Dramaturgy and…protest?

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In a lot of places but especially in America right now we are seeing protests from demographics who in recent years haven’t been at the centre of news stories about protests and I’ve started to do some digging into the psychology of it using some ideas from theatre and live performance.

Humans generally like conflict, or at least we like to get in conflict and then resolve that conflict because it makes us feel good when we resolve it. Our love of resolving conflict is the reason why makeup sex is a thing. This is what drama is too, it’s why it’s been so successful as a form for so long, it’s all about creating and then resolving conflict.

Stephen Jeffreys in his book “Playwriting” describes three levels of conflict. These are:

1 - Intrapersonal conflict: the conflict between a person and their self.

2 - Interpersonal conflict: the conflict between a person and someone else.

3 - Extrapersonal conflict: the conflict between a person and society / the forces of nature.

As an audience we find these levels satisfying, we usually like it if there’s more than one level in something we watch and generally people think this is because it resembles real life, we constantly live in these three levels of conflict in our own lives and drama is helping us figure out how to resolve them.

The reason why we are often gripped by drama is because we’re either not sure if the conflict will be resolved or we’re not sure how it will be resolved. This uncertainty is where stakes come into it, stakes are basically how much we care about the conflict being resolved / usually the protagonist succeeding. As you go up to conflict scale (intra / inter / extrapersonal) you generally increase the stakes because there is more that could be lost. That means, as you put characters in conflict further up the scale, they feel like achieving their goal / their purpose is more important.

It’s this feeling of importance that I want to focus on.

I think it’s fair to say that human beings in their default state like to feel like they matter. Sometimes, (for example when the world is in global lockdown and we’re feeling isolated) we don’t feel like we matter because we’re not doing or achieving anything in the world. This means the stakes are low, there’s not a lot at risk and no real objective to be achieved.

In these situations we often want to up the stakes in our own lives, we want to feel like they matter more to the world. A way to do this is to move up the levels of conflict in our lives.

We generally find it east to create intrapersonal conflict, this can be when you debate over whether you really want to go for a run or not. It’s a war between between fitness and relaxation. When you finally decide what to do, it feels better.

Once we’ve got this, we begin to artificially manufacture interpersonal conflict. This can be making catty comments at your friends, it can be sub-tweeting about someone you don’t like or it can even just be a full online attack on someone you don’t know online. Doing this raises the stakes in our lives and we feel more important even though we’re not being nice all the time. For some people this is enough, they do some internet trolling and feel like they have purpose.

Then, there’s the extrapersonal conflict. A lot of people with privilege don’t sit in significant conflict with society, they’re the white able-bodied families that are idolised and considered “the norm”, if there’s no obvious conflict then there’s nothing they can work towards resolving. Protesting normally happens when there is genuine extrapersonal conflict (LGBTQ+ individuals in conflict with a society that wants them dead), but it can also happen in order to reverse manufacture conflict. For these people they often have to artificially manifest their own extrapersonal conflict, one prime example is the amount of these people that are now protesting against coronavirus lockdown measures in America. They are not doing this because they enjoy feeling oppressed, quite the opposite, they’re doing it because they are raising the stakes in the narratives of their own lives and because it makes them feel more important. They are creating conflict with protest so they can work towards the resolution of that conflict and this makes their lives matter.

It crops up in lots of different places for example in labour protests that are largely occupied by middle-class people, (don’t get me wrong — super grateful for your protest), but these are people who generally will exist within normative boundaries and not experience huge conflict with society and so they co-opt causes to support to situate themselves in position where they feel like there’s a resolution to work towards.

I think it’s really natural human behaviour that ends up expressing itself in a lot of different ways, sometimes helpfully. Right now, while we’re in lockdown and (for some people) there’s very little to work towards or to give us purpose, we’re exhibiting this behaviour even more and trying to climb up the scale. We should probably live in a society where we don’t need to resort to protest to give our lives meaning but, that requires more change than this little blog can contain.

If dramaturgy can show us what’s happening, and why people are doing this, I wonder if it can also help us fix it. Though, I don’t know if that’s what drama does. It’s a form where we explore how we can resolve certain conflicts, it’s not a form that often explores how to stop those conflicts becoming necessary in the first place. I think it’s why I haven’t watched much theatre during this whole lockdown, I don’t need to exercise that muscle, I just need to get to tomorrow.

Writer / Theatre Maker in the UK. You can find me at @BoyAndPen elsewhere.

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