By LOUIS LEVIN
Empathy. It is a word we speak an awful lot about at Packer. We talk about what it means, why it’s so important, and what we can do to engender it in our community. Yet, despite all this, it’s also a word we keep coming back to, for the simple fact that it’s far too absent. Having just come out of an election that saw not just the nation, but also our own Packer microcosm, divided, angry, and out of touch with each other, it’s more essential than ever that we work to build compassion and understanding for one another.
Art is perhaps one of the best tools to do just that. It opens a path for free expression and imagination of the ‘ifs’ of life. If I had taken that risk, if I had been born in different circumstances, if my parents had been more distant, how would my life have changed? Theatre is a form of creativity that aptly allows for this questioning. It is grounded in the premise, as Meryl Streep aptly noted, of “[entering] the lives of people who are different to us, and [letting the audience] know what that feels like.” Theatre involves asking a group of spectators to picture life from another’s perspective, and, having spent the past two weeks viewing and thinking about a number of shows, it is clear that the most powerful productions are the ones that are the most adept at this act of understanding.
These pieces pushed me as an audience member to stop and think: to recognise the severity, yet subtlety, of mental illness, to question the conventions of theatre itself, and to just have a good laugh. Most importantly, the shows made me acknowledge the ease with which each of us can engage with one another. Yes, truly understanding someone else and why they believe what they believe is difficult, perhaps impossible. But this challenge of achieving a mastery of comprehension has been confused with the natural and simple thing that is human connection. Put simply, all our talk of empathy has led us to believe that it is something so weighty that it is almost unreachable.
In reality, that could not be further from the truth. Yes, one trip to the theatre won’t leave you a compassion-filled sage of society, but it will offer you the tools to begin the journey to getting there. It will open you up to the views of another. You will learn of their struggles, their dreams, and their fears. You might not discern quite how these parts all tie together, but you will leave with a fuller picture of how the people around you tick. The veracity of Shakespeare’s contention that all the world’s a stage will become increasingly apparent. You will find the Elphaba’s and the Mufasa’s of the world, and begin to see the pain and unease that lurks behind their positions. This discovery will provide you a fuller knowledge of society’s characters, and offer a chance to better understand each and every one of them.
All that you must give in return is a willingness to be vulnerable. To open yourself to the unknown that is ingrained in theatre itself. You must relinquish power to those playing in front of you, and accept that, for a brief snippet of time, they are who they say they are, and what they say goes.
But all of this, you might say, is easier said than done. The real question, you might ask, is how can we actually push ourselves to be more empathetic? Well, an easy place to start is by going to plays and musicals at Packer. The drama department in our school has often not garnered the popularity it deserves, despite the ease with which students and faculty can attend in-school productions. With a musical coming up that’s principal focus is otherness and acceptance, Packer already provides us with many of the means we need to improve our understanding of one another.
Beyond our community, we live in New York City, a place that presents us with even more opportunities to build up empathy. There are a myriad of productions waiting just outside of our front doors. Some are expensive, but some are not. Whilst you could shell out hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars on a ticket to Hamilton, you could also use the same amount you might spend at Harry’s at an off-broadway production and learn just as much, if not more, but perhaps in a different way. It just takes a bit of research and that all-important willingness to confront the unknown.
So challenge yourself. Spend some time outside of your comfort zone at some of New York’s plays and musicals and learn about yourself, and the people around you. Why? Because theatre matters, and through the better understanding of people that it offers, you’ll gain an understanding of the world.