they experienced an ASC, as dreaming is one of the
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prime examples of ASCs (Farthing, 1992, pp. 254–333). Renee Emunah, a leader in the
drama therapy movement, has also compared the functions of dreams and drama. ‘I
believe that Rossi’s description of dreams as “a laboratory for experimenting with
change in our psychic life” applies to drama as well’ (1994, p. xv).

4. Inner Speech
When the actor is fully involved in a scene, there is less self-talk and less self-conscious-
ness due to total absorption with the task at hand (this is at least the goal, beginners of
course are often more self-conscious at Žrst). During role-reversal it is even possible for
the protagonist’s inner speech to change into that of someone else, a very strong form
of alteration. ‘So the protagonist must really step outside the self and become the other
person’ (Moreno et al., 2000, p. 14). This is of course most familiar to character actors,
for whom changing the ‘inner monologue’ to that of the character is one of the main
techniques to stay in character. ‘This continuous thinking while another character
speaks, or during pauses in your own lines, is called inner monologue. … Images and
inner monologue are essential steps toward building the character’ (Moore, 1979,
p. 55f).

5. Memory
Acting can affect our memory in many different ways. Sometimes in psychodrama we
remember long forgotten events and especially vivid details, including past sensory
experiences. For example, one might remember the sounds and smells from the time of
the Žrst visit to the dentist. When acting a role in a scene, we can remember the past
from someone else’s viewpoint and thus take on a memory entirely different from our
own.
During psychodrama we might have the impression that our memory recall is
improved, but as Farthing states for hypnosis, so too in using other potentially
mind-altering methods we need to be aware that ‘it is often difŽcult to distinguish
between a delusion (false belief) of enhanced recall and true hypermnesia (better than
normal memory)’ (1992, p. 209) (cf. the section on suggestibility below).
Acting: an altered state of consciousness 183

Farthing also includes in this category changes in the associations between words and
images, and truly creative combinations of ideas. This often occurs in improvisational
acting, where we make non-linear connections between concepts and events, for
example when we use an audience suggestion such as a ‘thunder storm’ to create
electricity.

6. Higher-level Thought Processes


Some ASCs enhance creativity and ‘people sometimes come up with truly creative
solutions to practical or artistic problems’ (Farthing, 1992, p. 209). This is one of the
reasons why artists seek out this state of inspiration. Psychodrama, drama therapy, and
other forms of improvisational theatre (e.g. Boal’s Forum Theatre) can function as a
‘rehearsal for life’ (Moreno in Fox, 1987, p. 5). The actor or the group can suddenly
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come up with a new solution to a problem. There is also an ease in making decisions
and sometimes a sense of intuitive knowledge. Boal describes his Forum Theatre
similarly: ‘The spect-actors, by acting out their ideas, train for “real life” action; and
actors and audience alike, by playing, learn the possible consequences of their actions.
They learn the arsenal of the oppressors and the possible tactics and strategies of the
oppressed’ (1992, p. 20).
The advantages of entering ASCs through acting have also been cultivated by
educational psychologists who use role-playing for problem solving: ‘Through its
various production techniques, role playing utilises altered states of consciousness to
increase the chances of creative breakthroughs in conict situations’ (Torrance et al.,
1996, p. 58).

7. Meaning or SigniŽcance of Experiences


Acting often involves a feeling of being in tune, being one with other people and the
environment. As in other ASCs, this ‘ineffable experience’ of ‘oneness’ (Farthing, 1992,
p. 210) can be perceived as mystical, and is difŽcult to explain to people who have never
experienced it.
On stage we can be more real than in life. The actors are free to ‘be on the stage what
they are, more deeply and explicitly than they appear to be in life reality’ (Moreno,
1946, p. c). Much of theatre (including psychodrama) does not merely imitate reality,
but rather magniŽes it, making it bigger than life. From personal and clients’ experience
we know that protagonists often remember their dramas for a long time, and sometimes
consider them to be cornerstones on their life’s journey. Thus Farthing’s comments
about changes in the meaning or signiŽcance of experiences in ASCs clearly can apply
to (psycho)drama as well. ‘A fairly common ASC experience involves the feeling that
certain thoughts or events are profoundly important, perhaps of great creative or
mystical signiŽcance’ (1992, p. 209f).
Farthing continues: ‘In contrast to the feelings of profundity that arise in some ASC
experiences, the other side of the coin is that some ASC experiences seem to be
exceptionally humorous. This is another case of changed meaning or signiŽcance of
experience’ (Farthing, 1992, p. 210). Spontaneous acting indeed often increases our sense
184 E. Scheiffele

of humour and allows us to laugh at our foibles. This can be a healing experience in
itself, and thus Moreno speaks of ‘a catharsis coming from humor and laughter’
(Moreno in Fox, 1987, p. 211). In the well-known Case of Barbara Moreno describes
how he discovered psychodrama in his Theatre of Spontaneity in Vienna in the early
1920s, when one of his actors experienced therapeutic changes in her life after certain
acting assignments. Much of the healing power of the enactments arose from her
increased ability to laugh at herself (Fox, 1987, pp. 210–212; Scheiffele, 1995, pp. 102–
105).

8. Time Experience
When we are acting, time often seems to stand still due to our total absorption in the
moment. As in other ASCs, we have a ‘nonlinear experience of timelessness or eternal
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present’ (Farthing, 1992, p. 211). During improvisation it is possible for time to slow
down and our subjective experience to be altered in such a way that we feel we have
all the time we need to make complicated decisions or perform complex actions. On the
other hand, from the narrative point of view, time often speeds up, as in many plays
where we go through a whole life-time in 2 hours, frequently moving from the past to
the future in minutes. The same can happen in psychodrama, as illustrated by Zerka
Moreno: ‘I have to forget about human time and open up or even take away the
frontiers. In psychodrama you can weave from past to present to future and back again’
(Moreno et al., 2000, p. 8).

9. Emotional Feeling and Expression


One of the main characteristics of acting is indeed the heightened level of feeling and
expressiveness. So again Farthing’s explanations under this topic seem to apply to
acting: ‘The overt expression of emotions, such as affectionate touching, crying, or
violent actions, may be uninhibited in ASCs’ (1992, p. 211). Reactions to other people
and events become more immediate and emotional.
The stage is a safe place to be dangerous. We can express ourselves in new ways
without suffering the consequences of real life. For example, we might yell at our
parents in a psychodrama. In this way we can have the beneŽt of releasing unexpressed
emotions, without suffering the consequences of hurting our parents (cf. Emunah, 1994,
p. xiv).
The freedom of emotional expression on the stage can be very liberating and cathartic
and many of us are drawn to this quality of the experience. ‘The living space of reality
is often narrow and restraining, he may easily lose his equilibrium. On the stage he may
Žnd it again due to its methodology of freedom—freedom from unbearable stress and
freedom for experience and expression’ (Moreno, 1946, p. a).

10. Level of Arousal


Acting clearly involves a higher than normal state of arousal, including physiological
signs such as increased heart-rate and breathing. After an intense performance we can
Acting: an altered state of consciousness 185

feel as sweaty and exhausted as after a work-out. Many of us love the experience of
acting because it is exciting. At the very least we can experience an adrenaline rush due
to the fact that we are in front of an audience. On a good night our arousal can
sometimes reach the level of ecstasy. Many Living Theatre performances ended with
actors and audience in wild rapture, including, at least in the days of Paradise Now,
sexual arousal and freedom. ‘Here naked spectators and actors embraced indiscrimi-
nately, even copulating’ (Innes, 1993, p. 187).

11. Self-control
Spontaneous acting is often experienced as a state in which actions just happen. The
actor Žnds herself surprised by her own actions or words. Many Žnd this experience
highly desirable—it is the opposite of boredom and predictability. Especially in impro-
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visational acting we try to ‘get out of our heads’ and learn to trust our impulses.
Meisner calls upon the actor: ‘Accept whatever comes out spontaneously!’ (Meisner &
Longwell, 1987, p. 173). This experience of immediacy is shared by many different ASCs
and is also a goal in some mystical traditions, e.g. Zen Buddhism or Taoism. ‘In some
ASCs people’s normally voluntary responses may seem to happen automatically, with-
out a sense of volition’ (Farthing, 1992, p. 211).
When Farthing describes people during ASCs as ‘doing things that go against their
usual social inhibitions’ (1992, p. 211), it becomes clear that the same applies to actors,
whether in psychodrama or theatre. ‘They [protagonists during role-reversal] step
outside themselves and enact sides of themselves they would never allow to be shown
otherwise’ (Moreno et al., 2000, p. 14). Meisner echoes Moreno when he encourages
this: ‘You’re allowed to do things onstage that you don’t do in life. You’re permitted to
express yourself on stage and don’t need to hold yourself back as you must in life’
(Meisner & Longwell, 1987, p. 162).
Grotowski also calls upon the actor to fully reveal himself on stage without inhi-
bition:
Theatre—through the actor’s technique, his art in which the living organism
strives for higher motives—provides an opportunity for what could be called
integration, the discarding of masks, the revealing of the real substance: a
totality of physical and mental reactions. … The actor’s act—discarding half
measures, revealing, opening up, emerging from himself as opposed to closing
up—is an invitation to the spectator. (1968, p. 255f)

12. Suggestibility
Farthing deŽnes: ‘a suggestion is a communication from one person to another that
induces the second person to change his/her behavior or beliefs, without any argument
or coercion being involved’ (1992, p. 211). He mentions hypnosis as a prime example of
a state of consciousness, in which asking a person vividly to imagine some state of
affairs leads to an acceptance of the imagination as reality, such that the person’s
behaviour (and physiology) will change in a manner consistent with the suggestion. This
is illustrated with the following example: ‘A hypnotized subject might be told that ies
186 E. Scheiffele

are swarming around his face and crawling on his skin. In response to the suggestion
he might hallucinate the buzzing and the feeling of ies on the skin, and make overt
responses of grimacing and brushing the ies away’ (1992, p. 212).
The same suggestion and response could occur in drama. One of the skills learned in
improvisational acting is the ability immediately to follow the suggestions of other
players. When someone tells you that there are ies on your skin, you immediately
accept the offer as reality and respond accordingly. For skilled actors, this experience
can be very real. On a good night, we can hear actors proclaim: ‘Tonight I really felt it’.
This ability to make the experience real for the actor is at the core of why using Surplus
Reality in psychodrama works (cf. Moreno et al., 2000). When we enact the childhood we
wish we had and make it real with scene setting and other tools, this experience becomes
part of our memory as much as other real-life experiences. Thus it becomes part of who
we are, and can heal us. We can move towards becoming the person who has had a better
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childhood. Theatre people often immediately understand this aspect of psychodrama,


whereas mental health professionals and long-time patients often respond: ‘There is no
point in enacting something that never has and never will happen’.
Despite these beneŽts, suggestibility also points to one of the greatest dangers of
entering ASCs and is an important reason why it is so important for psychodramatists
to be aware of this. The protagonist is very likely to follow any suggestion the director
might make, however subtle or unconscious. Thus leading questions should be avoided.
Instead of asking ‘What did he do to you now?’ it is preferable to simply ask ‘What
happened next?’

13. Body Image


Acting frequently induces a sense of unity between body, mind, and feeling, all of which
are active when we are on stage. Actors skilled at character work are able to change
their body image to that of a character. They are able to walk and move, for example
feeling their body as much heavier or lighter than its actual weight. This can happen in
character acting [especially when using Michael Chekhov’s technique, cf. Chekhov
(1991)], or during psychodrama in role-reversal, as described by Zerka Moreno: ‘But
perception in the role of the other brings one very close to the essence of that other and
sometimes includes feelings in the body and changes in size’ (Moreno et al., 2000, p. 16).
Psychodramatic doubles in particular are often instructed to Žrst take on the exact body
position and tension of the protagonist, as a way to enter the role.
As in other ASCs, ‘sensitivity to pain might decrease’ (Farthing, 1992, p. 212), due to
the total absorption involved in acting. If an actor gets hurt on stage, she might not feel
the pain until later.

14. Sense of Personal Identity


Enacting of a variety of roles can change and expand our perception of who we can be.
Drama therapists use this process therapeutically. ‘Drama is a vehicle not only for
experiencing and integrating new aspects of ourselves, but also for expressing sup-
pressed shadow aspects of ourselves’ (Emunah, 1994, p. xv). Actors in theatre or
psychodrama Žnd it liberating to discover that they can choose to be different. They can
enact characters completely unlike themselves. Farthing too is aware of this freeing
Acting: an altered state of consciousness 187

effect of some ASCs. ‘Sometimes a change in perceived personal identity is a positive


experience, as when people feel rejuvenated or reborn’ (1992, p. 212).
Our sense of personal identity can also be altered in such a way that we feel as if
someone else is acting through us, another person or god, depending on our spiritual
beliefs. We might lose our sense of personal identity and feel we are ‘channeling’
someone else. People can also have such an experience of unity that they feel less
separation from anyone or anything else.
As alluded to above, in true role-reversal we change our personal identity to that of
someone else. Sometimes we get so absorbed in a role that it is difŽcult to come back
to ourselves. Directors should be aware of this and may use de-roling, which Zerka
Moreno describes as follows:
Sometimes I suggest to an auxiliary or a double, ‘Do you need to get free of
the role? Move about, shake, and get rid of the role any way you need to’. One
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can really take over other people’s ills this way if one is sensitive or especially
vulnerable and does not know how to protect the self. We do that with any
troubling role and call it ‘de-roling’. (Moreno et al., 2000, p. 71)
In character work the goal is a complete transformation of the actor’s personal
identity, such that he becomes the character. ‘In such a creative inner state, which is the
I am state, when an actor lives and merges with his character he will give an inspired
performance’ (Moore, 1960, p. 71).
Grotowski also demands of his holy actor to transcend his ego identity.
Here everything is concentrated on the ‘ripening’ of the actor which is
expressed by a tension towards the extreme, by a complete stripping down, by
the laying bare of one’s own intimity—all this without the least trace of
egotism or self-enjoyment. The actor makes a total gift of himself. (1968, p. 16)

Summary
To summarise, during acting most of the 14 dimensions of subjective experience are
altered and hence this constitutes an ASC experience. As in all ASCs, the intensity of the
alterations varies between different acting experiences and some actors are more readily
prone to enter an ASC than others.
Ruth Zaporah describes her Action Theater in a way that indicates the alteration of
several of the above dimensions. ‘The training is comprised of exercises and ideas that
expand awareness, stimulate imagination, strengthen the capacity for feeling, and
develop skills of expression’ (1995, p. xxi).
Teachers of Stanislavski’s Method emphasise tools to alter the actor’s inner state:
‘… when an actor comes on the stage his inner state is very different from a normal
inner state in life’ (Moore, 1960, p. 66). While neither are clearly deŽned terms,
Stanislavski’s inner state corresponds strongly with Farthing’s deŽnition of conscious-
ness: ‘As a working deŽnition, consciousness is the subjective state of being currently
aware of something, either within oneself or outside of oneself’ (1992, p. 6).
Drama therapists too utilise the power of acting to expand our consciousness. ‘At the
heart of drama therapy is the experience of liberation, expansion, and perspective. The
essence of drama therapy is uncovering and integrating dormant aspects of ourselves,
188 E. Scheiffele

enlarging our conception of who we are, and Žnding our intrinsic connection with
others’ (Emunah, 1994, p. 302).

Empirical Evidence
The mostly theoretical observations made above need to be supported by empirical
research, which investigates whether and to what degree people who engage in acting
enter an ASC. As mentioned above we currently have no physiological ways of
measuring ASCs, thus we will have to rely on self-reports of introspection, something
difŽcult to analyse or quantify. This is a new Želd of research and only one preliminary
study will be presented here.
I have given a scale to measure ASCs to n 5 12 students of a Psychology of
Consciousness class at West Chester University. The test was administered immediately
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after the group was led by the author through improvisational acting exercises for about
30 minutes. Each student was given the following question:
Please pick the time (a few minutes) during the previous exercises when you
felt the most spontaneous. Now rate your subjective experience during that
time along the following 14 dimensions. Assign a rating between 1 and 5,
where 1 means very much like ordinary consciousness and 5 means very much
unlike ordinary consciousness.
The question was followed by a list of the 14 dimensions of changed subjective
experience, as above. The dimensions had been briey explained in class. Note that this
scale is designed to measure to what degree subjects entered an ASC. Since ASCs are
deŽned as an alteration in subjective experience, it is indeed appropriate to use a
self-report measure.
Here are the results, indicating for each dimension the average rating by the 12
subjects:
Dimension Average rating
1 2.42
2 1.58
3 2.25
4 2.25
5 1.75
6 1.58
7 2.17
8 2.33
9 2.75
10 3.08
11 2.08
12 2.17
13 1.75
14 1.50
Thus the highest level of alteration from ordinary consciousness was experienced
along dimension 10, level of arousal, followed by dimension 9, emotional feeling and
Acting: an altered state of consciousness 189

expression. The lowest level of alteration was along dimension 14, sense of personal
identity (this could be related to the fact that the exercises did not focus on character
acting). Overall the results support the view that many of the dimensions were altered
during the experience, and hence that the subjects entered an ASC. Nine out of the 14
dimensions received a score above 2, which suggests a notable alteration. Because of the
small sample size and lack of control group this study is clearly insufŽcient and I hope
to conduct more rigorous studies in the future.

Implications
ASC experiences are associated with both dangers and beneŽts. Theatre practitioners,
drama educators, and therapists need to be attentive to the fact that actors might enter
an altered state. Especially beginning acting students might need help, not only in
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entering an ASC, but also in getting out of it. In most cases all that is needed is time,
and hence I advise protagonists not to drive a car for at least 30 minutes after a drama.
It is also recommended that they not make any irreversible decisions, such as breaking
up with a lover, until some days after the enactment.
Directors in general, and psychodramatists in particular, need to be acutely aware of
the fact that actors might enter a trance-like hypnotic state, in which they are susceptible
to suggestions. As in hypnosis, the director must be careful not to impose her own
feelings or opinions on the subject, or to elicit false memories or other projections. This
has of course always been the way psychodrama should be done, here is just one more
reason. As Zerka Moreno puts it: ‘When I direct a session I am a blank slate, a blank
screen. Most of the time I do not have any preconceived notions’ (Moreno et al., 2000,
p. 55).
Recently there has been much talk about the false memory syndrome, and now
memories recovered under hypnosis are no longer allowed as legal evidence in court
(Gibson, 1995; McConkey, 1995). So when a protagonist remembers traumatic child-
hood experiences, I tell her that for the purpose of our psychotherapeutic work the issue
of historical accuracy is not relevant. I warn, however, that sometimes recovered
memories can be less than accurate, so for example if she is considering a law-suit
against her parents she might search for other evidence.
Despite these cautions, there are also many beneŽts to entering ASCs, as Farthing
acknowledges:
For people who experience them, ASCs may be important for three reasons:
(1) to promote healing and psychological well-being; (2) as avenues of new
knowledge and experience, such as personal insight and artistic inspiration;
and (3) to serve social functions, such as religious rituals and promoting group
cohesion. (1992, p. 218)
This list is quite comprehensive and reads very much like the reasons often given by
people who have a passion for the transformative power of theatre (e.g. Emunah, 1994;
Moreno et al., 2000), thus giving further evidence for the link between acting and ASCs.
Whether one believes entering ASCs is beneŽcial or not, the fact remains that to enter
ASCs is a universal human desire, attempted by many people in all cultures throughout
190 E. Scheiffele

history. Especially in our culture this is often attempted through harmful means, such
as using drugs (legal or illegal) or committing violence.
James Gilligan, a Harvard psychiatrist, in his insightful study of the causes of
violence, points out that murderers throughout history and throughout the world
consistently report feeling dead. ‘When they say they feel dead they mean they cannot
feel anything—neither emotions nor even physical sensations’ (1996, p. 33). Murder and
inicting pain on themselves and others is for them a (misguided) attempt to alter their
consciousness in order to feel more alive. ‘Some have told me they feel like robots or
zombies’ (1996, p. 33).
People in prison would beneŽt tremendously from participating in drama activities.
They are also among the most challenging populations to work with, but some have
taken on the challenge as Ramon Gordon describes so beautifully in his essay Human-
izing Offenders through Acting Therapy:
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Theatre training is a humanizing process. The stage is more real than real life.
In real life we present images of ourselves, repress or disguise our feelings and
emotions; we are protective, defensive, unrevealing, careful, skeptical. On the
stage, however, the actor must reveal and use all of himself; he is required to
show passion, to react emotionally, to love, to hate, to be angry, sad, tender,
weak, sensitive, to kill, to die, to be foolish, uninhibited, mature, inconsistent,
beautiful and ugly. And it is all socially acceptable on the stage—freeing, and
safe. But, to act so humanly in real life could result in his institutionalisation—
hospital, morgue—or prison. (Ramon Gordon in Schattner & Courtney, 1981,
p. 312)
Gordon’s marvellous account also indicates how acting changes the actor’s conscious-
ness. By showing how we become more human as actors, he raises the interesting
question whether perhaps that is a more natural state than our so-called ‘normal’ state
of consciousness. For our current discussion it is, of course, enough to see that one state
is an alteration of the other, it does not matter which one is more natural.
If acting helps people to reach ASCs and fulŽl this human desire in a safe manner
without drugs and alcohol, this in itself could be seen as a means to prevent violence and
drug abuse. Then it would be imperative to promote healthy activities which safely
heighten spontaneity and aliveness, such as acting and psychodrama. Further studies
need to be done more clearly to establish these connections. Especially, the availability
of more empirical studies about the beneŽts of acting will be of great importance in
advocating why we still need theatre, in this society dominated by passive television.
Advocates of physical exercise have been very successful, as it is now seen as
beneŽcial to most people throughout their lives and not merely a way to train
professional athletes. In the same way we must promote acting and psychodrama as a
healthy experience for everyone, and not just for trained actors, nor only for people
labelled with psychiatric disorders. This is also how Moreno saw it:
A truly therapeutic procedure cannot have less an objective than the whole of
mankind. (Moreno, 1953, p. 3)
I have always tried to show that my approach was meant as much more than
a psychotherapeutic method—my ideas have emphasized that creativity and
Acting: an altered state of consciousness 191

spontaneity affect the very roots of vitality and spiritual development, and
thus affect our involvements in every sphere of our lives. (Moreno in Blatner,
1988 p. vii)
The cardinal concern of professional psychotherapy has been, up to now, the
mentally disturbed group. But is not the chief concern of a sick society its
normal group? Is not its normal group responsible for the general, social and
moral decay, for the wars and revolutions which bring untold misery upon
mankind? (Moreno, 1957 p. 25)

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