Action Reconsidered. Cognitive Aspects of the Relation between Script and Scenic Action

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)


Contemporary cognitive science challenges the idea about the human brain as a kind of computor. Instead the importance of the body for our way to understand and interact with the world has come into focus. Theories about the ”situated” and ”embodied” character of human cognition have entailed that notions like action, consciousness, and intersubjectivity have gained renewed scientific interest. On the other hand, these elements have always retained crucial importance in theatre practice, not least in the actor’s process from the written text to action on stage. In the dissertation I apply theories from modern cognitive science on this process, such as this has been described by practioners in the theatre. My conclusion is that there are important coincidences between findings in modern cognitive science and grounding insights in the practice of theatre. I start with indicating how the way the actor intentionally relates to the character’s situation forms a pattern that largely remains unaltered historically, despite the development of different acting styles. I also find coincidences between this pattern and theories about human ”being in the world” as described by philosophers in the phenomenological tradition, such as Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Zahavi, thinkers who also attract increased attention in cognitive science. I further argue that modern descriptions of human action as forms of ”dynamic-systems” could be fruitful ways to approach action on stage as well. In a final section I address dramatic writing that is not action-based, and that hence cannot in a corresponding way be related to the referred to theories within cognitive science. I find that much experimental theatre in the 20th century shares with behaviourism a reluctance to acknowledge the importance of intentional action. I argue that new findings about human mind, unlike older ones, do not urge for a description of human volition as predominantly directed by outside forces. The conclusion becomes that intentional action, which a great part of 20th century theatre sets out to question, indeed deserves to be reconsidered.


  • Erik Rynell
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Performing Arts


  • Theatre, cognition, embodied cognition, acting, avantgarde theatre, new theatre
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Supervisors/Assistant supervisor
  • Paavolainen, Pentti, Supervisor, External person
Award date2008 Oct 30
  • Theatre Academy Helsinki
Publication statusPublished - 2008
Publication categoryResearch

Bibliographic note

Defence details Date: 2008-10-30 Time: 12:15 Place: Theatre Academy Helsinki External reviewer(s) Name: McConachie, Bruce Title: Professor Affiliation: University of Pittsburgh ---

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