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?