Media Watch Committee: The Theater Domain Subcommittee report

Theater as therapy? A subcommittee studies research examining the ability of live dramatic performances to affect change on a mass scale.

By Susan Birne-Stone and Frederick Heide

Theater Subcommittee: Susan Birne-Stone, Chair, Daria Alongi, Mary Banks Gregerson, Fred Heide, and Negin Pahlavan.

Theater, one of the oldest and original forms of media, continues to be used to both entertain and educate. Some shows directly portray psychological concepts, while others reveal mental health themes less explicitly. Theatergoers report that some shows have been transforming and have had “therapeutic” like effects.

As one example, the musical Next to Normal portrays a family, their journey through loss, mental illness, and various mental health treatments. The musical gives audience members a peek into what it is like to have a mental illness and its effects on family members. It presents the complex dynamics of family relationships, including marital and parent-child. It tells the story from each person’s perspective, revealing each of his or her struggles and strengths. The musical can and has been used to educate the general public about mood disorders and decrease the stigma associated with mental illness and treatment.

Although the power of theater to affect viewers has been noted anecdotally since the time of the ancient Greeks, research has begun to document this empirically. Studies have shown that attending a live dramatic performance can significantly increase belief in the value of condom use to prevent HIV/AIDS, intentions to participate in substance abuse prevention activities, and inculcate other important health-related attitudes (e.g., Hovey, Booker, & Seligman, 2007; Stephens-Hernandez et al., 2007). A recent study (co-written by one of the authors) documented for the first time that professional musical theater, a highly popular art form, could lead to attitude change (Heide, Porter, & Saito, 2012). The importance of such results becomes clearer when we realize that almost 60 million Americans go to theater each year. Furthermore, the effects of theater on attitude have been documented in a wide range of audiences, from well-heeled European-Americans to Mexican- American migrant farm workers and inner-city slum residents in India (Singhal, Cody, Rogers, & Sabido, 2004). Clearly, the value of theater to affect change on a mass scale is well-worth exploring.

The Media Watch Committee has historically reviewed movies, television shows, and more recently video games. This past year a new domain was created within the committee: The Theater Domain. Since early Spring 2012 this new subcommittee has begun to develop long- and short-term goals. In the months ahead, committee members plan to review shows and aggregate data concerning psychological themes, positive psychology concepts, and portrayals of mental health professionals and treatment. Viewing recommendations for professionals and the general public will also be included. As we begin to aggregate the data, the findings will be disseminated through various means including Facebook, blogs, and presentations. The committee also plans to serve as a resource for those looking for information related to psychology and theatre. We hope to develop a database where links to related articles and research can be found.


Heide, F. J., Porter, N., & Saito, P. K. (2012). Do you hear the people sing?: Musical theatre and attitude change. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6(3), 224-230. doi: 10.1037/a0027574

Hovey, J. D., Booker, V., & Seligman, L. D. (2007). Using theatrical presentations as a means of disseminating knowledge of HIV/AIDS risk factors to migrant farmworkers: An evaluation of the effectiveness of the Infórmate program. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 9, 147–156. doi:10.1007/s10903- 006-9023-9

Singhal, A., Cody, M. J., Rogers, E. M., & Sabido, M. (Eds.). (2004). Entertainmenteducation and social change: History, research, and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Stephens-Hernandez, A. B., Livingston, J. N., Dacons-Brock, K., Craft, H. L., Cameron, A., Franklin, S. O., & Howlett, A. C. (2007). Drama-based education to motivate participation in substance abuse prevention. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 2, 1–11. doi:10.1186/1747-597X-2-11