This is one of a series of blogs commissioned for The Power of Placebo – a national programme of events that accompanied our performance, Placebo. The ‘placebo response’ describes an effect which occurs when a person is given a ‘fake’ or ‘inactive’ treatment but experiences an improvement in health regardless. Scientific research has also shown that factors such as the colour or size of pills can impact on their effectiveness. This programme of events brought together leading scientists, cultural thinkers, artists and medics to explore how our beliefs, relationships and environments can affect our health for better or for worse.
‘Case report: Placebo effects’
by Dr Alex Mermikides, theatre academic based at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.
CLOD ENSEMBLE’s Placebo opens with a health warning: exposure to performances such as this may be associated with small increased risk of certain side effects (Embarrassment, disillusionment, disappointment, obsession, hyperactivity etc). Expectations, we’re told, both positive and negative, can have an effect on potency.
The piece takes the form of an extended experimental study, testing the impact of a series of variables of theatrical effect upon audience members. This case report outlines the effects experienced by one experimental subject (a middle-aged, female theatre academic) after exposure to the show at an early invited showing at The Place theatre.
Impulsive humming, sometimes accompanied by rhythmic movement of the lower extremities. A tendency to gabble excitedly to all who will listen. These symptoms were interspersed with the abrupt onset of deep reverie, occurring more frequently in the days that followed the performance.
Already cognisant of the performative qualities of medical practice, the subject was nonetheless starkly reminded that surgeons, doctors, nurses, patients, hospitals and medical devices ‘perform’ in ways that are not so different to what happens in a theatre. And that in both theatrical performance and medical settings, the ‘sham’ can have real effects. The show’s masquerade as a medical experiment also conjured for the patient the dark history of less ethical medical experimentation. A previous history of exposure to the philosophies of Foucault, Ardent and Agambem is a compounding factor in the severity of this symptom.
An additional after-effect reported by the subject is a disrupted ability to absorb herself whole-heartedly in other dramatic performances. The closing sequence of Placebo is an exuberant ensemble dance piece to infectious music. The combined effect of rhythm, colour, movement, bodies, costumes and so on led to increased heart-rate and significant feelings of euphoria in the subject and, it seems, fellow audience members. However, knowledge that these physiological changes were the result of scientifically calculated administration of theatrical effect – the theatre operating as a sort of medicine – left the subject a simultaneous and contradictory feelings of unease and wonder.
The symptoms reported here are indicative of lasting and significant alteration of the subject’s world-view. It is recommended that she continues to assimilate the impact of the intervention into her psyche by seeing the performance again, discussing it with other audience members and continuing to reflect deeply upon its implications.
Dr Alex Mermikides is a theatre academic based at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Her research interest is in contemporary medical performance, which she investigates through writing) and by making her own performances with her company, Chimera. Her publications include Performance and the Medical Body (edited with Gianna Bouchard) and Performance, Medicine and the Human (forthcoming).