In a May 2021 Op-Ed article in the Los Angeles Times, authors Steve Rathje, Leor Hackel, and Jamile Zaki made the case that experiencing the magic of theater makes us collectively better people. We love this concept and wanted to explore this a bit further now that the theater industry is coming back after 18 months of being shut down due to the coronavirus.
Why Theater Makes Us Better?
According to Rathje, Hackel, and Zaki, theater makes us better people because, “it is a vital way to build psychological skills — especially empathy, or our ability to share, understand and care about others’ emotions.”
At the heart of their article they pose the question, “Can watching theater actually build people’s capacity to care?” There’s actually some scientific research that has been done that supports this idea.
In a nutshell, over 1,600 surveys were given to theatergoers before and after performances in two major cities; New York City and Portland, Oregon.
The viewers watched either “Skeleton Crew,” written by Dominique Morisseau or “Wolf Play” by Hansol Jung. The former being about auto workers in Detroit at the start of the financial crisis and the latter revolving around the struggles of a a lesbian couple trying to adopt a child.
In both cases the surveys were meant to determine if empathy for the auto workers or lesbian couple increased due to experiencing the show based on those stories.
The findings were exactly what the authors believed, theater can make us better, more empathetic, caring people. “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 study even showed a change in behavior for the theatergoers who increased their donations to a charity. The way this part of the experiment works went as follows:
- Audience members were given the option to donate some of their payment money to a charity.
- The more they gave to a charity the less they would receive in the form of a gift card.
- After seeing the plays, audience members donated more to charity regardless of whether the charity was related to the plays.
Psychologists Weigh In
Historically, psychologists have believed that theater has the power to teach about current topics, help viewers change their attitudes, build psychological skills, and reduce prejudice.
Psychological skills such as empathy, compassion, and sharing can be built just by merely experiencing a show. The authors of the LA Op-Ed explained theater as a sort of “empathy-gym” where the brain is taught to strengthen the skills of empathy and compassion towards others by experiencing what they feel through a show or musical.
Additionally, theater can help change our attitudes and reduce prejudices just by “walking in someone else’s shoes” during a performance. The experience allows people to understand someone else’s circumstances and experience life from someone else’s perspective.
What do you think? Can theater help us become better, more empathetic people? Drop us a line below and let us know your thoughts.