Contagious Emotion
Published: March 12th, 2020 by theatretrain

Contagious Emotion

Maybe this is a brave title in the days of Coronavirus but it is the title of research currently being carried out at Reading University. What does that have to do with a performing arts school? ​

The postgraduate study looks at how people pick up and join what is going on around them. I have always been fascinated by this phenomenon and in particular, the effect it has on kids taking part in classes in acting, singing and dancing.

In the 1960s there was a science TV programme with a live audience. The audience were briefed to immediately stand up and sing the national anthem when James Burke, the host, rubbed his nose. In walked James who made some introductions and then rubbed his nose. There followed the instant standing rendition of the national anthem. Well – all but one. They deliberately did not brief one member of the audience – but they put the cameras on him. At the point where everyone stood and sang, he looked around in amazement even panic but quickly followed the lead of his neighbours. We are programmed as pack animals to act in a group and we don’t usually want to be outside.

Since the early days of dancing, acting and singing lessons at our theatre schools I have believed that this feeling is a vital piece of a performing arts teacher’s armoury. If you have a group singing, dancing or acting and really going for it, then any new member will quickly rise to the same level as the group. I always compare it to being at a football match and hearing the crowd sing near you – suddenly almost without realising it you are caught up in it andare singing as well. Fascinating that we all have this ability to do this. You can see it when the company performs in a big theatre or at the Royal Albert Hall. If you are surrounded by 500 singers who are giving it everything then you are likely to be doing the same. It’s partly why we think you can get further with large classes.

The question for teachers is how can they create this feeling and energy and put it at the centre of their work?


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