Tag Archives: empathy

Looking to restore empathy in the world? Here’s where you find it.

My beautiful picture

Terrylene and Freda Norman. Sweet Nothing in my Ear, Fountain Theatre, 1997.

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?”

That’s it.

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.

To be like our audience: out of many, one

audience

by Stephen Sachs

Our house divided? It can seem. There are days and nights like these when only what is wrong is what one sees.

Where once we felt safe, we are now afraid. Shootings. Bombings. Racial tension. Violence. Fear. Aggression. Terror. Polarization. The chasm in our country separating the haves from have-nots, the soaring from the struggling, grows wider. Officers we pay to protect us are shooting us. Public servants we elect to represent us serve themselves. A candidate spews hateful division as his poll numbers grow. 

There’s a kind of insanity seeping in. A dis-ease. An unravelling. An anxious self-protection splits us further and further apart. 

Disconnection can seem everywhere.

Here in Los Angeles on my own artistic landscape. As Actors Equity Association tries to force its new plan that imposes conflicting rules and opposing financial burdens on a vast mixture of intimate theaters in LA — pitting membership companies against sub 5o-seat houses against staff-driven theaters — I fear fragmentation and division on the horizon for our intimate theatre community as we are disjoined from one 99-Seat Plan for all to segregation, separate and not equal.

Can we come together? Stay together? Or will we fragment and divide? 

Then I consider an audience. Any audience. 

In our world of theatre, the wide variety of individuals who gather to see a play on any given night in any theatre in this country — no matter the number of people or their diversity of race, ethnicity, age, gender, social standing, neighborhood — are referred to as one entity. They are the audience. Singular. Not plural. Composed of unique and separate individuals who, together, become one thing.

Like the motto of our nation: Out of many, one.

I see it happen all the time in my theatre on Fountain Avenue. The pre-show bustle of patrons before a performance. Folks dash into the lobby, check their smartphones, launch last-minute texts, chatter brightly with each other, get a drink, go to the bathroom. They come from all over the city. From varied neighborhoods, all manner of jobs, vastly different lives. Yet, when curtain time is called, they somehow find their seats together. A Highland Park bus driver sits next to a Century City attorney sits next to a Sherman Oaks nurse sits next to a Koreatown hairdresser.

The lights then go down. The smartphones are silenced, programs are stashed, eyes and ears are trained forward. A hush blankets the crowd. A light warms the stage. An actor makes the first entrance. The play begins.

And it happens.

The outside world evaporates. And this seated mass of human individuals slowly, steadily transforms as they are pulled deeper into the story unfolding before them on stage. One hundred people will see the same performance and see one hundred different plays at the same time, but there is also a shared thing, a unity that happens. An audience becomes a living thing, a dynamic organism that laughs and breathes and interconnects with itself energetically for its brief time together between lights up and lights down. Out of many, one.

And what do we call the area where the audience sits?  We don’t call it the sitting area, or the zone or the sector. We call it the house.  In the theatre, the audience sits in our house. 

And for these shared hours, these shimmering minutes, this gathering of separate people agree to enter into the sacred pact to become an audience, together.  The house begins divided. It ends as one.

The purpose of meaningful theatre is to tell stories that illuminate what it means to be a human being. And by its very nature, because it is performed by human beings — live, in the moment, in front of other beings — it puts a human face on issues that confound us all. It humanizes our conflicted ideas about ourselves, each other and our world. Race, religion, poverty, politics, sex and social challenges are embodied on a stage in personal stories of loss and triumph about specific human beings. In a play, ideas, themes and concepts are distilled into the needs and journeys of people

When an audience is pulled into the world of a meaningful play and emotionally invests in the struggles of the characters on stage, the artificial divide between audience and actor mysteriously falls away and the characters become real. We feel we know them, we care about their outcome. And the alchemy of empathy begins.  “They” become “us”. We identify. That character is me.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another human being. The capacity to feel what another being is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference.

A good play can do that.

Healing and transformation begins with the understanding that there is no other, the other is me. A meaningful night in the theatre can create the connection of empathy in ourselves that allows us to wake the next morning with a new awareness of each other, as sisters and brothers. Each of us unique and separate. And, at the same time, not so different.

As an audience, as a city, as a nation.

We are, out of many, one.

Stephen Sachs is the co-founder and Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.