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May 2, 2018

The Emotional Power of Theatre


This piece was chosen as one of the Education Theatre Association’s 2018 Democracyworks Essays, sponsored by Samuel French; the prompt for which asked high school students to answer: “Why is it important for all students to have arts education opportunities?” In their writing, essayists considered how theatre and other arts education has been of value to them, and why it’s important that all students should be able to engage in arts education opportunities that are relevant to their own cultural and personal experiences. For more essays, click here.

“Art” can be defined as “the expression or application of creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” When we think about art, we often think about the “beauty” part of that definition: the intricate set for a play or the colors of a painting, for example. What we don’t consider, however, are the effects of all these aspects on an audience, the “emotional power” aspect. And that is where the true beauty of theatre and all other art forms lies. Art has an impact. Yet this potential for change is so often underestimated by art-appreciators and critics alike. As a result, we are missing out on one of the most important facets of art: its ability to promote social change, nurture dialogue and understanding, and to instigate globalization in a world with so many different perspectives.

Art in its simplest and purest form consists of telling a story by mentally and physically transforming something — whether it be a person, a voice, an object — into someone or something else. This process quite literally allows a person to step into another’s shoes — to be more empathetic — and empathy is a fundamental trait that we must, as global citizens, be able to demonstrate in order to truly see another’s perspective. The inherent nature of theatre and all other art forms allows for the creators to truly immerse themselves in another culture or another perspective, and this is then translated to an audience. By attending a performance or experiencing art in its multitude of forms, we as audience members allow ourselves to become vulnerable, and that vulnerability is what allows for the true impact of art to occur. We strip away all of our pre-conceived notions about the world around us and allow ourselves to be exposed, and it is this truly visceral experience that widens the circle of empathy for not only performers and creators, but for those that witness the art they create.

This concept of using the inherent nature of art to create a more understanding world is prominently demonstrated in the emergence of South African protest theatre during the time of apartheid. South Africa’s Market Theatre was founded in 1976 at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, and it soon became a window into an otherwise isolated world. Described as a “symbol of defiance” and a “theatre for the people,” South African protest theatre was and is considered one of the primary forces behind the struggle against an oppressive regime.

The importance of using theatre as an instigator for social change cannot be underestimated, and it is also not something we should limit to political movements an ocean away that took place several decades ago, as it is something we can do here in the United States today. Five other students and I used devised theatre to create a show that spread awareness of the present-day use of child soldiers around the world. By combining various forms of art and media, including song, dance, poetry, research, and portions of our own writing, we were able to create a performance that spread awareness and promoted change regarding an issue that is often swept under the rug. And it is by sparking dialogue on a topic that is so easily ignored, that we promote globalization in a world that is so frequently divided.

The inherent natures of theatre and other art forms nurture dialogue and understanding, but they also integrate an otherwise divisive world and widen the circle of empathy of everyone who experiences them. Thorton Wilder once said, “I regard theatre…[as] the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being,” and it is with this statement that I whole-heartedly agree: theatre and the arts are necessary if we want to live in a world where our differences can draw us together instead of tearing us apart.