Entertaining Empathy : How Theater Helps Students Look at the World


When I was three years old, I was in my very first musical. I was cast as a bluebird in Peter Rabbit. At the time, all my concern was focused on poor Peter and his frantic escape from the mean, grumpy Mr. McGregor. As the years have passed and I have read the book to my daughter a countless number of times, my viewpoint has shifted. Mr. McGregor put all that work into his vegetable garden, and Peter was going to ruin it! And the bluebirds told Peter over and over again, “Don’t get into mischief.” How frustrating for those poor little birds to try to guide Peter in the right direction, only to have him continue his obsession with the garden. And don’t even get me started on Peter’s mom.

Over the years I have watched how theatre and drama have shaped the viewpoints students are able to experience onstage. If I am lucky, which I believe I have been, I also get to see this empathy continue off stage as well.

Theatre creates opportunity for children of all ages to step into someone else’s shoes and look at the world through that character’s eyes. This opens up a whole new world of thinking, problem solving, and communication, and it builds empathy for others experiencing life in different ways. Students become curious, which prompts a search for answers to their questions so they may portray their characters authentically.

Beauty and the Beast production at Harding; theater teaches empathy

Years later, in college, I was challenged by a professor to portray seven different roles in one production. Each role saw the story from an entirely different perspective than the character who had appeared onstage before them. By the time we approached the end of that production, some of the audience had walked out because they disagreed with certain perspectives of the story being told. But those who stayed… those who stayed were given a whole new outlook on life, and I say that with certainty because that is what they told us. Several other people challenged us and spoke their piece. No matter the response, we created a conversation, and that was the ultimate goal.

I am in my 8th year as Director of Theatre Arts at Harding Academy. When my students submit their resumes for higher education, colleges do not just see an actor or actress playing the ingenue or villain each time they are cast, but an array of characters who challenge perspectives and create empathy onstage and off.

When participating in theatre or drama, students naturally encounter a variety of personalities they may not have been around previously:

  • They are collaborating with minds that think differently than their own and forming family-like bonds that last a lifetime.
  • They listen to one another and help each through rehearsals.
  • They empathize when their scene partner is struggling with lines and offer to grab a coffee and work with them in their down time.

And this can begin long before high school. Reader’s Theatre is a great start to get the youngest of students involved in developing empathy for others and creating a window into the world of imagination. It can begin in the classroom. There are theatre experiences starting at age three all around the greater Memphis area.

The AristocatKIDS production at Harding Academy

Right now, we need empathy.

Our society craves perspective and, most of all, connection. Why not begin equipping our youngest members of society with the tools they need to create that better world?

In one of the genres of theatre, improvisation, the main rule is to say yes. If you say no, the story stops. But when you say yes, the story builds and grows and flourishes. I can’t imagine wanting anything more for my child. Can you?

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