Theater, my advisor told me, “is at the heart of a liberal arts education.”
At the beginning of this year, I quit the theater studies major, decided that pursuing a career on the stage is not for me and turned my attention to research and teaching. And yet, I agree with my advisor. Yesterday, I remembered why.
“I don’t want you to beat me no more.” It’s one of the girls in the after-school theater class I teach at Amistad High School. She’s a freshman, soft spoken and sweet, she’s playing an improv game, we’re working on characterization, power dynamics and staging. The kids can come up with any scenarios they want. She isn’t trying to be racy or shocking. Her partner, a boy, a sophomore, responds naturally, unsurprised by the topic or the scene she has just begun.
I watch them work, let them have the conversation, tell them to stop, give them staging so that the dynamics between them are more interesting. Listening to the story they are telling, I begin to understand where they come from.
It isn’t easy, teaching high schoolers, especially ones from such a different background. Much of what they say is, at best, suggestive of a life I have only read about, and ultimately confusing. But I listen.
We start each class by sharing our best moments and worst moments. So far we haven’t gone beyond the typical highs, like good food, and lows, like having homework. But sometimes this is all that is necessary. For a few minutes, as we stand in a circle, we give each other the time to listen and a place to talk. Right now I am still getting to know them, and they hardly know themselves. The end of the year probably won’t bring dramatic changes, but I feel an incredible value in the hours we spend together.
The kids are mostly freshmen and sophomores, and they don’t all know each other. They are uncomfortable acting together. This discomfort pushes them to abandon social inhibitions and begin to listen.
Because theater is nothing more or less than an excuse to communicate. Or, it can be. I’m not talking about professional theater here, but about the simple act of, well, acting.
It is hard not to pry into the narratives that rise up in class. But that isn’t what empathy is about. It’s about listening. Connecting across differences and within similarities. The simple and infinitely challenging ability to come to an understanding, or see through another’s eyes.
I don’t think it’s simplifying academia to say that it is, ultimately, all about those connections. From the humanities to the sciences, we strive to understand the world around us and explain it to each other.
We search for common ground.
In an atmosphere where the primary act is becoming another person, there is power in silence. For my high schoolers, there is thrill, and sometimes terror, in getting to speak out. Though there are moments of resentment, of withdrawal and of shyness, they are excited to soon get their hands on an actual script, excited to be given roles to play.
Theater, up until this point, has shaped my life. It was through my own silences, through the hours spent learning words to speak for another character and the time I invested in listening to my fellow actors and directors, that I discovered the power of empathy.
The professional acting scene is traumatic, competitive and dirty. For those who have the single-minded devotion of thespians, I wish you the absolute best of luck in your future; the world needs you to tell us stories and to remind us of the boundaries that the human mind and body and emotions can push.
Theater isn’t for everyone, certainly, not even for me, though I love it deeply. But I’ve come to believe that theater is the cornerstone of a liberal arts education. The raw communication and emotion that acting can foster is the heartbeat of liberal arts. It is a means to an end: discourse, empathy, human contact. Many could do well to remember the humanizing element of acting the role of someone else.
Timmia Hearn Feldman is a sophomore in Morse College.