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“The Play’s the Thing”

Is Theatre our Ideal Empathy Workout?

The first time I cried at the theatre, I was eleven. It was a local production of West Side Story, and after being altogether unimpressed by the film, I wasn’t expecting much. Yet, when I could clearly see the tears on Maria’s face as she held Tony’s lifeless body, even from my cushioned seat, I was right there with her. I had never been in love. I had never lost someone I loved. I was not a Puerto Rican immigrant from the 1950s. I was sure the actress didn’t necessarily share the same history as well, but there she was embodying that pain. There I was, feeling my heart wrench with everyone else’s in the room, audience and performer alike, and understanding a mix of emotions I had never encountered. It was education. It was connection. It was power.

Years, and hundreds of plays later, I found myself studying at length the science behind the importance of performance. Why is the experience so significant? I approached this question from both a cognitive scientific and an artistic perspective. As a result, my work consisted of theoretical and applied research, beginning with the creation of a 2016 documentary theatre production entitled The Stories We Are. The show was devised at Hampshire College by seven ensemble members who were asked to explore personal storytelling through a variety of performance mediums. Two aspects were most remarkable: the actors’ evolution of kindness and respect for one another, and the audience’s heightened emotional reactions. These are things I had hoped would happen, as do most theatremakers, yet by seeing that even real people telling real stories on stage elicit strong responses, I could confirm that there is something about theatre in particular that transforms the way we consider humanity. After surviving millennia, it remains one of the most popular and desirable modes of storytelling. Beyond entertainment, there is something we gain at the neural level by engaging with theatre. Something that I believe defines our society’s need for performing arts.

Beyond entertainment, there is something we gain at the neural level by engaging with theatre. Something that…defines our society’s need for performing arts.

After seeing The Stories We Are, a friend and colleague expressed to me what she gets out of going to the theatre. “I like [having] an emotional upwelling. I forget my life and I pay attention to what’s happening, and then I can feel things based on my interpretation of what people are feeling.”

This sensation is called empathy, an ability we have to recognize and then take on another’s emotion in the present moment. We don’t witness theatre, or work as theatremakers, without experiencing empathy. Our main task in theatre is to feel what another is feeling. It is the key to our involvement in a story, how we process emotional plot, predict behavior, and understand a character’s mental state. Performers achieve this with training. Audiences have empathy thrust upon us. In both cases, our empathy is being vigorously exercised.

This isn’t news. Empathizing is one of theatre’s biggest attractions. Why bother going to see a show that doesn’t make you laugh, cry, or your heart race? What is invaluable to understand, however, is that through its activation in theatre, our empathy can grow. While crucial to our social cognition, it isn’t something we often operate consciously, making it a harder skill to reinforce. Still, because empathy is both something we are born with and a skill, it can progress through experience, or be diminished without. Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, developed a chart from his 2011 empathy research called, “The Empathy Bell Curve.” It suggests that everyone has different levels of empathy, but we all fall somewhere on a spectrum.

What if where we sit on that curve shifts throughout our lives?

Two performers from The Stories We Are
(Left to right): Lisa Caspari and Alice Schneider share a tender moment in the author’s documentary theatre production, The Stories We Are. Photo by Amy Deyerle-Smith.

Just as we must use any of our abilities to retain and strengthen them, we must do the same for our empathy. Unfortunately, we don’t often get the chance to experience empathy very deeply in daily life, and when we do there are contingencies. We empathize more easily with people we identify with and have close personal relationships to. For instance, it’s impossible to empathize all at once with the thousands of victims of hate crimes every year in the US. However, we can empathize with the family of Matthew Shepard, whose murder in 1998 became a spark of national outrage against homophobia and still resonates today with mountings of the documentary play The Laramie Project. In stories, emotions are not only bolder and appear in quicker succession, but by pigeonholing a larger issue and reaching us on a personal level, they can access and test the limits of our empathy.

In that sense, observing and participating in storytelling can be seen as similar to working out at the gym (although far more enjoyable in my opinion.) The practice of perspective-taking expands our minds, and theatre may just be the best empathy gym of them all.

The Evidence
Jessica Blank and Eric Jenson’s play The Exonerated was a compilation of interviews they conducted with six criminals on death row, each of whom eventually suffered their way to freedom after proving their innocence. The authors spoke with audiences before and after the show, and found that the majority empathized with the people in the stories far more after seeing the play than when they only had a description of their conviction. In The Stories We Are, we introduced an interactive lobby display for the audience comprising of activities where they could share personal stories. These activities were available before and after the show, but every night audiences were much more willing to share after watching the actors perform. Our empathy motivates us to copy others in the moment.

There is a plethora of examples for such short-term empathy boosts, but regular exposure to theatre can also build more permanent empathy advancements.

In a 2012 study, researchers Thalia Goldstein and Ellen Winner assessed empathy levels in elementary and high school students who had received one year of either acting, or other arts training. They found that those who had studied acting for the year, and not another type of art, showed the most significant growth in empathy scores.

We can understand that theatre promotes empathy, but why does it? The reasons suggest not only how theatre can be utilized as the ultimate empathy generator, but also how we can create theatre that best functions as such. For starters, let’s take a look at what theatre’s ongoing value really says about our society.

This is Your Brain on Theatre
As children, pretend play is a frequent activity. Apart from our personal enjoyment of it, pretend is what best guides our acquisition of empathy while our minds develop. We use role-playing as children to form these social capacities. However, once they are fully acquired, pretend becomes less a part of our daily life. Or does it?

Despite pretend play being less socially acceptable as we get older, we’ve found other ways of imbedding it into our culture. Primarily, theatre. Whether on stage or in the audience, we are absorbed in an act of putting ourselves in another’s shoes. This consistent desire for pretend implies a recurring need to enhance empathy into adulthood and beyond, and that we aspire to perfect it. Theatre is a tool, adapted from the basics of pretend play, which can increase our social skillset at any age.

Neuroplasticity is the potential of our brain to change over the course of our lives, usually through learning. This means that brains can be trained even after they have fully developed, so keeping an open mind (literally) is important. Theatre activates a number of mental capabilities, many of which are members of what is called, “The Empathy Circuit,” a phrase developed by Baron-Cohen to describe the vast mechanism in charge of the many ingredients that make up empathy.

Researchers have discovered that when one is recounting a story, the parts of the brain associated with the experience of living the story are in use. The amygdala, responsible for emotional comprehension and learning, and the insular cortex, which helps us recall and relate to moments we are talking about, are also at work. It is likely, then, that actors, who generally aren’t telling stories that happened to them, still access these same structures in order to express another’s persona.

When we watch another person engage in a type of emotional or physical behavior, something called the “Mirror Neuron System” is in action. These neurons fire not just when witnessing physical behavior, but through auditory description as well. They explain how audiences both feel and learn during a play. When an emotion is physically expressed, as so often is the case in theatre, a viewer’s instinct is to respond in kind. It is why we may feel the instinct to smile when watching someone laugh, or cringe when someone gets hurt. While the way audience members and theatremakers empathize is different, the same empathy circuit is activated, drilled, and fortified in both.

An Empathy Machine
The very structure of theatre is crafted to spark our empathy. Two components in particular distinguish it from other narrative forms; all action happens in real time, and the world of the story and its viewers exist in the same space.

When we watch another person engage in a type of emotional or physical behavior, something called the ‘Mirror Neuron System’ is in action…When an emotion is physically expressed…a viewer’s instinct is to respond in kind. It is why we may feel the instinct to smile when watching someone laugh, or cringe when someone gets hurt.

These dual factors are essential to understanding why theatre is exemplary for empathy development. Humans not only empathize better with those they have a close relationship to, but also those in close proximity. As audience members, we are not just watching and listening from afar; we’re breathing the same air as the characters. Just the physical exchange between performer and audience heightens emotions. Actors can feel what an audience is feeling as much as the other way around. In both roles, we are far closer to the world of the story than if we were reading it in a book, watching it as a film, or studying it as a painting. Even when seeing a movie, which has a similar structure to a play and may even aim to be more realistic, the barrier of the screen distances us.

There are times, though, when empathy can be too much to bear. Seeking a psychological escape when undergoing distressful empathy can be harder with theatre than other media, or even real life. Often there is an opportunity to leave situations that prompt pain, like simply closing a newspaper or exiting a room. In theatre, we often remain, both because it’s poor etiquette to leave, but also because we know another scene will bring another emotion and, eventually, an end. When you get on a rollercoaster, you may be terrified, but you go anyway, because you know you will probably get off and go home at the end. At the same time, the memory of the escapade lasts long after it is over.

The closeness of theatre can also help us counter preexisting biases. As performers, we must learn a different perspective, one that could be entirely new to us. The process of imagining, then becoming, is pure empathy. Trying to see through new eyes presents us with new possibilities. The audiences’ route to empathy is less tasking, but just as profound. We are free to experience emotion without fear that our feelings, or presence, will change a play’s outcome. This separation from the story gives room to practice feeling strongly without threat of consequence.

Ultimately, theatre can be considered a “transitional space,” a term coined by psychologist D. W. Winnicott, defined as a place where experiences happen between worlds. In that space, we can process both the world of reality, and the world of the play. This is quintessential for empathy practice because, while we understand that the emotional threat is not real, we can still apply the feelings to social experiences outside the theatre, augmenting our understanding and acceptance of the “other.”

So, what? Perhaps you knew all of this already. In a way, it seems obvious. Of course theatre grows empathy. The question is, why is that important? For one, embracing a more comprehensive understanding of the process can help theatre take a much bigger role in empathy education and training for a variety of fields such as medicine, psychology, and teaching. It can also be applied to treatment programs for individuals with empathy deficit disorders such as psychopathy and certain autism-spectrum disorders. Chiefly, though, understanding exactly how theatre changes us can lead to the creation of more productions that maximize unbiased empathy and faces us, as individuals and as a society, in the direction of untold, unheard, and misunderstood tales. 

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Coming to this as a specialist in technical theatre: lighting design and rigging, stage managing, production assistance, contract administration... after being a high-school and college actor. We who follow this technical path are telling our stories also, frequently not noticed by the audience beyond our names printed in the back of the program. But the lighting of our actors and dancers directly affects how you feel about what you see, and we back-stagers are definitely partners in empathy... referring to your words about "empathy education", as a new trainee-intern in teaching a cast of First-Graders, I use what theatre has taught me about empathy every day I am in class; we are living an never-ending play of challenges and two-way learning.

Theatre for me has always been a pathway to empathy because I get to see stories about people I wouldn't be exposed to otherwise, and I get to see the humanity of an experience that I wouldn't be exposed to completely either. I think theatre keeps me empathetic. I think society devalues it because of its power to inform, entertain, and contextualize other experiences that need to go to the stage to be seen and heard and accepted. That's why I believe the marginalized are drawn to the performing arts. This bi Aspie definitely felt better being in active creative circles where we all collaborated and performed what seemed impossible through a culture of relationship-building and acceptance. I think nowadays there is a greater need to experience empathy as governments enable the continuation of marginalizing people.

Thank you for this article. I think this article can also help explain much of the social/cultural/political divide in the country since many folks outside of urban areas, and many folks in urban areas, do not go to theatre...therefore there is a big gap in the social/cultural politics for many of the people who do, that more easily accept progressive social programs and ideologies.

However, I I feel the need to point out with some urgency that the pigeon holing of theatre in this way: "Theatre is a tool, adapted from the basics of pretend play, which can increase our social skillset at any age."... is selling theatre and what it is, what it can be, and what it can do for folks...incredibly and almost irresponsibly short.

Even too closely relating narrative theatre to this idea of pretend storytelling, is part of why so many adults look down on its artistry. When I embody Charles Manson onstage, I in no way relate it to playing pretend cowboys when I was 9. I also don't feel like I'm pretending...it's just not a thorough enough representation of the very real lived experience of the performer onstage.

I can see how it can be a window into trying to relate some aspects of theatre to non theatre folks...but I think we need to be especially careful in those contexts that we are not actually doing damage to folks understanding of being an artist and the depth of reality it should imply.

Let alone the fact that this accounting does not address non narrative theatre, where the actor/performer never stops being themselves, never pretending, and in many cases in which the audience is included as participant in the ritual, which profoundly and significantly impacts its empathy and empowerment building qualities, among other things.

Again, I appreciate this article and its effort to bring light to one of the social functions of theatre...but overall, it is scary to me that so many American theatre people still view theatre in this way, almost blind to most of the theatre of the rest of the world...it's so isolationist, and it limits us so greatly compared to even the European theatre...let alone theatre outside of the western world.

Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I completely understand the fear that comparing acting to pretend somehow diminishes it. Of course acting is different-it requires training and embodiment beyond what we do as children when playing. However, my intent when describing pretend play was to use a frame of reference for the human ability to engage with pretense. It's a phenomena that without which, acting would not exist. To your point about not addressing non narrative theater, The Stories We Are is a documentary theater production in which people were being themselves the entire time they were onstage. My argument is that the stage CHANGES something in us, whether you're being yourself or someone very different, whether it's non-western, non-traditional, etc. (And I'm using the term "stage" incredibly loosely). To begin considering the importance of theater as a storytelling medium in a broad sense, I felt it was important to look at its roots and its purpose in our neural development. I hope to apply this work to a variety of theater forms in the future. Thank you again for opening the discussion.

This is a good article. But, we need to dig deeper with this topic. It is important to understand that programs at one time did exist and now they have lost funding. As humans and educators and artists and teaching artists - I think this article fails to target, (or at least emphasize) EARLY CHILDHOOD. When I worked in Early Childhood I saw the importance of how young children learned to 'role play' and dress up in costumes and create scenarios and interact with one another. I went forward in my course work and professional development to older age groups. So, what is my point? There are published Arts Education peer journal articles that exist and that point out how crucial it is for us to target at-risk communities and populations and cultivate a passion and appreciation for the arts - and to instill it into our cultural fabric. So that it doesn't disappear! I was privileged to be exposed to "The Paper Bag Players" as a young child. I had access to NYC Ballet and Shakespeare and Leonard Bernstein's concerts for young people. I lived in NYC during the 1960's when there was a plethora of funding and access for regular public school kids. I now live in Los Angeles and when I was student teaching discovered that none of my 4th graders had ever seen a live performance! Off the top of my head, RAND has several studies about how important it is for the performing arts to be cultivated in the early years and all through the many stages of adult development. If we are to work together to save these studies and integrate them in community programs - and later on (back) into educational curriculum - we must make sure to be very thorough.

Wonderful article. I will repost. Have you seen this research on live theater from the U of Arkansas? Comes to same conclusions about empathy but also adds benefits in knowledge and tolerance to the list of theater's positive effects...http://news.uark.edu/articles/2554...

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