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Cognitive Monthly • May 2009 THE ILLUSION OF THEATER by Dave and Greta Munger When the curtain opened on a stark stage in Davidson, North Carolina, all eyes were focused on two men, one reclining on a bench, the other pacing to and fro. One wore an antique traveling suit, the other was dressed in a sweater and socks. A pool of light illuminated them both. The language they spoke was familiar, yet different from ordinary talk: Wilt thou be gone? Sweet Valentine, adieu. Think on thy Proteus, when thou haply seest Some rare noteworthy object in thy travel. Regular people don’t speak like this — and neither did they when Shakespeare wrote these words more than five centuries ago. If someone actually addressed you in this language, you’d probably think he’d gone insane. Yet somehow the combination of the atmosphere and the passion in their voices convinces us that we really are in some “Verona,” possibly one that never existed, and that “Proteus” is truly sad to see his friend “Valentine” depart. Aristotle said that all art is an imitation of nature; that drama is an imitation of one aspect of nature, “men in action,” of reality, the way people behave. The most effective drama is that which presents the most convincing imitation of action. According to Aristotle, the job of the actors, writers, and directors that stage a play is to create a world so convincing that the audience forgets that it is an imitation, and instead becomes a part of this world, however impossible such an imitation really is. The process of creating this world began over a year before, when, as director Fiona Buffini of the Royal Shakespeare Company told us, she sat down with the manuscript of The Two Gentlemen of Verona for the very first time. Never having seen the play performed,

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she tried to imagine how best to convey the 500-year-old play to a modern audience. She decided to set the play in 1930s America, the “Jazz Age,” the world of Fred and Ginger, of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Now how would she create that world? The next step was to meet with designer Liz Ascroft, who would be responsible for both the stage sets and the costumes for the show. Soon they would also be working with lighting designer Neil Austin and composer Conor Linehan. “It’s silly to think about these things individually,” Ascroft said, “it’s the overall impact that matters.” Buffini and Ascroft needed to design a compact set that could easily be packed up and moved from place to place — including traveling across the Atlantic to Davidson College. Elaborate sets were out of the question, and so music became an important part of the set itself. The play has three different locations: “Verona,” a country backwater town, “Milan,” the exciting big city, and the “Forest,” a lawless wilderness somewhere in between. Buffini and Austin worked together to create background music that would help “create a feel” that was distinct for each location. In Milan, for example, the dominant sounds were a joyful trumpet and big percussion, while in the forest, eerie drums were used to suggest mystery and magic. “It should work subliminally,” Buffini said, but it was critical for the audience to know “where they were” during minimal set changes. But why do we believe what we see onstage so readily? How can we accept the idea that Shakespeare’s Milan (or “Millen” as the British actors uniformly pronounce it) is really 1930s New York City? While directors and designers think of the overall impact of the elements of a production, psychologists try to find ways to isolate one component of the vast array of inputs that come together to make a production. Take sound, for example. Background music can make a huge difference in how we see characters. Sandra Marshall and Annabel Cohen found in 1988 that even when showing cartoons where the only “characters” were a triangle, a circle, and a square, changing the music could change viewer’s perceptions about the “characters” (it turns out, triangles are thugs). Other researchers have found that ap-

May 2009


propriate music can help you remember details about a scene in a film. How exactly does the music affect perception of a scene? In 2000, Marilyn Boltz conducted an extensive study to try to answer that question. Boltz wanted to know whether music alone could change the way viewers thought about a scene in a film, and furthermore, whether it could actually affect viewers’ memory later on. She showed viewers three ambiguous scenes, from Cat People, Vertigo, and the TV show The Hitchhiker, and played either “positive,” “negative,” or no music to accompany the scenes. Boltz found that when viewers watched Malcolm McDowell and Nastassia Kinski talk in a benign scene from Cat People accompanied by positive music, they saw McDowell primarily as “kind/ caring,” “loving,” or “playful.” When the negative music was played, he became “crazy/deranged,” “evil,” manipulative,” “controlling/possessive,” and “mysterious” (and this is without seeing him turn into a black leopard and rip someone’s arm off). When asked to predict what would happen next, viewers who had never seen the film and who saw the version with positive music (“Blossom Meadow” by George Winston) thought that McDowell and Kinski would have a happy life together and possibly fall in love. Viewers who instead saw a version with negative music (from Rubycon by Tangerine Dream — of Risky Business fame) thought McDowell would “harm,” “kill,” or “do supernatural harm” to Kinski. The results were similar for scenes from Vertigo and The Hitchhiker. So music matters, whether we’re watching a bad ’80s HBO series or a Hitchcock classic—or a play by the son of a tenant farmer in central England. A separate group of viewers was not asked to give predictions. Instead, they were invited back to Boltz’s lab a week later to be given a pop quiz. It turns out, when shown a list of words, some of which were names of objects that appeared in the film clip and some of which weren’t, they correctly remembered about two-thirds of the objects. But people who listened to positive music remembered about 80 percent of the positive objects in the scene, as opposed to

May 2009


only half of the negative objects. For people who heard the negative music, the results were correspondingly reversed. Furthermore, people hearing negative music were more likely to remember negative objects that weren’t even present in the scene they were shown, such as an open grave and an ice pick in Vertigo. Sound can be powerful, but it can also be overdone. “We don’t want to force one interpretation of the play on the audience,” said Assistant Director Gemma Fairlie. In a demonstration for Davidson College students after the play, Fairlie asked two actors to perform the scene where Proteus convinces the Duke of Milan to banish his friend and rival Valentine. They performed the scene several times, each time with a different underscore played by the band. In one version, with soft music in the background, they seem almost like mafia capos planning a hit. In another, with the mysterious “forest” music, the scene feels surreal and dreamlike. “In the end, we chose to perform this scene with no music at all,” said Fairlie, “and let the audience decide for themselves how to interpret it.” In another exercise, an actor recited Proteus’ “To leave my Julia” monologue and simply stood in different parts of the stage for each delivery. When he stood at the back wall of the stage, he seemed so “distant” that the students had a hard time believing his lines. When he crouched at the front of the stage, he seemed almost to be conspiring with the audience, having an intimate conversation with them. The “meaning” of the monologue appeared to change depending simply on where the single actor was placed. Decisions about “blocking” — how the actors move about as they deliver their lines — become even more complex when there are a dozen or more actors on stage, something which occurs frequently in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Shakespeare’s language is difficult enough for an audience, so Buffini didn’t want the audience to be distracted by the movements of actors who weren’t involved in the scene: “I direct for split focus — making sure everything on stage gives focus to the main action.” However, she believed that simply having the supporting actors stand still would make for a dull and lifeless stage. Instead, every movement was choreographed so as not

May 2009


to be overly distracting. Buffini also relied on her intuition about where audiences tend to direct their attention: “They prefer upstage right [the back left, from the audience’s perspective], so often I will begin the action in a scene there.” Buffini’s intuition corresponds to an interesting and surprising experimental result: when we see an embossed seal such as a notary stamp, how do we know which parts are convex (bumps) and which are concave (dimples)? When we look at such a seal through a microscope (or even a toilet paper roll), so that we don’t know where the illumination is coming from, we can’t tell what’s up and what’s down. This effect was first recorded in 1744, and first accurately explained in 1786 by David Rittenhouse: we assume the light is coming from over our heads; if the light isn’t coming from where we expect, then we reverse the image. Over the course of the twentieth century, some of the researchers investigating this problem noticed that the observers in their experiments not only preferred the light source to be above their heads; they expected it to be slightly to their left as well. This phenomenon made no sense: people don’t tend to orient themselves with the sun to their left. The scientists were so certain that this finding was in error that they simply discarded results from observers who favored light from the left. Pascal Mamassian and Ross Goutcher suspected that we may really have a preference for light sources on the left, so they devised an experiment to test it. Consider the following two objects:

May 2009


If we imagine we are in a room with very low light, coming from above, and we’re looking at the objects head-on, they will look like this:

Notice that if you turn the image on the left upside down, it’s actually identical to the image on the right. Mamassian and Goutcher took this figure and rotated it in increments of 15 degrees. Then they asked observers whether it looked like the wide bars or the narrow bars were projecting out from the figure. In fact, observers were

May 2009


looking at the same image each time, so their responses would reflect only where they perceived the light source for the image to be. They found that observers were most consistent in their responses when the light appeared to be coming from about 25 degrees to the left of vertical. It didn’t matter whether observers were left- or righthanded; all observers had the same preference. This result is the identical preference Buffini had observed in the theater: audiences look first to the upper left corner of the stage. Mamassian and Goutcher suggest that a possible explanation for this result might be a “visual field bias.” When recognizing people’s faces, for example, we tend to pay more attention to the right-hand side than the left. From the viewer’s perspective, this is the left side of the face: if the light source is on the observer’s left, then the right side of the person they’re looking at is illuminated. If Buffini’s rule of thumb for staging is correct, the bias extends to the stage as well. Lighting can also impact the perception of a play. “Colors feed emotions,” Ascroft pointed out. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, as in any play, there were almost an infinite array of possibilities for what to do with the lighting, but for her the most important consideration was how it worked together with the rest of the process. So typically the director and the set designer work together with the lighting designer to create the “feel” they want. But are there any rules about lighting? Anything you want to avoid? Buffini and Ascroft don’t think so. They can recall seeing plays where the lighting was all “natural,” generated only from lamps and candles placed on stage. In another play, the lighting designer created a sunrise so realistic that the audience didn’t even realize it was happening until the “sky” was fully ablaze outside the windows of the house onstage. For this play, the lighting was different for each of the three “worlds.” In the demonstration for Davidson College students, Fairlie asked an actor to recite one of Sylvia’s monologues as the lighting technician changed the stage lights from one “world” to another. “What impact does this have on your view of Sylvia?” Fairlie asked the students. The consensus was that the lighting affected the

May 2009


“feel” of the scene, but not as much as some of the other factors, such as blocking or music. Indeed, research suggests that we can adapt quickly to a variety of different lighting situations. We see this effect most dramatically in the theater, where the stage lights cover every color of the rainbow, yet we still know the heroine is wearing a purple dress and our hero has majestic blonde hair. James M. Kraft, Shannon I. Maloney, and David H. Brainard of UCSanta Barbara have explored some of the implications of this issue. Seeing color is one thing, but adjusting for different lighting conditions — color constancy — is yet another. Somehow, we’re able to achieve color constancy without even thinking about it. But how? Do we unconsciously detect the type of lighting in a particular scene and then adjust accordingly? This seems unlikely; otherwise the art of photography wouldn’t be difficult at all: we’d all intuit how to adjust our cameras to different lighting conditions and take good pictures. Yet the preponderance of ghastly orange photos littering cheesy family websites and dust-covered-photo albums suggests we possess no such intuition. Kraft et al. thought that we might use the other objects in our field of view to help us determine the accurate color of a particular object. They designed an experiment using a simple setting: a “room” made of cardboard, with a gray patch on the wall whose color could be changed by adjusting a spotlight focused precisely on the patch. Theater lights were used to vary the overall lighting in the room, and then observers were asked to change the lighting on the gray patch so it looked “perfectly gray.” Later, the same observers were asked to do the same task in a more “complex” scene (the same room, but with a couple extra objects added: a board covered with patches of varying colors and textures, and a tall rectangular cardboard column). They suspected that the complex scene would help observers maintain color constancy — with many other cues to help them see how the room was lit, they would be better able to recognize a “truly” gray object. You can see their room here.

May 2009


What they found surprised them. Observers were no better at attaining color constancy in a “simple” room than they were in a “complex” room. Perhaps even the simple room was complex enough to help observers attain color constancy. The researchers tried a different tack: they showed viewers the same rooms, but added additional “invalid cues” — they lit some parts of the room differently in order to confuse observers. In this case, observers were better at maintaining color constancy in the “complex” room, suggesting that complexity helps us attain color constancy in confusing lighting situations. In short, we’re very good at determining the color of objects in most situations. It’s only when things get really confusing that we must resort to crutches to help us accurately see color. It may also explain why it’s so difficult to portray “confusion” in a theater. When there’s supposed to be something like a storm or a battle on stage, the actors have to rely on the audience to use its imagination and suspend disbelief. When it comes to color, our perceptual system is simply too good to be fooled that easily. There is a way to use lighting to “fool” the perceptual system, but it requires a different approach, first used by painters (including set designers) and later by video game designers. These artists wanted to know how we tell where an object is in a three-dimensional world when our eye only gives us two dimensions worth of information.

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Video game designers faced the issue in the 1980s when they began attempting to make “3-D” arcade games. One classic example was the game Zaxxon, where you flew a spaceship diagonally across the screen. The trick was, you not only had left and right controls, but also up and down. It was difficult to tell exactly how high your spaceship was, but the programmers made it easier by adding a shadow below your ship. The farther away the shadow was, the “higher” the ship was. Somehow, it still didn’t help me from wasting way too much of my paper route money on the game.

A team led by Daniel Kersten replicated this effect in the lab by using a simple square displayed above a three-dimensional grid. Interestingly, they found that a crisp shadow didn’t give nearly as much an impression of depth as a blurry one. Here’s an approximation of their crisp-shadow stimulus:

May 2009


And here’s a blurry shadow:

It’s pretty clear from this example that Zaxxon would have been a much easier game if the shadow was blurrier — the sense of depth you get is much more dramatic with a blurry shadow. (If you’re nostalgic for the game, there’s a rather crummy online version of it at Should cure you of your nostalgia real fast.)

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But to really thoroughly study this phenomenon, Kersten et al. needed a more sophisticated visual. They developed a “ball in a box” example, where a ball moves around in a virtual box on a computer screen. In the simplest example, the ball’s actual path onscreen remains the same; what changes is the path of its shadow. Take a look at these shots from their experiment carefully: Shot 1:

Shot 2:

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In the first example, the ball appears to be hovering in the air near the front of the box; in the second one, it’s sitting on the surface at the back of the box. But note that the ball is actually located in the same position in the picture: the only difference is its shadow. The effect is even more dramatic when the display is animated. You can see examples of many such displays at Kersten’s Web site: Kersten and his colleagues have done several versions of the task, including one where the scene showed a light source moving around the box to create the different shadows. Even when observers are aware that the only thing changing is the lighting, it still appears that the ball is moving forward and backward in the box. So our perceptual system assumes a stationary light source, even when we are conscious that the light source is moving. By moving the light source around, lighting designers can create tremendously disorienting effects. This was done in the RSC production of Julius Caesar, performed by the same cast as Two Gentlemen of Verona and directed by David Farr. Actors carried large flashlights around a dark stage and even into the audience during the critical “revolution” scenes in the play, and the effect was powerful and bewildering. One of the most dramatic scenes in cinema is the famous “spotlight” scene in Metropolis, where Alfred Abel chases Brigitte Helm through an underground cave with a spotlight that only illuminates a small portion of the screen at a time, again with a haunting and disorienting effect. Throughout our interview with Liz Ascroft, she kept referring to one point: “It’s bonkers talking about all this individually.” Ascroft was convinced that the complete package was much more important than any individual element. Certainly one element could destroy the impact of a play, but it takes all the elements combined to tell the story in a way that truly impacts the audience. This “hunch,” or really informed speculation, corresponds to a line of research that has actually been pursued with regards to film — the idea that a variety of techniques will have a greater impact than

May 2009


one employed on its own. In much film theory, the key techniques used to tell a story are mise en scène, montage, cinematography, and sound. Mise en scène is everything used to create the set, including costuming and stage directions. Montage is simply the techniques used to edit film shots together. Cinematography is the technical craft of shooting a film: the camera, lens, film, filters, framing, etc. Sound, of course, includes music, sound effects, and dialog. Film theorists like David Bordwell have suggested that a combination of several of these devices is more likely to have a significant impact on film viewers than one device employed on its own. Northern Illinois University researcher Joseph Magliano and his colleagues wanted to test Bordwell’s theory, so they devised two experiments. In the first one, college students watched the over-the-top James Bond flick Moonraker on a VCR, and were encouraged to stop the tape and write down predictions as to what would happen next, whenever such a thought occurred to them. For example, when “Jaws” fell out of a plane without a parachute, and then the film cut to a circus big top, many viewers “predicted” that he would fall into the tent. Magliano et al. counted 98 different predictions that were made by at least two different viewers. They then analyzed the predictions to find the most common ones and see what preceded them in the movie. They redefined Bordwell’s categories into 5 “types of support” for predictions: Mise en scène, Montage, Framing (a simplified version of Bordwell’s “cinematography”), Music, and Dialog (thus, they broke Bordwell’s “sound” into two types of support). Each of the predictions was supported by at least one category, and 57 of the 98 were supported by more than one category (e.g. montage and framing). Each of the categories was responsible for about the same number of predictions, except for montage which seemed to generate substantially more predictions. Then they looked at each individual prediction and analyzed what categories were most likely to generate a prediction. Perhaps most surprisingly, Music was unrelated to prediction generation. Despite Marilyn Boltz’s significant research about the importance of music in film, music seems unrelated to whether a viewer will make a pre-

May 2009


diction about what will come next. What did matter, perhaps less surprisingly, was the number of cinematic devices supporting a given prediction. The more devices, the more likely a viewer was to arrive at that prediction. In their second experiment, Magliano et al. wanted to know if viewers would make the same predictions without being explicitly directed to make predictions. They took another group of college students and showed them the film again. This time, instead of asking them to make predictions, they simply stopped the film at moments when predictions were made by the first group, and asked the participants to write down whatever came to mind. They also stopped the film at several random points where no predictions were made before. They found that viewers were indeed still making predictions, and they were more likely to make the predictions that the first group had made when the prediction was supported by more than one cinematic device. The effect was dramatic:

May 2009


Magliano et al. realize that these devices are used intentionally by the filmmakers — so therefore the filmmakers must want viewers to make predictions. Why? They suggest that making predictions helps keep viewers involved in following the film. Taking the example of Jaws falling into the big top, filmmakers were so certain that viewers would make the prediction that they didn’t even show Jaws actually landing. They showed him falling without a parachute, then began playing circus music, then cut to the big top, and back to Jaws, and finally back to the inside of the tent, but then moved on to another scene. But viewers were not surprised to see Jaws show up again later in the film. In Bond films, we think there might be another reason the filmmakers want viewers to make predictions: they want viewers to feel sophisticated. Part of the appeal of the Bond film is that viewers are supposed to be excited by the lifestyles of the wealthy socialites depicted in the film. By encouraging them to make predictions, the filmmakers invite viewers to be a part of that lifestyle; to live it vicariously through Bond. In Shakespeare, the motivations might be a bit different, but the result is the same. If viewers can predict what’s coming next, it means they’ve developed an understanding of what’s passed. Since language and history can be immense barriers to understanding a play that’s over 5 centuries old, the more devices a director can employ to engage the viewer, the better. Magliano’s research confirms Ascroft’s hunch that the combination of techniques is more powerful than a single one. But what do the people involved in making plays think of all this scientific research about their art? Does it help them do what they do? Or would they prefer to just ignore it? Ascroft is uncomfortable with the idea that science can somehow explain the creative work that she does: “I don’t want to know about it,” says Ascroft, “I think it’s the Eve and the apple of knowledge.” Buffini, by contrast, finds the research fascinating. “In one sense, I’m happy for my job to be a mystery,” but she also adds “this is why I do it. I’m fascinated by human behavior.”

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For what is theater, after all, but a massive experiment in human behavior? Psychologists generally must conduct experiments one participant at a time. A massive study might have one or two hundred participants, a thousand at most, usually over the course of years. A play can garner that type of audience in a good weekend. Directors and actors get nearly instant feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and next time around, they strive to create a better “imitation of reality,” as Aristotle would put it. When they’ve mastered this, they’ve mastered human behavior, and human behavior is what psychology is all about. Cognitive Monthly is an in-depth mini e-book that you can download and read on your computer, iPod, iPhone, e-reader, or any device that can handle a PDF. Each month we cover a different cognitive psychology issue. For more reports on cognitive psychology, visit Cognitive Daily online.

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References: Boltz, M. (2001). Musical Soundtracks as a Schematic Influence on the Cognitive Processing of Filmed Events. Music Perception, 18 (4), 427-454. Kersten, D, Mamassian, P, & Knill, D C, (1997). Moving cast shadows induce apparent motion in depth. Perception 26(2), 171-192. Kraft, J M, Maloney, S I, & Brainard, D H (2002). "Surfaceilluminant ambiguity and color constancy: Effects of scene complexity and depth cues" Perception 31(2), 247-263. Magliano, J. P., Dijkstra, K., & Zwaan, R. A. (1996). Generating predictive inferences while viewing a movie. Discourse Processes, 16, 35-53. Mamassian, P., & Goutcher, R. (2001). Prior knowledge on the illumination position. Cognition , 81 (1).  


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