There is much more to theater than learning lines, hitting your mark and knowing your cues. One of the most meaningful parts of theater is something of which the actors, support staff and audience members are not even aware. Something a spotlight cannot reveal. Empathy.
“Empathy is the root. When we stop working to understand each other, that’s when we cave in,” says Paige Gagliano, or “Mrs. G.” as the students refer to her. Paige, Episcopal’s Director of Performing Arts, says the ability to create connections and establish understanding among different people makes the arts so important for the human experience. She points to one of her favorites – “Ragtime” – as an example. She says the piece helps the audience understand the “un-understandable” or the “un-comprehensible” as the audience is introduced to three groups struggling with their circumstances in early 20th century America. “We’re scared to look at this,” says Paige. She says we struggle to imagine that we could feel the same or act the same in a similar setting.
The magic of theater is that the actor is tasked with becoming another person. Paige says to do this they must first discover two things – What does this person want? What will they do to get it? As the actor embarks on this journey of understanding, they learn the why behind the actions and understand more about the person’s behavior and how something so unimaginable could occur.
Part of this journey to understand the other’s perspective is learning more about your own. In a recent Theater and Religion class, Paige asked students to think about the positive and negative people in their lives. Students reflected on the traits of these people and determined which traits they value most. From this reflection, students were then asked to write a personal creed.
Such a personal, vulnerable assignment could only be completed in a safe, trusting environment. Paige creates that for her students. She advises them that there is no judgement or need for fear. In her theater there is acceptance and understanding. Often she even tells students that nine out of ten times what they try might “really stink.” However, it’s on that tenth try that they will soar.
Such insight and personal understanding creates new opportunities and unexpected bonds. For example, as the actors learn more about why their characters say or do things, they understand and relate better with their cast mates. Students who may not have been friends otherwise, connect. Common ground is found among students who previously overlooked or misunderstood each other.
Paige says her goal in teaching theater is to develop empathetic people who can take a risk and fail. Developing empathy for others will serve students well in all aspects of their life, for all of their life. She says it helps students have better control of their own emotions and a better understanding of the emotions of others. Empathy helps students be better prepared to diffuse problems and more willing to take responsibility for their own actions.
Her teaching approach is working. There are 150 students currently involved in the Peter Pan Jr. production and more than 100 interested in this spring’s run of Evangeline!
The Middle School production of Peter Pan Jr. runs November 13th – 17th. It’s Mrs. G’s hope that when the lights go up, the actors will have been transformed by the journey and will find themselves more open and connected with the world around them. We invite you to be a part of that experience. Get your tickets now.