Notes from the Empathy Gym – February 2021

Notes from the Empathy Gym – February 2021

To say it has been a crazy time this last 11 months, is to beg the obvious. Our heads are reeling from the pandemic, from the election and from all the insanity that has befallen us since. It feels we have all been playing the extras in Homeland or House of Cards, or another one of those political shows that give our worst fears flesh, that play on our human weakness for conspiracy, our terror that the worst we can imagine will actually come to be. Our brains have been battered from the assault of disinformation and outrageous attempts to defraud the democratic process. And though many of us have recently breathed a cautious sigh of relief, we suspect there may be more outrage and violence to come.

As I try to ease myself back from being completely addicted to the news, checking all my devices multiple times a day, bracing myself for yet another crisis, the calm moments that begin to occur feel more like a void, and the relief often yields to outbreaks of dread. What now? Still treading water in our COVID-induced theatrical limbo, we wonder, what do we do? What is the place of the theatre artist in this Dali-esque landscape? How can our platform serve the needs of our community? The vaccine is here, herd immunity may be only months away, and perhaps we will be able to bring audiences back to 450 Post Street by late summer or Fall. We have the hope of an exhausted cyclist getting close enough to the crest of a daunting climb that he can almost see over the top.

How can we help? What does theatre have to say that can ease our anxiety, that can comfort us, that can show the way? It feels the world has changed so much, and we are not sure where to begin. We yearn so much to make a difference, to be of use, hopefully to be a beacon that can shine a light into the heart of darkness. At times like these, we turn back to our mission:

To lift our spirits
To deepen self-awareness
To nurture compassionate community

Ahhhh. Comforting. Like an old three-legged stool. It supports and directs everything we do. I love it. I love the verbs. Lift. Deepen. Nurture. Powerful words. But as I beg the mission to re-inspire me after the outrages of the election, the horror of January 6th, the murder of George Floyd, and the toll of this ruthless pandemic, I wonder, are we enough? Can we do more? And what? Is there a fourth leg to our stool that would make our mission even more powerful? As artists, how can we make more of a difference?

As I have pondered the wish to make more of a difference, the phrase, “inspire positive change,” comes to mind. I have never believed that theatre should have an overtly political focus, or that it was our job to change people’s minds, to win converts over to any particular ideology. I have thought it was more the theatre’s role to put us in the shoes of another and build understanding, especially for those who we oppose. But these times cry out for change, and change requires more than empathy. It requires action. Is it possible that we can use the power of our presence in the theatre together, sharing a story that lifts, deepens and nurtures, to also inspire us to take action? What if we as a community, imagine what actions we will want to take after our time together in the theatre? Will we donate our time to bring about greater justice, will we really engage with our opponents to look for common ground? Will we make sure that for even one night, a child doesn’t go to bed hungry? I wonder if we could organize a series of possible actions that might be inspired by seeing a particular play and as we leave, affected by the story, can we harness that moment into acting for positive change?

Empathy is the beginning. Without it we become isolated or sociopathic, and of no use. We must practice and cultivate so it may grow. Self-awareness leads to humility. As we look ourselves squarely in the eye, we see our privilege, our flaws, our denial, our stubbornness and we vow to do better. Then, we extend our empathy and our humility to nurture compassion around us, to build a community full of understanding. We join hands with brothers and sisters to build an army of open hearts. But can we also harness our empathy, our humility, our compassion and turn them into action? Can we add that fourth leg to the stool? Can we use theatre to take concrete steps for justice and hope in the world? Let’s add that fourth leg. “To promote positive change.” Let’s act.

In gratitude,
Bill English (Artistic Director)

P.S. I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this. Maybe there is a better phase. Please let me know what you think. Please write me at arti[email protected] to share any thoughts you may have.

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