Non-Verbal Communication and the Expression of Theater

Words mean a lot to me. Especially dialog. When I’m working on a novel, just plowing forward to get the story down “on paper,” my scenes are often little more than dialog between characters, to be fleshed out later.

Why? As a novelist, you’d think I’d be more hung up on description and detail. Then I realized a lot of my training as writer actually came from exposure to the theater.

Dialog is an important part of a novel, but only a part. The novelist has many different tools for telling a story, and should use all of them to the best of their ability.

In the theater, though, dialog is almost everything. I live near the world-class American Player’s Theatre, and have been a volunteer usher and a loyal patron for many years. I’ve seen dozens of different productions, experienced the brilliance of playwrights from Shakespeare to Shaw, and gradually got to the point where I hear my characters telling their stories when I write.

So how does non-verbal communication figure into it? While APT has expanded their repertoire to include more modern plays each year, they still focus on Shakespeare, and few do it as well as they do. I’ve often said Shakespeare needs to be seen, not read, to be understood, but I didn’t realize why until recently.

When you perform Shakespeare, especially to a group of middle school students exposed to it for the first time, it’s a lot like communicating with people who have Asperger’s Syndrome or high functioning autism!

Autism is a communication disorder, and people with high functioning autism often miss out on non-verbal cues. A group of school kids going to see a Shakespeare play are going to be similar, yet opposite. They will be blind to the language – part of the communication process is going to be missing. And yet, APT successfully performs for hundreds of students every year, and the kids not only understand the shows, they have a great time as well!

How do they do it? With a combination of actors who truly understand the words and know how to use strong non-verbal communication. The actors at APT are masters at accentuating the significant words, and also using tone of voice and body language to convey the meaning of those words with power, all the way to the back row.

This past summer they did “Hamlet,” a play everyone – except 12 year olds – is familiar with. So how do you handle the famous “To be or not to be” speech?

The actor playing Hamlet steps forward to a quiet corner of the stage. Most of the other lights go down, tuning out distractions. Good for autistic folk as well as distractible pre-teens: focus here. “To be, or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” he speaks in a low, melancholy voice. He has his dagger in his hand, playing with it, drawing the blade gently up and down his wrist… “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing” – his hand stiffens the blade, as if to slash his wrist, “end them.”

For a kid who has no idea what suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune means, he can read the language of the dagger, the sound of Hamlet’s voice, and gain his or her first understanding of one of the greatest speeches in English literature. He’s sad. He could kill himself. Should he?

I realized, looking back, that I learned a lot of non-verbal communication from these shows. I’d go the first time to figure out the characters and basic plot, then, the second time to understand the whole thing a little better. Actors have to project their characters to the entire audience so their actions are very clear and obvious. When you become familiar with the obvious actions, the more subtle day-to-day gestures between ordinary people become clearer, too.

With modern movie fare becoming little more than loud, flashy assaults on the senses, it’s worth taking the time to pursue the art of theater, and the combination of verbal and exaggerated non-verbal language can be especially helpful to someone with an autistic spectrum condition trying to learn how to understand others better.

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