From the Empathy Gym | Mirror, Mirror

From the Empathy Gym | Mirror, Mirror

When I prepare to design a new set or craft a production concept, I often try to picture our stage as a giant 32’ x 16’ mirror in which we see ourselves reflected back. In this imaginary piece of glass, every aspect of theatre – playwriting, scenic design, acting, the costumes and lights, the props and
projections – contribute to making this mirror a powerful reflective surface capable of focusing our attention on ourselves. The fourth wall is an illusion. We attend theatre to see a truer reflection of our own selves.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet incorporates this very idea when he directs the actors in his play and explains the purpose of theatre: “To hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Just as Hamlet wanted to force Claudius to confront his own guilt and wrongdoing, Hamlet’s creator strove to reflect back to the Elizabethan audience their hypocracy, their flaws, their foibles.  But, also to “show virtue her own feature.” Shakespeare  clearly understood the need to balance criticism with praise. In Elizabethan times, as well as our own, humanity was bombarded with constant reminders of its inadequacy.  He knew he needed to counter these reminders by also holding the mirror up to reflect humanity’s capacity for compassion, hope and courage.

David Tennant in RSC’s ‘Hamlet’ (2009)


I believe that attending live theatre is, in itself, an act of courage. It isn’t always easy towitness “the very age and body of the time.” When I look into the eyes of our subscribers and patrons, I see a rigorous honesty, a willingness to face the truth. They trust that the playwright will not lead us to a funhouse mirror of distortion but to an honest reflection. Shakespeare best summarized the work of great playwrights: to create mirrors that focus our eyes on the essence of what it means to be alive right now. Theatre grinds the glass from a billion bites of data, coats the back with the mercury of perspective and polishes the surface with insight until our giant mirror removes the scales from our eyes and allows us to truly see.


Recent research on brain activity has revealed that in addition to the billions of regular neurons, humans have a small percentage called “mirror neurons.” These neurons fire both when a person performs an action herself and when she witnesses another person performing the same action. Scientists have theorized that these mirror neurons may be involved in our capacity for empathy. And the lack of firing mirror neurons may help explain what is often considered anti-social behavior sometimes exhibited by autistic or sociopathic individuals.
Marco Iacoboni, in his brilliant book Imitation, Empathy and Mirror Neurons, explains that “[n]eural mirroring solves the ‘problem of other minds’ (how we can access and understand the minds of others) and makes inter-subjectivity possible, thus facilitating social behavior.” Although this nascent research about mirror neurons must be subjected to rigorous future study and testing, these findings ring so true for me in my own experience. What if such research eventually shows that our giant theatre mirror enhances the firing of our mirror neurons? Instead of theatre critics awarding stars or cartoon clapping men for their reviews, perhaps we should pass out brain-testing helmets at the theatre door so that our plays could be rated by the number of mirror neurons fired at each performance.
We come to the theatre knowing we are blind, but searching for sight. We come courageously to face hard truths we need help to face. And we come hoping to glimpse the better side of our humanity. Great plays are like a skilled eye doctor, prescribing lenses to relieve our aching eyes that are tired of squinting through fog and debris, and  a cooling salve to heal our vision with beauty and laughter. As an Artistic Director, my greatest hope is that after a truly transformative experience before our giant mirror – when an astute director, inspired actors and brave designers have polished it to perfection – the audience may leave our doors no longer blind, but so inspired by their own reflection that they go out and take genuine action towards transforming the world into a better place.

All the best,


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