As a long-time Cheryl Strayed fan, I was thrilled to see that Nia Vardalos’s wonderful dramatic adaptation of her Tiny Beautiful Things was available. I felt that Ms. Strayed’s courage and capacity to be completely vulnerable about the process of living could be an ideal invitation to our Empathy Gym. Vulnerability is one of the most inviting human traits, the willingness to be seen. It is an essential element of a successful theatre experience. Actors, in opening their hearts and spirits and stripping themselves bare, invite us to enter their experience. If the actor is not vulnerable, we hit a wall at the proscenium and cannot enter.
As an audience, it is our charge to open our hearts to the actor, to allow their experience to resonate and merge with our own. Our theatre is the one place we can drop our guard for a few hours. And we must. If we cross our physical and psychic arms in resistance, wrinkle the corner of our mouths in cynicism, or narrow our eyes in judgement, theatre just won’t work. The alchemy of empathy requires a circular flow of open-heartedness to flow from stage to audience to stage to audience. Like a properly operating heating system, whether you shut off the fan blowing warm air or close the intake valve of fresh air, the circle is broken and the room will remain cold.
As a child, on mornings before my parents awoke, I secretly read Dear Abby, hoping to catch glimpses of the adult world that might inform my struggles with my parents. They were distant figures, and I craved insights into the workings of their alien minds. And though I might not always have understood the adult concerns of the writers, I admired their vulnerability. They needed help and were brave enough to say so. And Abby always seemed so open to whatever they brought. These days, our world of infinite connectedness can be cold, each of us lit by the cool glow of our laptops and phones. Alone in our rooms, we reach out, often to someone we have never met. To me, it is a wondrous miracle, that the yearning of the human spirit for comfort and connection can bounce from keyboard to satellite to synapse and find open hearts that hear. Dare to be vulnerable and we are not so lonely as we imagine. But the process fails without equal openness on both ends. In the words of the great song, “let the circle be unbroken.”