Developing Empathy and Character through Theatre
Sara Dunlap-Bogan, High School Theatre Teacher

At its core, theatre is about storytelling. Good storytelling requires empathy and a desire to understand another person’s point of view. Theatre students strive to portray a character that’s believable to an audience, but they must first understand that character.

Understanding a character starts with finding common ground – asking what does this character have in common with the actor? If the actor and character have a lot in common, it is typically easier to draw comparisons, creating a fully developed persona.

To understand a character, students must consider the time in which the person lived, along with societal expectations of the time, their family structure, their goals and their motivations. Oftentimes, a script does not provide all the information necessary to fully build a character. Students must then go beyond the text to analyze their character to make educated guess about the choices and behaviors of this person. Answering questions about a character’s backstory can give insight into their past, which shapes the person they are in the script.

This semester high school theatre students are working on a production of Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives. The play is a drama about young women in the 1920-30s who worked in factories painting watch faces with a radium compound so their watches would glow in the dark. These jobs were coveted opportunities for the women as it was “easy” work with good pay.

Over time though, it became clear that the radium was making the women sick though few doctors would acknowledge it, and the companies employing the women denied it. The young woman at the center of These Shining Lives spent years in court fighting for what she knew was right despite the enormous toll on her personal life.

This play has given students a glimpse into the lives of these women who came before us and dared to speak out against injustice. It has allowed students to discuss the benefits, sacrifices and risks of speaking out. These conversations have helped us draw parallels between the women in our play and whistleblowers today. It has also started important conversations about society’s differing expectations regarding family and gender roles in the workplace.

As a multi-grade level program, the after-school theatre program brings together students who might not otherwise know each other. In our group this semester, we have many freshmen and several juniors. The more experienced juniors naturally serve as leaders welcoming the freshmen and setting the tone for the group. The freshmen bring their contagious energy and enthusiasm to every activity. As students work together on a theatre production, they build relationships with each other and collaborate to better understand the story of These Shining Lives