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Empathy… even for conservatives.

Recently I came across this article on American Theatre Magazine’s website that touches upon the responsibility of artists, particularly in this time of political turmoil. It is an issue that has been plaguing me for weeks. In the university I attend I am surrounded by extremely liberal artists, and the more I look into this, the more I’m inclined to believe that this liberal college bubble is a microcosm of the world. Compared with the rest of Americans, theatre artists are extremely liberal, extremely progressive, and extremely democratic. And yet, for all that I agree with my peers, I believe we will be doing audiences and ourselves a disservice if we limit the art we produce by the liberal lens through which we view our own lives.

My understanding is that, as a theatre maker, it is my duty to approach every role and play with empathy. It is a key requirement of the craft to be able to put myself into other people’s shoes, and sometimes those shoes aren’t comfortable. I’m fascinated by the moment when an actor resists saying the lines they have, likely because I so relish the moments when my characters say or do something against my or the audience’s grain. It demands a reaction and discussion, and that is what theatre should be about. I don’t understand the purpose of doing productions that lampoon Trump and exalt Clinton, that demonize Republicans and give Democrats a free pass. Human beings and political views are more nuanced than that. We have a responsibility to be more empathetic than that. We owe it to ourselves and the audience. 

How could a community so loving and open-minded deny anyone their right of expression, whether they agree with them or not? I think it would be fascinating and motivational to see a conservative playwright head-to-head with someone like Tony Kushner—maybe a David Mamet/Kushner debate? After all, people of any political standing have creative sensibilities. Wouldn’t it be gratifying to leave a theater having a conversation about a political viewpoint that you had previously not taken seriously? –Daniel Jones for Howlround 


I’m not advocating for everyone to sing Kumbaya as we hold hands. In fact, I imagine that the type of theatre I’m describing will make many audience members uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable! But just as I believe it’s my responsibility to maintain the tiny swath of Trump supporters in my Facebook friend network (here’s a great article about why), I also believe it’s important to continue pushing the political envelope of theatre in the U.S. If we don’t marry the nuance of our productions with the nuance of our political landscape in this moment, if we limit our views of characters onstage to the “good guy” and the “evil guy,” our theatre will cease to be more than finger-wagging didactic lectures or congratulatory pats on the back.



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