Radical Empathy is the Theatre Artist’s New Job
I was burning up at the mind-numbing lack of compromise between party lines, pained by the inability of neighbor to love (or at least respect) neighbor, and stunned at the election of a man who ran a campaign flooded with hateful, destructive rhetoric. I was plagued with questions, but certain that artists and arts institutions across the nation had let the populace down. The stunning lack of empathy on display, both during and after our election, evidenced a citizenry more interested in nationalism and self-interests than in unity.
It has become clear to me in the months since the election that the crushing disappointment I was feeling was shared, and that it has become a springboard for theatrical action.
And empathy is the theatre maker’s job.
It felt as though we’d been stroking ourselves too long, patting ourselves on the back too much. We had allowed ourselves to commodify the arts, bending our noses to our bottom line, and letting our audiences become complacent, our theatre downright masturbatory…
But it has become clear to me in the months since that the crushing disappointment I was feeling was shared, and that it has become a springboard for theatrical action. More and more artists are turning their frustration with the current political climate into fuel for their creative machines.
So I no longer want to begin this article with disillusionment, because I no longer feel disillusioned. I feel emboldened, inspired, and (for the first time in a long while) I feel hopeful.
Hopeful that theatre institutions are digging deep and looking for ways to build bridges instead of walls.
Hopeful that the skepticism (of “fact,” of the media, of one another), anger, indignation, and hurt on our neighbor’s faces is only temporary.
Hopeful that the America we now see—the one tearing itself apart trying to “fix” its varied wounds—will succeed in its attempts to heal.
But nothing will change until we start listening to one another again, and no one seems to want to start listening to one another without first being heard themselves.
MR. K: You don’t know my pain!
V: My pain! MY PAIN! Look at me! This is torture!
MR. K: Look at you? But what about this? THIS torture!—The Low Tide Gang
Which is why it will take incredible patience and immeasurable love to push through our own hurt in order to honor the hurt of others. It will take time and dedication. It will take radical empathy.
Radical empathy, as I define it, is the act of reaching out with an open heart and mind, even if we feel the person or community we are reaching out to is undeserving of such openness. It’s the notion that, if we swallow our own hurt long enough to extend empathy to our opposition no matter what (that’s the radical part), we will establish connections capable of yielding far greater fruit than any amount of soap-boxing or condemnation ever will.
Radical empathy is how the artist and arts institutions will foster communication and connection across communities.
Radical empathy is the artist’s new job.
Radical empathy is how the healing will begin, and it will begin with us, now.
“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”—Fyodor Dostoevsky
As theatre artists who put ourselves in other’s shoes daily, we are uniquely positioned to take on this challenge. Which is why we must lead the charge.
And yes, there will (and must) be art made in protest. I’ve just launched a new project (ProtestPlays.org) dedicated to connecting playwrights with resistors in the hopes of fostering continued opportunities for theatrical action. So I’m not saying we can’t do both… I am saying that without radical empathy outreach, our protests will serve only to bolster shared rage and further alienate those with whom we disagree.
Therefore, we must get to work not just at making powerful art, but also at listening to and making powerful art with/for those who need it most.
Theatre has long been a way station for the ostracized and “other,” but it is also a place where personal politics don’t mean as much as togetherness does, so let us extend this call to our opposition here at home so that they feel welcome in our creative houses.
Welcome to watch.
Welcome to ask questions.
Welcome to connect.