A couple of months ago I wrote about the Empathy Gap. This past week, there were news stories and events that brought the phenomenon into sharp focus. Some people were able to sublimate the natural human reaction of seeing children in distress to a policy position about the importance of sovereignty. On the other side, others were moved beyond empathy to true compassion, going against others in their tribe to speak up against the horror.
This is not a political post. But there is one statement made as the situation was reaching its turning point that caught my attention. In a meeting before eventually signing an executive order presented as a solution to the problem, our Commander in Chief said, “If you're strong, [then] you don't have any heart.”
No sir, I disagree and present as Exhibit A the character of Zach in A CHORUS LINE, particularly as portrayed by Alexander Sapp in the production currently playing at Richmond Triangle Players. Zach is strong, he’s tough, he’s demanding, he skirts right along the line of being a total jerk. But as you see in his reaction to the character of Paul (played by Steven Rada), he has a heart and goes beyond empathy to actual compassion.
Exhibit B could be Levi Meerovich’s Tolstoy in PRELUDES. Exhibit C could be CJ Bergin’s Prince in Quill’s ROMEO & JULIET. And so on and so on.
Theater continually gives us examples of how people manage to be strong and yet still compassionate. Of course, you could counter that these are characters, they aren’t actual people. Characters are aspirational and have the potential to set the bar at some unrealistic height.
True, but these kinds of characters are far from perfect, their flaws are clearly presented, they are, in fact, just like a lot of real people. They provide models and present potential, attainable pathways that real people can be a better version of themselves. One great power of the arts is in getting audience members to internalize messages like “it is possible to be tough, hold steady to your values, and still have compassion.”
Another power the arts have is to make us look at those who we may have nothing in common with and relate to their struggle. In A CHORUS LINE, for instance, I possibly have the least in common with Mallory Keene’s character of Val, the dancer who sings about needing cosmetic surgery to finally get noticed as a performer. But as she lays it out in “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three,” the unfairness of her treatment is sure to even stir the empathy of those who generally frown on arguably superficial concerns.
I believe people should go to theater for many reasons but a principal one is for a regular empathy workout. Seeing shows helps us to overcome the apathy that so easily seduces us, that consistently urges us to sit back and let the world roll past, particularly if we’re doing OK personally. It’s a useful exercise to put yourself in the same room with someone who may be portraying a character you think you couldn’t possibly care about.
Which brings me to the second highlight of my week (after seeing ACL): watching the finale of Sense8, the Netflix series that presents a world populated with another species of human that can become psychically connected to others. The series involves a lot of trippy craziness that regularly goes over the top but, at its core, it celebrates the connectedness that binds people together. It suggests that ALL people -- regardless of race, gender expression, country of origin, or level of intelligence -- have the capacity for compassion.
I’m not saying that if you see a lot of theater, you’ll become a Sense8. But there’s no danger in trying, right?
PS: the Firehouse Forum blog will be sporadic over the rest of the summer. Expect maybe a post in July and another one in August. How, when and on what schedule it comes back in September is TBD. In the meantime, have a great summer!