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Theatre: Setting the stage for Empathy

I observed a poignant moment during my theatre workshop enrollment as a father expressed his desire for his child to exude confidence and excel in public speaking skills. This sentiment resonated with the expectations of numerous parents who enroll their children in summer camps or school theater programs. Theatre has emerged as a favored intervention for fostering various life skills in children and young adults, including creativity, problem-solving, self-confidence, communication, and leadership abilities. While these outcomes are undeniably valuable, there is an increasing need for a deliberate focus on researching and applying theatre techniques to cultivate empathy in young individuals.


A Forbes study recently conducted amongst employees revealed that empathy is the most valued leadership skill and contributed to innovation, feelings of inclusivity, higher levels of engagement and retention in the workspace (Browner, 2021).  As we navigate the evolving landscape of education and skill development, prioritizing the practice of empathy through theatrical experiences becomes an urgent and meaningful endeavor."


Now, more than ever, is a critical juncture for emphasizing the importance of this essential life skill. As per the World Health Organization (2021), on a global scale, one in seven individuals aged 10 to 19 grapples with a mental disorder, constituting 13% of the overall burden of disease in this age bracket. Notably, depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders stand out as prominent contributors to illness and disability among adolescents.


Furthermore, there is a noticeable increase in the number of children grappling with loneliness. It's a phenomenon that might not immediately come to mind, given that children are typically surrounded by peers, teachers, and family. The initial data from the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS), as reported in the Community Life Survey 2016–17, revealed a surprising aspect of this issue. The age group experiencing the highest levels of loneliness was 16–24 years old. Additionally, 11% of children aged 10–15 years and 14% of those aged 10–12 years acknowledged feeling lonely on a regular basis (Siva, 2020).


The complexity of loneliness in children is intriguing, as they are constantly in the company of other children. Richard Crellin, Policy Manager at The Children's Society, shed light on this by stating, “Loneliness in children is really interesting because they are often constantly surrounded by other children. And so the idea of being alone or isolated is challenging, as they themselves recognize loneliness doesn't mean that there's no people around. It just means that you don't feel you're connecting with them and that you are not having good relationships with them” (Crellin in Siva, 2020).


Exercising the empathy muscle

Educators and drama teachers have various avenues to utilize theatre as a tool for children to delve into connection and empathy. To exemplify this, I recount my experience working with children during a summer camp in 2015. Residing in a gated community in Bangalore, characterized by sand-colored villas and palm trees offering no shade, these children epitomized a distinct 'Dubai' aesthetic.


During our rehearsals for a play—an updated rendition of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, set as a social satire amid the trader community in Shivajinagar, Bangalore—I noticed the children's lack of familiarity with the location. Inquiring about other Bangalore landmarks like Ulsoor Lake, Lal Bagh, and Cubbon Park yielded only vacant stares and clueless expressions.


In response, I decided that a field trip to Russell Market in Shivajinagar was imperative for research on the play. Anyone acquainted with Russell Market would recognize the chaotic symphony of furniture repairs, raptors clamoring for meat from vendors' carts, and the incessant honking of auto rickshaws maneuvering through the narrow pathways. Amidst this, young participants, donned in branded clothes, accompanied by cautious parents, appeared as if insects caught in a complex web. Parents kept a watchful eye, navigating carefully and clutching belongings tightly, with some discreetly stashing currency notes into their socks.


Engaging with shopkeepers in a mix of broken Hindi and an American accent, the children found the characters from the play coming to life. They eagerly shared how they heard the exact slang and Dakkhini language in shops and on the streets as spoken by the play's characters. The experience allowed them to discover the joy of shopping for simple items and culminated in the delight of enjoying an ice cream on their way out.


Two distinct worlds. One extraordinary encounter. Thanks to theatre.


Rather than fostering division, identification becomes a unifying force, bringing us together.


By immersing themselves in a world divergent from their own, children not only learned to navigate this unfamiliar terrain but also discovered that the act of interacting with individuals from that realm, and portraying them on stage, served as a bridge across significant cultural, economic, and social divides. The power of connection and empathy allowed them to relate as human beings on a fundamental, life-to-life level.


Engaging in theatre provides young adults with a unique avenue to actively 'practice' empathy and reap its numerous benefits. By embodying characters from diverse backgrounds, they gain insight into perspectives that differ from their own, fostering a deep sense of compassion.


Cultivating an Emotional Landscape


Theatre serves as a powerful tool for children to not only comprehend their own emotions but also develop a heightened sensitivity to the emotions of others. By embodying a diverse array of characters and delving into their emotions and experiences, young adults can recognize and express a wide range of emotions. This emotional literacy plays a crucial role in the cultivation of empathy.


However, within the school structure, a drama teacher is often engrossed in the demands of orchestrating a school production. Balancing tasks such as auditions, assigning roles, and managing the logistical challenges of a large cast on stage, the primary focus tends to shift towards delivering a stellar performance. While the emphasis on staging a compelling show is important and fosters qualities of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and creativity among children, its impact is often short-term, largely limited to the fleeting excitement of being on stage, which diminishes once the adrenaline subsides.


As Keith Johnstone (1999, p. x) aptly puts it, "A drama teacher, unburdened by the pressures of an elaborate year-end production, can allow students to experiment with different 'selves': the shy can become confident, and the hysterical more at ease. Any academic who comprehends this transformative potential cannot dismiss drama as merely 'one of the frills.”


Improvisations: A Journey into the Poetic Body


An often-overlooked facet of theatre involves the incorporation of theatre exercises and improvisations within the classroom setting. Through my collaboration with teachers, I've discovered that simple improvisations and theatre exercises, easily conducted in a brief timeframe before a regular class begins, can significantly alter the dynamics of the classroom. This approach fosters increased participation, and collaborative learning becomes an organic part of the educational process.


The physical embodiment aspect, integral to exploring the 'poetic body,' is a concept introduced by Jacques Le Coq, a renowned French Movement and physical theatre teacher. According to Le Coq, "Movement, as manifested in the human body, is our permanent guide in this journey from life to theatre" (Lecoq, 2009, p. 16).


For instance, in one of my workshops, a chemistry teacher proposed an activity where students embodied chemical compounds. The introduction of this exercise transformed her classroom dynamics in unexpected ways. Chemistry, typically viewed as a dull subject, suddenly sparked interest among the students. Not only did their receptivity to the subject increase, but they also explored innovative ways to collaborate and work together across various classes.


Advocating for an Integration into the Curriculum


While such explorations are gaining traction in schools, I advocate for the widespread integration of theatre activities into the curriculum. Devoting even the initial five minutes of a 45-minute class to a theatre activity can have a profound impact on the learning experience.


Theatre is not solely about the destination; it is equally about the journey. While the grand finale of a performance is undoubtedly enjoyable, creating spaces for children to explore their empathetic selves off-stage opens up an entire world waiting to be discovered.

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