Texas Tech University

Expert: Live Theatre, Art Can Inspire Empathy and Change Lives, But It Has Limits

Heidi Toth

November 16, 2015

Can viewing art make people more tolerant and empathetic? Some experts believe it can.

Can viewing art make people more tolerant and empathetic? Some experts believe it can. Researchers from the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform found students who attended a live showing of either “Hamlet” or “A Christmas Carol” scored higher on the study's measure for tolerance than a control group.

Mark Charney
Mark Charney

Looking at art more broadly, the Boston Globe reported a number of medical schools throughout the United States, including Harvard and Yale, now require students to participate in more art, either by examining paintings, watching live theatre or music or reading literature. The purpose is to help aspiring doctors develop empathy in their practice.

Mark Charney, the director of the School of Theatre & Dance at Texas Tech University, is available to discuss why live theatre and art can evoke emotions in ways simply reading a play, watching the movie or looking at pictures of Vincent Van Gogh's art in books cannot. He has won multiple awards in the theatre industry and is an honorary member of the Actors Hall of Fame. Charney is the national coordinator of the Institute for Theatre Journalism and Advocacy for the Kennedy Center, coordinator of the Dramaturgy Initiative and associate director of the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theatre Center. He has written or adapted a number of plays as well.


Mark Charney, director, School of Theatre & Dance (806) 834-1683 or mark.charney@ttu.edu

Talking Points

  • Art can change people, including inspiring empathy and tolerance along with fear and hate, but participants need to be open to be changed by the art they experience, and artists need to be willing to take their art to the people. Not every transformative play is a Shakespearian masterpiece with professional actors and expensive props. Plays written by young adults and performed in high school gymnasiums can evoke just as much emotion. Artists must help to create the right atmosphere for transformation in the perfect environment.
  • “As theatre educators we teach that live art is transformative, but I often tell my students not to take that too far. I don't believe simply busing people in to see theatre always has a transformative effect. I believe it has the potential to change something in you, when it's the right play at the right time at the right moment. But I don't think that happens often, and I think if you expect it, you're asking too much of art.”
  • Art is a form of expression that can be an effective form of communication. Texas Tech theatre and dance students have taken their passion for art to the Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research and created a community of artists that puts on a stage show. Art helps those students on the autism spectrum express themselves, learn to communicate more effectively and helps them learn to adapt to social situations.
  • Art tells a story. This is obviously true in theatre, but also true in paintings, photography, dance and music. A story told well elicits emotions from a viewer, where simply viewing a picture of a painting or reading a play would not evoke those same emotions.
  • “Narrative makes you cry and scenarios make you cry. We're an oral tradition culture. We tell stories. Stories create empathy.”
  • In the play “Equus,” a doctor talks directly to the audience about the struggles he's going through and the bad dreams he has. Audience members feel a relationship with the actors that's lacking in the cinematic version.
  • “Dysart, the main character in ‘Equus,' is in the room with you. When he struggles and he looks you in the eye and he even comes near you, I think it's really hard not to empathize, especially if you like and admire that character.”
  • “When you put Richard Burton, who played Dysart in ‘Equus' on screen and he's talking to you, he's not talking to you. He's talking to the camera. It doesn't seem like he's talking to you. There are a bunch of people sitting next to you. It doesn't have the same immediacy.”