Friday, August 20, 2010

Theatre for social change, continued: thoughts and doubts about Theatre of Compassion

Contributed by our Guest Blogger of the week, Mariah MacCarthy

When I was twelve, my parents were smart and nice enough to enroll me and my brother in a summer playwriting class. I turned my focus towards God that summer, and wrote the Job-like tale of a guy who gets to choose between erasing Original Sin from history—killing the serpent that seduced Eve with the apple and creating a world where no one feels any pain—or leaving the world as it is. There were angels and devils tempting the protagonist at every turn, and of course he fell in love with a girl from this parallel sin-free universe, which further complicated his decision-making. Lucifer was, for no real reason, a cross-dresser who went by Lucy, and I decided that the song “Amazing Grace” needed to make an appearance (which, at the final reading, my actresses could not get through without a straight face, for which I am still a teeny bit ticked off but don’t really blame them). In the end, the protagonist chooses the world as it is—sin and all—and ends up deleting his lady love from existence.

I share this, not to celebrate my former precociousness, but because the above story explains a lot. I haven’t lost my penchant for cross-dressed characters, and while my focus has secularized since my tweens, all those years of church continue to influence me as a writer and a person. Namely, the basics: love your neighbor; love your enemy; be the Good Samaritan; love, love, love, etc, etc, etc.

This is probably where my obsession with Theatre of Compassion comes from. (Side note: I’m happy to note that when you Google “theatre of compassion,” that blog post is the first thing that comes up. My SEO is AWESOME, yo.) Not that you need a Christian background to understand or practice Theatre of Compassion; the basics of Christianity are pretty much the same as the basics of most other religions, and it is precisely this universality that makes Theatre of Compassion so potent, in my opinion.

In case you don’t feel like reading my whole big original post, let me just lay out a few tenets of Theatre of Compassion:

-In Theatre of Compassion, gray is the new black. Moral ambiguity is the rule, absolutes are the exception.
-While we may not sympathize with every character in Theatre of Compassion, we are at least given the opportunity to do so.
-There are no heroes in Theatre of Compassion, and there are no villains—or, everyone is a bit of both.
-Theatre of Compassion does not preach. It does not yell (though its characters certainly might). It may ultimately take a moral stance, but not without giving the other side a voice.

Because vague, unsupported concepts drive me batty, let’s talk examples.

One of the first times I can remember being profoundly affected by Theatre of Compassion was when I saw Eric LaRue in the UK. To summarize Eric LaRue: our protagonist, Janice, is the mother of a teenage boy, Eric LaRue, who has shot several of his classmates, Columbine-style. It’s clear throughout the play that she’s in a kind of hell and that no one—not her husband, not her pastor, no one—is really listening to her. In the end, she visits her son in jail and tells him, “You did the right thing” by killing his classmates. He is appalled and basically disowns her, begging her to tell everyone that he “feels remorse.”

It was an excruciating play to watch. When Janice said, “You did the right thing,” you could feel, if not hear, the entire audience suck in their breath. We went on an excruciating journey with her, watching the mothers of the victims berate her and blame her for their sons’ deaths, watching as her repeated requests to process her grief in her own way went ignored. She completely had our sympathy. And then, by professing that an act of murder was “the right thing” to do, she basically took a huge dump on that sympathy—and it was UH-MAY-ZEENG THEATRE. No blameless martyrs here, folks.

But, no one is pure evil, either. The pastor and husband, as obnoxious and intolerable as I found them, thought they were helping. And who can blame the mother of a murdered son for being furious and lashing out? Even the boy who killed his classmates is sympathetic. He feels remorse, and the shooting was a reaction to being bullied. All gray. All hopelessly complicated and infuriating—and five years later, I’m STILL thinking about that damn play. Had we been allowed to see the mother as a blameless victim of her environment, I assure you, I wouldn’t be thinking about that play today.

While I gravitate toward most Theatre of Compassion, I’m specifically interested in it as a means of creating social change. If we show somewhat-good, somewhat-flawed characters on both sides of an issue or a spectrum, can we change how our audience feels about said issue? Can we then continue the debate about that issue in a more respectful manner, increase our likelihood of the debate actually getting somewhere, rather than just spewing vitriol at each other?

A commenter on the original Theatre of Compassion post admitted that she had her doubts about it being a successful tool of change. She cited her own unsuccessful experiences with trying to tread lightly when talking about issues of race. And hey—I get it. People may like honey better, but sometimes the situation calls for vinegar. I don’t feel like having an intellectual discussion about gender roles with the guy who catcalls me in Hell’s Kitchen late at night; I feel like hitting him in the face (though I don’t do so). And on a better-lit street where I feel safe enough to pull this off, I may respond with a “fuck off.” I say “fuck off” because I want him to experience some negative consequences to his actions so maybe he’ll stop doing it. When I feel threatened, I feel no need to be polite.

But when I get home and I’m alone with my Microsoft Word, I have an asset that I don’t have walking home from Hell’s Kitchen. I have the asset of fiction. We accept things from fictional characters that we don’t accept from real people; we can sympathize with a fictional murderer more easily than we can a real one. Even if the characters are real people, they are probably fictionalized somehow, and so we can let ourselves sympathize with that particular author’s version of that real person.

My hope, then—my pipe dream, maybe—is that we can take that compassion for those fictional people and transfer it onto their real-life counterparts. People who demonize each other, I’ve found, rarely get anywhere in conversation. But people who respect each other are more likely to try to meet each other halfway, and, therefore, increase their likelihood of getting somewhere.

Example: a program called Sex Signals came to my college every year. It lured people in with its humor and pseudo-racy title, but then about halfway through the evening, they started talking about date rape. It presented a situation that started as consensual sex, then became, shall we say, complicated. The guy in this situation—the perp, if you will—seemed genuinely unaware that he’d done something that constituted an illegal or harmful action. He was a sympathetic character.

I can’t tell you how many times I have mentally referred to that show, or sometimes in conversation with friends who saw it too. It gave me the tools to understand how something that is devastating to one person—something like date rape—can happen through no malice on the other person’s part. And this allows me to address the issue in a more productive way. After all, date rape won’t stop if we don’t talk to the people doing it—which, 99% of the time, is men. And men won’t listen to me if I seem unwilling to consider where they’re coming from. By saying, “I understand how it might seem like an innocuous situation to you, but…” I increase my likelihood of being heard.

Then again, I find myself getting just as cynical as my commenter sometimes. Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, for example, is a magnificent example of Theatre of Compassion. There are some villains, sure, but there are far more characters who float in that gray space—most importantly and deliciously, Mama, who protects girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from the violence outside, but does so by making them prostitutes. However, we have yet to care as a country about the atrocities happening in the DRC, Nottage’s well-deserved Pulitzer notwithstanding. Lawmakers aren’t doing anything.

The play that has accomplished the most tangible social progress, on the other hand, is by no means gray. It’s The Vagina Monologues, and it makes no attempt to humanize those who commit atrocities against women. Yet it’s still a magnificent piece of theatre, which has raised millions of dollars that have gone toward ending violence against women, or helping women who have already experienced violence. And I am sure that if Eve Ensler had written a grayer piece, it would not be as widely performed, because gray is less empowering (or at the very least, it empowers in a less obvious way), and then the play would not have raised as much money as it has. So maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.

What do people think? Can Theatre of Compassion change the world? Can theatre change the world at all?


  1. Compassion is essential stuff for playwrights. When a playwright hasn't found a way to love even the most despicable/difficult characters, they seem false to me. Learning to love those we struggle with is very empowering; watching a play in which it's clear the playwright has done that is cathartic, and catharsis (as well as the resulting open mind catharsis often creates) is what changes the world.

  2. Agree with Gwydion, and also think this kind of approach is good for differentiating playwriting from movie and TV writing, which usually has clearly defined heroes and villains (although not always; some TV shows are getting increasingly good at exploring multiple and conflicting points of view). How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel is a play that impressed me a great deal when I first saw it years ago, seeing as it managed to create a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of a pederast (no small feat).

  3. Just a correction: That blog post is not by me, but it articulates many experiences I've had. Sorry if my linking it caused confusion.

    When talking about the anti-oppression aspect of social change, empowerment is the point. Here is where I believe your model feels incomplete. Giving a voice to those who are often silenced (and violently so) is an act of compassion.

    Too many people assume that having compassion for someone means that you don't hold them accountable for what they do, which is bullshit. By characterizing anger as merely vitriol, you're sort of putting the onus of change on the people most hurt by the status quo. That doesn't strike me as very compassionate. Furthermore, by setting up people's life experience as something to debate, you're already disrespecting and dehumanizing them. That also doesn't strike me as very compassionate.

    So I guess when you say theatre of compassion, my deepest question is "Compassion for who?"

    I suppose my criticism of this idea would seem ironic if you read Tulpa, or Anne&Me, which seems to fit squarely within the idea of theatre of compassion. The Anne of the play is not evil or malevolent. She is (as typical of Hollywood liberalism) genuinely well-meaning but ignorant about some very important things in a way that leads to hurting someone she cares about.

  4. Hi RVCBard,

    Thanks for the correction - sorry for the mis-citation.

    Too many people assume that having compassion for someone means that you don't hold them accountable for what they do, which is bullshit.

    A great point. I think a combination of both is necessary - I have no interest in just letting people off the hook and saying "it's OK that you do (fill in the blank)." The ultimate goal is to get that behavior to change, after all.

    By characterizing anger as merely vitriol, you're sort of putting the onus of change on the people most hurt by the status quo. That doesn't strike me as very compassionate.

    Maybe I didn't make myself clear. Anger is great, even necessary, because it spurs people to action. You'd best believe I am angry about the shit that has happened to me, and that that anger is why I make the theatre I make. Vitriol, on the other hand, allows no room for listening, for trying to see things from the other perspective, for asking "well WHY are they doing that?" Vitriol assumes it already knows why - because the other person is evil. I WANT people to be angry (if you're not angry, you're not paying attention), but when anger is expressed ONLY as vitriol, it can only do so much.

    I also don't mean to put the onus on those who've been hurt by the status quo - ultimately, the status-quo-enforcers are the ones who have to change their behavior. But they're not exactly going to change on their own, are they? We, as the ones who've been hurt by it, are the ones who know exactly what needs to change. And how we communicate with the status-quo-enforcers directly affects the likelihood of them making that change.


  5. Furthermore, by setting up people's life experience as something to debate, you're already disrespecting and dehumanizing them. That also doesn't strike me as very compassionate.

    This hasn't been my experience. In my experience, delving deep into an issue, and looking at all the gradations and complexities therein, seems to be something that people with any experience with said issue crave. Example (and I'm only using personal examples because they're the only instances in which I can actually talk about audience reactions with some authority): one of my plays includes a depiction of date rape, sort of similar to the one described in this post, where the guy gets to tell his side of the story and audience members disagree about whether it was date rape or just a failure to communicate, or both. Never have I had a rape survivor approach me afterward and say, "I was offended by your depiction of this situation," or that they felt disrespected or dehumanized by the fact that I tried to show both sides. Quite the contrary; I know from experience that these situations are often not cut-and-dry, and multiple people have expressed their relief to me that the complexity of the situation was portrayed, and that it matched their own experience.

    Yes, it can be disrespectful and dehumanizing to debate/dissect an experience, if you're ignoring the pain that someone felt as a result of said experience. I wouldn't, say, in the presence of a 9/11 survivor, say something like, "Well, WHY do you think terrorists crashed planes into our buildings? What do you think we, the US, can do to keep terrorists from doing that in the future?" Because that is definitely NOT compassionate to the survivor.

    Which brings me to your question: "Compassion for who?" Your question more specifically seems to be, "What about compassion for the people who've been hurt by the status quo?" and, yes, of course it is vital to give them our compassion, onstage and off. But, for me, the exploration of morality as a more complex issue than pure good vs. pure evil is what separates a riveting piece of theatre from, say, a Lifetime movie.

    Thanks for your comments, and I'd love to read Tulpa, or Anne&Me. Please feel free to send it to me (I'll DM you my email address on twitter).

  6. And Gwydion and Mike - thanks for chiming in! Mike, you're right, too many movies and TV shows are too binary, but I've seen some recently (Please Give, The Kids Are All Right - hmm, both female directors...) that are less clear-cut.

  7. @Mariah:

    I understand you better now, so I'm more inclined to agree.

  8. Mariah, first and foremost: you are an exceptional writer. Thank you for your seemingly effortless prose in communicating a complex idea and question.

    2nd: Please share your SEO secrets!

    3rd: In my opinion, Theatre of Compassion is a specific approach to theatre, an interpretive device that may be powerful if used by innovative directors of great plays. I do not think that the Theatre of Compassion can change the world.

    4th: I believe that theatre CAN change the world through its organizational model. It's what I'm working on in my book.

    I'm looking forward to meeting you in real life and becoming your conversation-partner about some of these ideas.

  9. Thank you so much, Ann! That means a lot to hear.

    2nd: my secret is not a complicated one, but it's not necessarily an easy one either: I thought of a phrase no one was using, and blogged about it. Honestly, that's it. The term "Theatre of Compassion" occurred to me and I thought, "I wonder if this is already a thing?" and Googled it and it wasn't a thing yet. So I made it one.

    3rd: On its own, maybe not. With other factors aligning in its favor, maybe so. It certainly has changed my life a couple times.

    4th: do tell! My curiosity is piqued!

    Looking forward to meeting you too! Thanks for chiming in. :-)