There’s this ethereal exchange that happens when actors perform on stage for an audience, for a community. There is an immediate, intimate, human connection, an energy, between the people standing in the spotlights and those sitting in the seats. If there is no audience, there can be no theatre; theatre only exists when both actor and audience are present, which is what makes the exchange so unique to this art form.
One of the things I love most about theatre is that, often, I see myself on stage. In the stories being told, I find a recognizable narrative that gives me catharsis, a narrative that tells me I’m not alone in my joys or in my struggles. And there is such power in that: in the identification of kinship, the discovery of shared experience.
Sometimes, however, we see stories in which we don’t immediately recognize ourselves. Instead, we see the stories of those who come from somewhere else, with different backgrounds, ideas, and norms. But what makes theatre so special is that by bringing these stories alive in a way that isn’t necessarily visible or available to us in our day-to-day interactions—interactions in which we may not even meet people different from us—we can still find something with which we connect, something that may even open our eyes to a new perspective of the world. This is where empathy comes in.
em·pa·thy (ˈempəTHē) – n: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Today, when different minority groups are being persecuted left and right, empathy is a necessity. But it’s tricky. How can we expect to speak out for and help others if we don’t know how to empathize with them?
Lack of empathy has many causes. Sometimes we’ve been misinformed. Sometimes we’ve misunderstood. And sometimes, our own frame of reference isn’t enough. And this is how theatre can help.
When you see live theatre, you literally start to see the world through somebody else’s eyes. And with palpable emotion in the air, you can’t help but to be drawn into their story. You’re given the opportunity to find humanity in a type of person you never understood before, the opportunity to feel that compassion, to have some grasp on the ways their life differs from yours.
In the audience, you sit down, engage, and begin to care about characters you met mere scenes ago. While this may seem simple in the darkened theatre, think of all the times you’ve met strangers and immediately judged them, dismissed them, and walked away. But that’s what theatre is for: to practice listening to others and paying attention to what they have to say.
It’s easy to turn off a TV or close a book if you don’t like one of the characters. But when the character is being played by a living, breathing person 50 feet in front of you, it’s harder to turn away. So we tune in. We open our hearts and our minds. And when the characters’ journeys make us laugh, cry, and sit on the edge of our seat, we experience that transcendental empathy.
This empathy is not only experienced by audience members, but also by the actors, who have to get inside the heads of and engage with people they’ve never met before. Theatre is a learning process, a healing process, for everyone involved. And not only can we learn empathy from theatre, but it can teach us cultural sensitivity, active listening, and collaboration.
These skills are not learned overnight. But by practicing them in a safe space, by learning from the stories told on stage and from those around you in the audience, you can become a more empathetic human. Soon, you can use your skills to make your community, and even the world, a better, kinder, more loving place.
How have you learned or experienced empathy in the theatre? Let me know in the comments below!