I’m stealing material for this blog post, because a member of the cast of WINGS expressed something perfectly this past week. On Thursday, we had a post-show talkback where several people talked about the experience of having a stroke and dealing with aphasia, something that the lead character in WINGS experiences.
Hearing these stories was fascinating, humbling and inspiring. Lucinda McDermott, who played several roles in WINGS, described one interaction like this:
“Last night I was moved by the words of an audience member who came to the play not knowing what it was about. He had suffered a stroke, but was in fairly full recovery. [He was] an older gentleman who boasted that 27 days after having his stroke he gave a scientific talk from his wheelchair. He spoke clearly and affirmatively about his experiences in rehab with others who had remarkable recoveries. But when he started to share what he felt during the opening scene, which metaphorically via sound and lights interprets the experience of having a stroke, his emotions welled up--but he kept speaking through sobs.
He could have left, his supportive wife could have escorted him out, but he stayed. I was so honored, as I'm sure our ensemble and crew were, with him sharing his experience which was that what was created and presented on stage depicted what he felt in those unexpected disorienting moments.
This is what theatre, what art can do...I was moved by this man's clearly cathartic experience of going on the journey with us, and even more so by the sharing of his deeply personal reaction. What heart, bravery, and vulnerability.”
I was standing next to this man when he was speaking and I honestly have never seen such emotional openness in a public forum before. Clearly, the show had affected him deeply in a way he barely could put into words.
And as Lucinda did, I couldn’t help but thinking that it was emblematic of the power of theater. There has been many articles recently, many backed up by extensive research, that there is a growing empathy gap in America. People don’t perceive or believe that certain other people feel pain or suffer discrimination. As tribalism increases and people avoid or are shut off from those who are different from themselves, they stop seeing -- and then stop believing -- the lived experience of others.
One of theater’s great strengths is in closing that empathy gap. Even if the experience that happens on stage is manufactured or artificially heightened, seeing a real person go through it allows audience members to empathize in a uniquely personal way.
Other shows currently on Richmond stages are great at presenting experiences that increase
empathy -- the 5th Wall/RTP co-production I AM MY OWN WIFE, Virginia Rep’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN -- and the next Firehouse show, AN OAK TREE, will be a striking and challenging exercise in empathy.
The empathy gap gets in the way of making societal progress in any number of ways. If people do not believe others are suffering -- or have no
empathy for their struggles -- they have no reason to advocate for changes that might help them. Still, it’s hard for people to just strike up a relationship with someone else who is outside of their immediate experience. Theater can provide an artistic bridge where people can gain a peek into the lives of others.
By helping to bridge the empathy gap, theater brings about positive change in the world. So, in other words, when you come out to live theater, you aren’t just enjoying an engaging and exciting evening of entertainment, you’re playing a part in saving the world.