Can theater be more than entertainment? This is the question that hooked Anna Dulba-Barnett at 15 years old. Growing up in Poland, she was introduced to the stage through ballet and grade school acting classes, but it wasn’t until high school that she came across the idea of catharsis.
Used by Aristotle to describe the effect of Greek tragedies, catharsis refers to the purification of a spectator's emotions through art. It’s what happens when we cry along with our favorite character or are gripped by their fear, giving us an outlet to release our own sadness and anxieties.
Despite never experiencing catharsis through theater herself, Dulba-Barnett was captivated by the idea that a play could do more than entertain 一 that it might also be able to heal. “I just wanted to chase that and see what it means,” she said.
As a current PhD student in UO’s Theater Department, Dulba-Barnett is still chasing this concept through her research. She has also just completed a draft of her first play, The Wreath’s of Poppy, which was read at Hope Theater on Oct 2.
Later in her studies, Dulba-Barnett came across the idea of remedial theater through a different lens 一 Native American productions. While the western world views theater primarily as entertainment, “Native theater artists approach the stage as a medium of healing, where the artistic creation impacts the audience and the performers on a deep level,” according to Dulba-Barnett’s research.
Her investigation into Native theater revealed a different mode of healing 一 the ability to diagnose a problem, identify its roots, and act out a solution. “In order to heal the illness needs to be recognized and named,” she said. Social dilemmas are often depicted through characters’ lives but a play can do more than point out the problem, Dulba-Barnett believes. It can also deliver solutions. Storytelling prompts the audience to suspend their disbelief, allowing them to lean into an idea of what could be as it unfolds on the stage before them.
Other forms of storytelling can have a similar effect, but Dulba-Barnett believes theater is particularly powerful because it tells stories in real time with real people. “I think there’s something powerful in just seeing life, seeing people, knowing all the points of connection from playwright to actors, directors, designers, and then the audience,” Dulba-Barnett said.
Plays provide the intimacy of a living, breathing moment but also allow for a degree of emotional distance. As spectators rather than participants, play-goers may pick up on insights that are easily missed when one is overwhelmed with the day-to-day details of their own life. “[Audience members] find themselves in whatever is unfolding before their eyes, they see parts of their own experiences, but there’s also distance because it’s not about them, it’s about someone else,” Dulba-Barnett said.
Theater’s potential may always be an unanswered question to Dulba-Barnett. “It still remains a mystery what that really is, what that looks like,” she said. Still the tug she felt at 15 pulls her deeper and deeper into her quest to understand the healing power of plays.
Her approach serves as a reminder that theater, and art in general, can be more than entertainment; that it has some influential, if elusive, power that is recognized across time and cultures.