By Stephen Sachs
Whatever happened to empathy in this country?
A candidate for President mocks a person with physical disabilities on national television — and still gets elected. Undocumented children are pulled from their parents and locked into cages. Hateful tweets fly between rich celebrities. Insulting attacks are vomited on TV talk shows. Demeaning personal smears splatter across the blogosphere. Women are shamed, minorities are assaulted. Those with the power to do good seem indifferent to the suffering of others. Fewer care to consider what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes, to entertain the notion that others may feel the way they do for reasons that are understandable and valid from their point of view. Common respect for another human being seems as rare today in public life as a sighting of Bigfoot.
What can you do? How can you counteract today’s lack of empathy?
Turn off cable news. Switch off your smartphone. And go to the theatre.
Not because the display of human behavior from the stage will be any prettier. Don’t forget, the fundamental element of drama is conflict. Even so, no matter how tragic, a good play is a pathway to empathy. That’s because theatre doesn’t just manufacture empathy, it depends on it. Without empathy, theatre not only fails, it doesn’t exist. Here’s why:
Every play that has ever been written asks the same fundamental human question:
“What is it like to be someone else?”
During a recent Sunday panel discussion on NBC’s Meet the Press, political columnist Matt Bai stated, “This is a presidency entirely without empathy.” Trump, he added, “seems to be a person who is entirely without empathy. Whatever his strong suits or weak suits, he does not have the ability to feel personally and deeply the suffering of others.”
Empathy is a skill that everyone could do well to develop and maintain whether President or not, and theatre, an art where the purpose is to explore what it means to be human, is an excellent teacher. Its in-the-moment human interaction makes theatre one-stop shopping for empathy.
In the performance of a play, the current of empathy runs two-fold. The actors pretend they are somebody else while the audience imagines what it must be like to be them. This remarkable double-shot of empathy brings mutual benefit: the attention of both actor and audience is focused on someone other than themselves. The fears, passions and needs of another human being become their own. Performers achieve this skill through years of training. Audiences have empathy thrust upon them.
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 theatre. They found that those who had studied acting for the year showed the most significant growth in empathy scores.
In the past 20 years, psychologists and neurologists have started to look at how empathy actually works, in our brains and our hearts. Fritz Breithaupt, a professor at Indiana University who studies empathy, says one thing he found is that “one of the strongest triggers for human empathy is observing some kind of conflict between two other parties.”
Sound familiar? Conflict is the essence of drama?
All of the hateful me-first narcissistic rhetoric of today doesn’t just give empathy a back seat, it tosses it out of the car entirely. The feeling now seems to be: Why should I put myself in the shoes of someone who is not me? Why waste my empathy on those not deserving? On someone older or younger? More rich or poorer? From another country? Another color? Gender? Sexual preference? The new rule seems to be: Reserve your empathy only for those who are like you which, by definition, isn’t empathy at all. In this twisted thinking, a lack of empathy is a show of power, self-reliance, a way to make a stand against the imagined danger of “the other.”
I believe our humanity is enhanced if we can learn to see the world through the eyes of a migrant child. A homeless woman. A person of a color not our own. And we are blessed with the opportunity to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling by going to the theatre.
People often confuse the words “sympathy” and “empathy”. Sympathy describes feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Empathy puts you in their shoes. Which is also the difference between a good play and a great play. A good play makes you feel sorry for a character. A great play makes you see life through their eyes.
On day one of first rehearsal of any play, in any city in any state in this nation, an actor or actress of any age, gender, race or sexual identity will open the first page of their script for the first time, find the role they are playing, and ask themself the same question: Who is this person?
And the door of empathy opens.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.