Thoughts on Theatre: What is the function of theatre?

We intuit art is essential to human culture if for no other reason than art is everywhere — every known human culture, today and in history, has art. Theatre is part of this generalization, although the specifics of theatre art may not be as universal as art in general. But if art is essential, why?

Philosophically, this is a deep question. I found a good beginning answer in the book The Theatrical Imagination (1993) by Jeffrey H. Huberman, Brant L. Pope, and James Ludwig. They include a section on the “value” of art, in which they explain four ways that art generates value for society (pages 24–26). Entertainment, because art can be fun, intriguing, funny, and sad, providing pleasure. Exaltation, because art can provide transcendent experiences. It can facilitate religious and spiritual feelings. Economics, because art helps circulate capital and provides jobs. And edification, because art is one of the main ways people learn about their own cultures, histories, values, language, self, etc.

Theatrical thinking may be inherently human. Theatre director Augusto Boal described the human capacity to imagine a world that doesn’t exist and then to try and create it. He wrote, theatre “is this capacity, this human property which allows man to observe himself in action” (The Rainbow of Desire, 1995, page 13). Boal notes that this type of thinking is necessary before a human can do science or art. Nothing can be invented until the human imagination has evolved to consider possible alternate futures. Since we know other animals can have intelligence, it may in fact be this human capacity for inventive imagination that separates humans from the other animals. Boal referred to theatre as the first human invention, and the one that is required for all other human inventions.