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Op-Ed: Why theater makes us better people. Bring it back

Actors Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel Miranda performing in "Hamilton."
Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel Miranda performing in the original Broadway production of “Hamilton.” A new study shows that attending live theater can help build people’s capacity for empathy.
(Joan Marcus)

Fourteen months into the pandemic, countless aspects of what was once everyday life have grown foreign. Near the top of the list is live theater. Sitting in a dark room with hundreds or thousands of strangers, watching dozens more strangers on stage, a story unfolding in the collective space — all feels hard to remember.

That’s not good for theaters, many of which will not survive the pandemic. To some, this is a sad but negligible loss. Performing arts are often dismissed as a luxury, and even in better times arts funding or arts education in schools is regularly threatened.

But for others, theater is more than entertainment; it is a vital way to build psychological skills — especially empathy, or our ability to share, understand and care about others’ emotions. A plaque above the entrance of the San Francisco Playhouse reads, “Our theater is an empathy gym.” Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, says theater is essential for democracy, in part because it helps us build the “emotional muscle of empathy.”

Can watching theater actually build people’s capacity to care? In research done before the COVID-19 pandemic and published this month, our lab explored this idea.

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We partnered with two theater companies — the Public Theater in New York and Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Ore. — to survey 1,622 theatergoers either before or after they attended a production of three plays. One of the plays, “Skeleton Crew,” written by Dominque Morisseau, is about autoworkers in Detroit at the start of the financial crisis; and another, “Wolf Play” by Hansol Jung, is about a lesbian couple trying to adopt a child.

We also surveyed attendees who watched a performance of “Sweat” during a free tour of that play conducted by the Public Theater across 18 cities in the Midwest in 2018. “Sweat,” by Lynn Nottage, depicts a working-class factory in Reading, Pa., and was described by the Wall Street Journal as a “play that helps explain Trump’s win.” This gave our team the chance to look at the effects of live theater on audiences in a broader swath of the country.

We handed out surveys to audience members immediately before or after seeing the plays (alternating every other night), and asked them a series of questions about their empathy for groups depicted in the plays — such as same-sex parents. We also asked about their beliefs on a number of issues related to the shows, such as inequality and racism.

After seeing the plays, we found that audience members expressed more empathy for the groups depicted onstage and changed their attitudes about a wide range of political issues.

The plays also changed behavior. We gave audience members the option to donate some of their payment for completing our study to charity. The more they gave to charity, the less money they would receive as a gift card for themselves. After seeing the plays, audience members donated more money to charity — whether or not the charity was related to the topics in the plays.

The effects we found in our studies were small, but statistically significant — for instance, an 11% increase in giving. But consider the scale involved. Before the pandemic, about 44 million people per year attended theater in the United States. A regular workout at the empathy gym, when spread across tens of millions of people, could make a sizable impact toward building a more compassionate society.

Why does live theater have these effects? Sitting in the dark watching a play can make us forget our own worries and transport us into the life and mind of a different person. We found that the more people reported feeling “immersed” or “lost” in the play, the more their beliefs and behaviors were changed by it.

Being on the stage can build empathy as well. For instance, taking acting classes can improve students’ empathy. The same is true for experiencing more solitary art forms, such as reading. Even reading “Harry Potter” has been shown to reduce prejudice toward stigmatized groups (such as the LGBTQ community or immigrants) in children. Before theaters open up, you can still expand your empathy at home by picking up a novel.

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A classic finding in social psychology is that repeated, positive encounters with people unlike ourselves can build empathy and reduce prejudice. Many of us have too few experiences — or too little interest — in creating such encounters. Storytelling provides the chance to see the experiences of people who differ from us in environments unlike our own. That may be why psychologists have found that effective efforts to reduce prejudice often incorporate storytelling.

What artists intuitively understand, social scientists can now illustrate with data: The arts are essential to human flourishing. At a time when polarization and distrust are growing, our studies suggest that theater is one salve against these changes. Yet this art form has been shut down at a time when we need it most.

As we move beyond the pandemic, we will need to focus on healing collectively and connecting better. Providing greater access to the arts — and using them to share stories across cultural and social difference — will be an important part of this path to recovery.

Steve Rathje is a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Cambridge. Leor Hackel is an assistant professor of psychology at USC and director of the USC Social Learning & Choice Laboratory. Jamil Zaki is an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University, director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory and author of “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.”


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