'Audiences Cultivate the Power of Compassion'

A theater director believes her profession can contribute to the project of peaceful coexistence in America.

Mike Blake / Reuters

For Diane Paulus, the Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, vocation informs the subject of how Americans can live together.

“As a theater director, I believe that the audience is a key partner in my work. I also believe that audiences are a key partner in the work of a democracy. Audiences do not merely watch. When we attend a performance, we bring our bodies, as well as our hearts and our minds, to the acts of listening and watching: we show up for the experiences of other people,” she explained. “The act of showing up is a civic ritual with great power. The ancient Greeks knew this. In their theaters, which seated over 10,000 people, audiences wrestled collectively with stories of utmost importance to the state. In other times and places, too, from Sanskrit drama to Shakespeare’s Globe, the theater’s ability to assemble has always been viewed as inherently political, and potent.”

Much has been said about the way that theater can induce empathy, she continued. “However, I think that audiences’ most important political power stems from a slightly different concept. When we empathize, we imagine ourselves able to inhabit the feelings or circumstances of others. Despite the importance of this ability, democracy in a country of over 320 million actually requires something else: to share space, time, and life with people whose feelings and circumstances are different from our own.”

And she believes her field can help:

In a time when everything from consumer goods to the news itself is catered to individual tastes, we risk losing the collective spaces where difference is embodied and encouraged. The theater, I believe, represents an important possible space in which to combat this growing insulation.

As audiences, we sit side by side with strangers, performing the democratic possibility of a collective experience from multiple positions and perspectives. We share space, and vulnerability, and wonder; we disagree; we do not turn the story off. Beyond exhibiting empathy, audiences cultivate the power of compassion. Audiences with compassion feel with one another without effacing the differences between themselves—a potentially egocentric or appropriative act. Audiences with compassion bear witness alongside one another, and choose to accompany their neighbors on journeys that they might not otherwise make.

Audiences with compassion value coalition over consensus, assembling to rehearse the crucial task of transforming ourselves from persons into a public.

Is there a way that your profession can help Americans to coexist in relative peace and prosperity despite their many differences? Email conor@theatlantic.com with your thoughts.