Measuring the Magic of Theatre

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Theatre is magical. For a few hours, we sit down and are completely immersed into a different world. The performances we see promote connections with the actors on stage and fellow audience members. Theatre transports us to different places and times—sometimes surrounded by dazzling costumes, breathtaking sets and mood-enhancing lighting—and introduces us to unique perspectives.

Those of us who love live performance believe in the magic of theatre. But how do we convince others? What are the measurable benefits of live performances? How do we prove they’re happening?

The goal of the Purdue Convocations research agenda is to begin a determination of the impact live performances have on audience members. Thus far, our work has centered on the intrinsic and academic impacts of a live performance, including:

Judgment at Nuremberg

This research study focused on Purdue University students in a section of History 104—Introduction to the Modern World who attended a performance of this production that dramatizes post-World War II military tribunals. We asked these students to compare the experience of viewing a live show versus classroom coverage of material via textbooks and lectures. Students believed the performance presented information in a more direct and realistic manner that was more easily understood than textbook readings—all while conveying stronger emotions and fostering deeper engagement. Most importantly, students reported a connection to the performers and noted that the show gave them “a person to empathize with rather than just a name in a book.” This pilot study indicates live theatre could enhance traditional collegiate education models and suggests this methodology should be further explored as a potential aid to student success. This study will be published in July as part of the 2019 Symposium on Education in Entertainment and Engineering.

Story Pirates

This study explores the impact of a novel, interactive performing arts-based program on students’ writing skills. The program features the Story Pirates, a group that teaches children how to write stories and then turns those stories into a musical sketch-comedy show. Written stories from third-grade students in an elementary school were collected before and after a Story Pirates program and then compared to determine the program’s impact. The percentage of students incorporating key elements of writing—settings, main characters, additional characters, motives and challenges—increased from an average of 39.2% to 92.8% after their participation. These findings suggest that theatre-based interventions may strengthen elementary students’ writing skills. This study was accepted for publication pending revision.

My Father’s Dragon

The study for My Father’s Dragon, a stage adaptation of the beloved children’s tale, represented a randomized, controlled trial in which schools throughout the country were blocked based on community-level socioeconomic status. Students read the book and then completed a reading assessment either before or after exposure to the play. Students who completed the assessment after exposure to the theatrical presentation had higher overall reading, vocabulary and comprehension skills relative to students who completed the assessment before attending the performance, and these gains were consistent across community-level socioeconomic status. These findings suggest that exposure to theatre may produce gains in reading skills that persist after controlling for grade and socioeconomic status.

Frankenstein

This study examined whether a live-theatre performance that focuses on an ethically charged narrative—adapted from Mary Shelley’s novel—can lead business students to make more ethical decisions. We specifically investigated whether attending a performance of Frankenstein could influence student opinions on the 1984 disaster at Union Carbide Corporation’s (UCC) pesticide production facility in Bhopal, India. Results showed support for the notion that live theatre can impact individuals’ ethical decision-making. We found a significant change in what parties students held responsible for a historical disaster scenario in which ethics played an integral role, what actions students think should have been taken and how cultural norms affect students’ perceptions of ethical obligations. We therefore suggest that live theatre has the potential to address gaps between business ethics education commonly assumed to be necessary and the actual education provided by most business schools.

Using the above studies as a springboard, Purdue Convocations will continue to focus on understanding the impacts of live theatre. We intend to conduct data analysis on a performance of Call of the Wild held in February 2019 and plan to launch multiple studies on a stage adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 in the upcoming season.

We have all felt the power of the arts in the extraordinary ways it has transformed our own lives, expanded our views of the world and connected us to each other. Capturing and communicating that impact through validated research design is where Convos is building a platform of leadership.

For more information on our research initiatives, contact Dr. Amanda Mayes at asmayes@purdue.edu.

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