What happens when we try to communicate?

An action occurs. An observation is made. We may try to share an idea. We may try to understand an idea. We may suddenly feel we understand something we weren’t seeking. We may seek information about events, how others experience the world, how others perceive us. We may discover these things or try to share them. How much do we project and how much do we receive?

Communication is so central to human behavior that meditation stands out as a strange and powerful effort to neither project nor perceive–or at least to do so in limited ways–and solitary confinement, while conceived as an opportunity for penitent contemplation, is increasingly viewed as intolerably inhumane.

Communication is a central obsession in my life particularly in the relationship between audience and performer. After reducing these roles to their most essential activities and qualities I’ve been working with the following definitions as I try to understand this world.

Performance: Activity enacted with an awareness of observation

Audience: One or more individuals giving their attention to a performance or perceived as observing another’s activity

Within these terms additional definitions seem to exist on spectra, shifting their qualities from moment to moment as dynamics of interaction change. For example, one’s awareness of observation may increase or decrease within a single conversation, speech, or staged scene.

Edward Bullough, Susan Bennett, and Daphna Ben Chaim (among others) have written on the phenomenon of psychological distance and its role in the relationship between performer and audience. Bennett has diagrammed the key dynamics of distance involving factors such as the performance’s semblance of reality and audience engagement. Physical and mediated distance also impact psychological distance making puppetry, in its myriad forms, a powerful tool for understanding these relationships.

Neuroscientists such as Andrew B. Newberg have identified aspects of audience engagement that create significant impacts on neurological phenomena that are associated with spiritual experience. Activities such as communal singing and eating as well as environmental qualities such as placing a closely packed audience in darkness while viewing a brightly lit performance or using the same general lighting on both audience and performers all significantly impact phenomena such as absolute unitary being.

Each of these dynamics and factors plays a role in defining the stickiness of a performance’s message and its potential to incite action, whether in the context of an agit-prop performance, a political rally, a classroom, a sales pitch, or even conversation between spouses.

What would a world look like in which the delivery of a message were affected more by the logic of the content than the form of the presentation because we all understood and executed communication with such complete understanding and skill? Is such a world even possible?

As complex as the dynamics of message delivery are, inquiry is an even more complex topic. The challenge of inquiry alone offers reason to continue making work that explores the human condition through dialogue in the form of scripts–work that asks questions about asking questions. Additionally, it’s likely that the dynamics of performance, even when understood, will require a degree of skill and nuance beyond the ability of nearly everyone to deliver consistently. The persistent sense of magic and frustration around communication means that scripts about all kinds of communication will remain vital for a long time to come. Not only drama, but teaching, politics, advocacy, negotiation, and sales will remain arts in their own rights, defying objectivity.

Despite the seeming futility of seeking answers in these subjects I aim to ask questions about the ways we ask questions and deliver messages–but then, answers may be less interesting than questions. After all, questions have the potential to empower as well as control.

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