The first time I cried at the theatre, I was eleven. It was a local production of West Side Story, and after being unimpressed by the film, I wasn’t expecting much. But when I saw the tears on Maria’s face as she held Tony’s lifeless body, 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 have the same history as the character, but there she was, embodying Maria's pain. And there I was, feeling my heart wrench along with everyone else’s in the room, and understanding a mix of emotions I had never encountered. It was education. It was connection. It was power.
Hundreds of plays later, I found myself studying the science behind performance. Why is the experience so significant? I approached this question from both a cognitive scientific and an artistic perspective. 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. There were two remarkable results: the actors’ evolution toward kindness and respect for one another, and the audience’s heightened emotional reactions. Seeing people tell real stories on stage elicited strong responses from the audience, and I hypothesized that there is something about theatre in particular that transforms the way we consider humanity. After surviving millennia, theatre remains one of the most desirable modes of storytelling. Beyond the joy of entertainment, there is something we gain at the neural level by engaging with theatre, something that defines our need for performing arts.
After seeing The Stories We Are, a 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 person’s emotion in the present moment. We don’t witness theatre, or work as theatremakers, without experiencing empathy. Our main task 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 them. In both cases, we exercise empathy.
This isn’t news. Empathy 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?
Just as we must use any of our abilities to retain and strengthen them, we must do the same for our empathy. Unfortunately, we aren't prompted 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 form 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 productions 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 is like working out at the gym. The practice of perspective taking expands our minds. Theatre may just be the best empathy gym of them all.
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.
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.
As children, pretend play guides our acquisition of empathy while our minds develop. We use role-playing as children to form these social capacities. Despite pretend play being less socially acceptable as we get older, we’ve found other ways of imbedding it into our culture, including 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. Theatre is a tool, adapted from the basics of pretend play, which can increase our social skillset at any age.
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 themselves, 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 theatre makers empathize is different, the same empathy circuit is activated, drilled, and fortified in both.
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.
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. 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.
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 taxing, 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.”
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.
This piece is an excerpt of “’The Play’s the Thing’: Is Theatre our Ideal Empathy Workout?” by Maia Kinney-Petrucha and was originally published on HowlRound (howlround.com/the-play-s-the-thing-is-theatre-our-ideal-empathy-workout), a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on September 5, 2017.”