When dreams speak

Good Night Stories: Oliver Mannel is exploring how sharing dreams can be used to develop speaking techniques that captivate theatre audiences. Photograph: Regula Bearth © ZHdK

Dreams fascinate and accompany us. Every night, we undergo complex neurophysiological processes and as adults we experience an average of five sleep cycles. Oliver Mannel at the Institute for the Performing Arts and Film in Zurich is researching how we can use noctural dreams and daydreams for artistic processes and powerful storytelling.


Oliver Mannel lectures on the ZHdK theatre programme where he teaches voice and speech to actors and actresses, among others. Besides his teaching, he is exploring the connections of “speaking and dreaming.” Based at the Institute for the Performing Arts and Film, his research focuses on dream narratives and develops new speaking techniques and methods aimed at opening up new, creative ways of narrating dreams, for example, in order to deliver monologues more freely and more vividly.

The voice as link

His approach involves using dreams as an instrument to strengthen speaking ability and the imagination. The voice acts as a link between the dream, the narrator and the listener by conveying in words what we dream to the outside world. “Only through its narration can a dream be experienced by others. Within theatre, we want to use this narrative power and make it our own.” During his three-year research tenure, Mannel is also doing research in practice modules. In these short but intensive teaching blocks, he works with a small group of theatre students who have enrolled on a voluntary basis. Module preparation includes a dream diary that students keep independently over a longer period and in which they jot down their memories. Mannel is not concerned with students being able to reproduce, reconstruct or interpret dreams exactly and seamlessly. Rather, his research intends to use the intensity of dream narratives for theatrical work, so that audience members feel equally captivated as if they were listening to a dream narrative in a private room.

No research without cooperation

Mannel discovers and develops possible methods in cooperation with his students. “Without their trust and willingness to experiment, I would not be able to develop useful methods.” The various methods, which are also practised playfully in his modules, are meant to enable actors to transfer emotions and experiences from their dreams to their voices and bodies. “Precisely because dreams are often so incomprehensible, banal or bizarre, collaborative dream work provides great freedom, which can be used to work on the voice and on dramatic texts.” Students taking the “Dream and Language Module” not only work with their noctural dreams but also explore the limits of the imagination. Through active imagination, students work specifically on linking text modules and dreams. These so-called daydreams or “active dreams” enable dreamers to move through various scenarios without consequences and greater physical effort. The emotional connections experienced in the process can then be further developed through shared storytelling.

Boundless dream world

Anna-Katharina Bánó knows what it means to work with these new forms and methods. As a fourth-semester BA acting student, she is taking the module because of her fascination with dreams. Driven by curiosity and the search for hidden potential, she has begun facing her dreams. For her, as an emerging actress, sharing dreams with her fellow students and the resulting reproduction on a linguistic and physical level were exciting experiences. “I gave my dream to my fellow students, which they accepted, embodied and took further.” This physical representation of what was dreamed leads to jointly analyzing what has been created and is eventually combined with a dramatic text. The experimental module has added depth to her artistic work, explains Bánó: “It was enriching to use dreams to become conscious of imaginations and to linguistically use the dream worlds thereby created. We created a complex basis that subtly settles inside me and opens up my text to a new level of exploration.”

Bianca Bauer (bianca.bauer@zhdk.ch) is a marketing manager at ZHdK University Communications.
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