Save Democracy, See a Play

students attending a play at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Ark. (photo Beth Hall)

Theatre is an artsy-fartsy art form catering to elites and offering no practical benefit to society. I would guess (in science-speak, “propose the hypothesis”) that that is the majority view about theatre bouncing around the U.S., including in government.

That view ignores a broad finding of social research – exposure to the arts increases empathy and tolerance.

Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge in England, is a leading researcher on empathy. He helped develop the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test (RMET), which is widely used in the fields of empathy research and autism studies and treatment. Empathy, according to Baron-Cohen, has two distinct components: cognitive (the ability to imagine someone else’s thoughts and feelings) and affective (the drive to respond with an appropriate emotion to what another is thinking or feeling). He is careful to distinguish between the two types, observing that criminals and sociopaths have the first type (they can imagine their victims suffering) but are deficient in the second type. Healthy individuals have both types operating.

Empathy has been a focus of a series of recent studies led by Jay P. Greene, a professor of education at the University of Arkansas. His research team has been measuring outcomes of young students attending a live theatre performance. Extensive experiments spanning two years  involved 94 treatment and control groups, containing almost 1,500 students. The average student level was ninth grade. To prevent results being skewed by self-selection, all students were randomly assigned to their groups.

The experiments were conducted with the cooperation of TheatreSquared, a respected professional theater in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The plays were A Christmas Carol, Hamlet, Around the World in 80 Days, Peter and the Starcatcher, and Twelfth Night. A movie version of two of the plays was available, so some study groups attended a movie rather than a live play.

“Social perspective taking” (an awkward term social scientists can use for empathy) was measured by asking questions such as “How often do you try to figure out what motivates others to behave as they do?” and “Overall, how often do you try to understand the point of view of other people?” To measure tolerance students were asked how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “People who disagree with my point of view bother me” or “I think people can have different opinions about the same thing.” Comprehension was measured through questions about plot and vocabulary.

On all these measures students who saw live theatre scored significantly higher. This difference was true even compared to students who attended movies. The researchers found no difference between groups that saw movies and control groups who read the scripts at school and saw neither.

This difference in the effect of a movie versus a play intrigues me, as it does Greene. The study wasn’t designed to explore that difference so the researchers can only speculate. One suggested that students are more intellectually and emotionally engaged when there are people acting out a story in front of them instead of just seeing it on a screen.

My theory is that a powerful invisible exchange occurs between live actors and an audience. Everyone in the theatre is breathing the same air, hearing the same sounds, feeling the ambient human energy level. Any veteran actor will tell you that from the stage they always feel the energy of the audience. And the energy of the actors (or on a bad night, the lack thereof) is certainly felt by the audience. I once heard a Russian theatre director and devotee of the renowned director and theorist Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) claim that if an actor had sufficient skill and an audience was sufficiently attuned, someone seated in the last row of the balcony could grasp a line whispered by the actor. I think that’s hokum which obscures a real phenomenon. What the director was getting at was an almost mystical notion of communication, an energy transference that subsumes and amplifies verbal sound waves. Watching a movie, you don’t get that living, breathing two-way human exchange.

In an earlier study, Greene and colleagues documented similar tolerance and knowledge benefits when students went on field trips to art museums. Greene writes, “There appears to be something about the in-person exposure to cultural activities that affects student values and knowledge of that material.”

Greene’s research team is not interested in theatre per se. But they are passionate about education and concerned about social dysfunction in contemporary America. Greene warns that much may be lost to our society if schools continue abandoning cultural activities such as attending museums and plays, as education increasingly narrows its focus to math and reading test results.

A glaring problem in America today is how polarized society has become. Both sides of the political spectrum are less willing to grant respect to someone whose views they disagree with. Indeed, attacking from the impersonal distance of social media, we often demonize them. Talk radio and cable TV news only stoke these troubling trends.

It is no exaggeration to claim that democracy depends on empathy and tolerance. If 15-year-olds, after watching a play, are more likely to believe that “people can have different opinions about the same thing,” perhaps everyone should be attending plays and musicals.

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