Wannabe Thespian on Empathy

Most of us have been there. Think back, if you dare, to a time in middle school or high school when you were in a play, musical, or even a class skit. Nerves were probably frayed and no doubt energy filled your body.

Even if you never participated in a school play, imagine memorizing a block of lines and delivering them in front of your peers; certainly a daunting task.
Ponder for a moment what is really happening on the stage. Stepping out of your character and into another—costume, makeup, blocking, emotion, voice inflection, etc.—is a process with a high degree of challenge.
It means letting go of your perspective about the world and adopting another. It means shedding your skin and moving into the skin of another. It means truly finding the soul of your character and living that on stage. This only happens when you fully immerse yourself in seeing and feeling the world through the lens of your character.
If there is anything that can foster a sense of empathy, it is the process of acting. Letting go of your expectations about the world around you and feeling the story of another—on the stage in front of an audience—is empathy to the infinite degree.
Empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
Many people have written about how the stage builds empathy and understanding; I am certainly not the first. As we are in the midst of the ‘theater season’ at GSB, though, it’s a great opportunity to remind ourselves about the importance of fostering empathy in young people.
Teaching kids how to have productive and thoughtful conversations is critical to a positive culture, and those conversations can be fruitful if a sense of empathy is in the room. We can truly understand where another person is coming from if we allow ourselves to see things through their lens; it’s only then, with multiple perspectives in mind, that we can reach a level of conversation that leads to love, support, and the generation of ideas. With seven billion unique people on this earth, empathy is key to living in peace and harmony.
Of course, there are many other ways besides acting to inculcate a sense of empathy in students. Community service, practicing good sportsmanship, mentoring and buddy programs, reading, and respectful debating are several others. Empathy can be cultivated through giving space for ideas, listening, and validating other viewpoints. The classroom and dinner table are great spaces to practice.
As young people develop academically, socially, and emotionally, let’s move empathy to the middle, be it on the stage or otherwise. And finally, treat yourself to a Broadway musical!
Exciting Data
Beginning with the Early Childhood performance of the Nutcracker in December and running through the end of the school year, approximately 200 students (outside of our grades 7-12 theater arts classes) will participate in the following performing arts opportunities at GSB:
Joe Show (US talent show)
Cinderella (US musical)
Middle School Talent Show
The Lion King (grades 1-6 musical)
Once on This Island (7/8 musical)
Book Recommendations
The Martian, by Andy Weir
Recommended 14 and older (profanity). An incredible story of ingenuity and survival.
Flying Lessons & Other Stories
A collection of short stories by bestselling “middle-grades authors.”
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a rigorous, meaningful, and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.