I would read your diary if you let me. I would love to climb inside your mind. Just crack your skull open, clamber in, and nestle down into the secret, squishy parts of your psyche and see the world through your eyes.
Sorry, does that sound creepy? I’ve always felt this way. It’s a craving for absolute understanding of the other humans I inhabit this planet with. I want to know what it is to be you. To move in your body, speak in your voice, feel your rage and pain and fear and hope and love. I have a hunger for empathy.
I love it when people reveal themselves to me – the private parts of themselves that they usually keep hidden. When somebody sheds their protective layers of defences, and shares something they find embarrassing or shameful or stupid or contradictory, it takes me a step closer to being able to imagine forging my way through life inside their skin.
This can happen in all sorts of ways; a confession from a close friend over a glass of wine; in the form of the written word, like in the beautiful memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion; in the form of a painting, a sculpture, or an installation like Tracy Emin’s My Bed; or in the form of autobiographical theatre.
I hope I don’t need to convince anyone that intimate friendships are valuable. I hope we are agreed that our lives are enriched by companionship, and the ability to share our innermost thoughts and feelings with those we trust. We pity the person with no friends. The arts, on the other hand, are often viewed as a luxury. Especially in such turbulent political times, making art can seem like a superficial, frivolous exercise; unimportant and insignificant in the face of tragedy, prejudice, terror.
I myself have been tempted to dismiss my desire to create theatre as self-indulgent. But I think this is a mistake. The arts are how we express our common humanity. They can be a form of survival. They shape our culture, by helping us see others and ourselves in new ways.
I truly believe empathy is the key to a better world. Empathy for refugees fleeing war-torn homes, empathy for people with different religious beliefs to your own, empathy for people with different coloured skin, empathy for people of a different gender, or sexuality, empathy for people with disabilities you have never endured. The list goes on. If a white policeman patrolling a neighbourhood were able to empathise with a young unarmed black man walking through it, wouldn’t he be less likely to shoot him dead? If an able-bodied politician were able to empathise with a mother unable to provide for her family due to sickness, wouldn’t she be less likely to cut her benefits? I think so. I think the more we are able to remind ourselves that all of the other people walking around this world have inner lives as complex and fragile and beautiful as our own, the more we will treat each other with kindness.
This is why I believe the arts are not mere frivolous luxuries, but are vital. Because they have the power to cultivate empathy. All forms of art have this potential, but my personal favourite is theatre. Theatre tells stories, and humans like stories. Throughout history we have handed down lessons through stories, because we respond to them on a deep level. They can worm their way into our consciousness in a way that arguments, logic and facts simply can’t. They help shape our attitudes, because they connect on an emotional level, and humans are emotional beings.
There are many forms of storytelling, but theatre’s immediacy lends it potency you don’t get from other forms. It’s live, baby! You sit in a room with other breathing, thinking, feeling bodies, and you experience something shared, in real time. Autobiographical theatre is especially good at cultivating empathy, because a true story can’t be dismissed in the way fiction can. And when it is performed by the creator, and you are faced with a person sharing their lived experience with you – that is intense. It allows for a really profound connection between audience and performer.
When another person shares their messy, shadowy, vulnerable insides with you, you realise that you are not alone in the world, and it is a great comfort. When that person makes those insides into art, when those messy bits become beautiful, or they articulate something so that a shadow's edges become defined and clarity emerges; that can be life changing.
I am grateful when other artists share themselves in this way, so it felt natural for me to do the same. I wrote a play, My World Has Exploded A Little Bit, about my battle with grief following the deaths of my parents. It is very personal. I am unflinchingly honest about my experiences. I was worried that because it was so specific to me, it wouldn’t be relevant to anyone else. But the opposite turned out to be true. I’ve had so may people thank me for articulating something they had felt, and been unable to put into words. Almost every time I perform it, someone from the audience will pick out a small detail that resonated with them. It could be the presence of beauty in the midst of tragedy, or a turn of phrase, or the pressure to be happy when everything seems terrible, or the inappropriate juxtaposition of laughter and tears. They are surprised to see that someone else felt this thing that they felt, and they tell me, and we both feel understood. That is a rare gift.
I offer hugs to the audience as they leave at the end of my play, and it is one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. Most people hug me, and that is lovely, but even more affecting is the eye contact just before, or just after, the hug. During the show, I have opened myself up, and in response, people drop their guard, their humanity glows out of them, and they meet me there in that moment. I have never had that quality of eye contact, that connection with strangers before. It feels like magic.
Those moments of shared empathy have banished the nasty insecure voices that asked if it wasn’t a little bit arrogant to make a play about myself, and convinced me of the power of autobiographical theatre. I recommend it to everyone!
This post first appeared on ArtsCulture.