The playbill for a show presented at Arizona State University’s Institute for Studies in the Arts reads: “Two One-Act Plays performed as part of the Performance Induced Personality Transformation & Immunity Project.” Further along, the program contains this eye-opener: “Because we need to draw blood and have it shipped by 5 p.m. each day, we have had to schedule the plays at the unothodox hour of 1:40 p.m.”
The plays and the research connected to them are components of a “biology of performance” study conceived by two University of South Florida professors – Nicholas Hall, head of the school’s psychoimmunology division, and Denis Calandra of the theatre department – aimed at exploring the links between the brain and the immune system.
Hall was cued into the immunity-performance connection when he discovered significant changes in the immune system of a multiple personality disorder patient as she switched between “characters.” After conducting the first part of their pilot study in Tampa in 1990, Hall and Calandra carried out a more complex second stage at Arizona State, where the two one-acts were performed in March. This collaboration between the medical world and the artistic world is about “breaking down barriers,” Calandra says.
What exactly is the link between actors and immunology? The team is working on the assumption that through the use of learned acting techniques, which often incorporate guided imagery and meditation exercises to “enter character,” an actor is able to induce changes in his or her physiology that in turn may cause positive or negative changes in the immune system. What if patients could use the same methods to “induce personalities” in themselves, thereby making positive changes in the immune system – changes that may even prove healing?
The theory dates back to the 4th century B.C., when Hippocrates asserted that virtually all bodily functions could be influenced by one’s emotions. Positive imaging techniques have been explored for years in the medical establishment, particularly in rehabilitative work with cancer patients. Calandra thinks incorporating theatre arts into the study is a wise decision: “Theatre has always been a lab for emotions and imaging of various kinds.”
Hall and Calandra’s pilot study recruited the services of two brave Equity actors who for two weeks performed back-to-back performances of Peter Barnes’s It’s Cold, Wanderer, It’s Cold and an episode from I Love Lucy (both directed by Calandra). Before and after each double-bill, assistants drew blood samples from the actors, who, in turn, kept elaborate logs on elements that may have caused stress and also wore heart monitors during performances. The samples were immediately sent off to the lab for hormonal and immune tests.
The researchers are now in the process of evaluating the data. In the study’s next phase, Calandra is interested in eliminating movement by doing radio dramas, and would in the future like to work with distinctively different acting techniques and types of scripts.