This week, a guest post from Ruth Hansen about the crucial role the arts play in expanding our circles of compassion.
Acting teacher Sanford Meisner defined acting as no less than living truthfully in imaginary circumstances. Actors are trained to imagine themselves in others’ lives, fostering an enhanced ability to identify with others.
Two years ago I was cast in a production of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, a collection of cabaret-style songs written by Belgian Jacques Brel, performed theatrically. The songs are influenced by post-World War II European experience – a mélange of loss and longing, fleeting beauty and tender vulnerability, brutally honest insights delivered amidst scathing cynicism and brittle laughter. Artistically, it is the most challenging assignment I’ve attempted.
I was given the song “My Death” to prepare as part of my performance. The poetry is difficult. Each verse contains two themes that, in their progression, don’t so much illustrate a transformation as realize a more complete picture of the character’s reality in contemplating her demise. The first half of each verse is her chosen “face” for presentation to the public. What starts as cool and cynical in the first verse progresses to self-destructive tendencies in the second, reaching a grotesque intensity in the third verse that is frankly frightening. The second half of each verse is addressed to a lover – a much more exclusive audience than the first half of each verse. In the first verse she expresses affection, progressing to trust and intimacy in the second verse. In the third, there is an honest sharing of being terrified, grounded in the hope offered by their love.
Traditionally, this song is performed with a floaty, eerie, out-of-body quality. Working with a pianist who supported my artistic choice, I opted instead for a visceral honesty in attempting to realize the potential of the text.
My personal circumstances are, thankfully, far removed from those of the character. The character is not someone I would approach on the street; if I did, I would probably take the first prickly hint and retreat. She is not someone I would normally choose to emulate. I would discourage my children from spending time with her. She is not someone I would strive to find commonality with, or identify with.
And yet, I have known fear, and isolation. I have responded to circumstances with cynicism and hyperbole. And I have been fortunate to have the love of someone I trust completely. Like any good method-trained actor, I brought all of this to bear on my interpretation. And, unlike in the social conventions of everyday life, I prepared to share these intense emotions in a distilled and concentrated form through my performance.
The first rehearsals were terrifying. Fear, shame, rage, vulnerability – there are not emotions one reveals in polite society. Yet as I shared these aspects of my self (as an actor, one’s self is one’s instrument), first with my pianist and then with my castmates, I realized the benefit of taking this risk. Theater is collaborative. The actor’s focus is on his or her castmates with a single-mindedness that is rare in everyday life. In performance, the energy of the audience is a presence in the experience, feeding the performance and being transformed for all present.
And so, by my giving voice to what we typically hide, the hiding of which isolates us, those present had the opportunity to recognize a commonality, to connect, wordlessly, through what many experience in isolation and never speak of. My sense, from each time I performed that song, was one of recognition from the audience.
Intentionally invoking this emotional experience and exploring its contours with honesty was scary. It is not a journey I would have otherwise chosen. And yet, to do so with a supportive cast, and to share it with so many people, was a gift. It allowed me to voice aspects I had politely hidden, and it allowed the forging of a bond of recognition among many of those participating: fleeting, but acknowledged.
The foregoing illustrates two important points: One, that art can encourage everyday people to identify with the situations beyond their normal circles of acquaintance; and two, that art can encourage individual connections otherwise discouraged by conventions of society. The arts can also promote connection with others when the individual participants are in need.
A college friend of mine, Bart Sumner, lost his ten-year-old son a few years ago. At the time, Bart worked with an improvisational comedy troupe in Los Angeles. As anyone would, he took some time off, but when he returned, his job was still to make people laugh. Not surprisingly, he experienced some doubts as to whether he could. He knew his colleagues would be supportive. Indeed, it is in the nature of the genre to take risks together and to support each other to propel the success of the whole. Think of a team working together to keep a feather aloft.
Bart went onstage. It was hard. His gift was the realization that immersion in working with others to make people laugh in no way diminished his love for or his memory of his son; but it did mitigate the totality of his experience of pain. There is a joy in connecting with others that does not require us to discount the seriousness of any situation, loss, or challenge we face. Rather, it expands our capacity to accept the love of life.
Bart’s story is not over. He recently founded a nonprofit in Michigan called Healing Improv that gives no-cost workshops in improv comedy to people who have experienced loss. The act of working comedy with others gave Bart back his joy in life. I know others – several, actually – who have (re)turned to singing in the midst of crisis or after experiencing profound loss. It seems counterintuitive, but fostering creativity in cooperation with others kindles a spark of joy that does not displace grief, but makes its own space, respectfully but insistently, allowing one to process pain and gradually absorb it as one aspect of the totality of one’s being. Bart’s personal experience of the strength of that connection and cooperation has inspired him to share the experience with others.
In the early 20th century, George Herbert Mead identified a social tendency that he termed a “religious impulse.” Similar to compassion, this impulse prompts us to identify with any being in need. I think of experiences like the ones described in this essay as working on that impulse and strengthening it, similar to practicing piano or running.
It was, in fact, similar artistic experiences, along with years of raising funds for nonprofit organizations, that prompted me to return to school last year. I enrolled in a doctoral program at Indiana University to study people’s choices to assist others, and the societal needs and opportunities that meet with various levels of popular support.
Some who study charitable behavior recognize elements of personal identification with others when we choose to give time or money. At Boston College, Paul Schervish and John Havens have found that people think of gifts as an extension of themselves. Jen Shang’s experiments at Indiana University found something like self-imposed peer-pressure – people are more generous when they self-identify with others being generous. Taken together, these findings suggest that generosity is not necessarily selfless, but perhaps enhancing an aspect of ourselves that we find valuable. If this is true, then our openness to identifying with others is key to expanding the universe of those with whom we will share.
A 2004 report from the RAND Corporation found broad social benefits to having the arts in communities. According to its authors, the arts enhance individual capacity for empathy and cognitive growth. At a community level, participation in the arts creates social bonds and a communal expression of meaning.
The debate about funding for the arts – whether they are as worthy to receive public funding as other priorities – is current, but is certainly not new. In 1995, then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich described the National Endowment for the Arts as, among other things, “patronage for an elite group.” He wanted to eliminate the agency, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Public Broadcasting Corporation. Wendy Wasserstein, a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, was invited to testify before Congress in support of the NEA. She writes about the experience in an essay called “State of the Arts,” in the collection Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties. She describes the arts in populist terms, saying that they “reflect profoundly the most democratic credo, the belief in an individual vision or voice.” The arts aren’t elitist, she explains, but limiting access to them is.
The arts are full of opportunities for us to find commonality and even communion with others. Perhaps, by expanding our horizons, the arts may just also open our arms a little wider to those we choose to embrace.
Ruth Hansen has raised funds for several nonprofits, mostly in Chicago, for over fifteen years. Ruth studied Music and Theater at Rutgers University, Business Law at Loyola University Chicago, and is currently a Ph.D. student at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. With the support of her family and friends, she brings elements of her varied background to better understand funding for services for marginalized populations. Click here to see Ruth’s performance of “My Death.”