Empathy, Theatre and Performance

By Samantha Mitschke

According to Carolyn J. Dean, the current contemporary understanding of ‘empathy’ – especially in a performative context – can be broadly rendered as the reliving of the past by identifying with the experiences of others (2004: 6). But what does it mean to ‘identify with the experiences’ of someone else? Thinking specifically about theatre, what does this mean for spectators when traumatic experiences are communicated on the stage? And what are the intricacies and ramifications involved?
In popular consciousness, ‘empathy’ is often used to mean a ‘deeper form of sympathy.’ In simple terms, ‘sympathy’ is a spontaneous emotional feeling of alliance with, or pity for, someone else, usually in the context of a sad event. ‘Empathy’ is an experiencing of similar emotion with someone else. This occurs spontaneously – for example, if one has undergone an equivalent event to what someone else is going through; and deliberately, through cognitive effort: an individual may not have experienced the same thing as someone else, but tries to imagine themselves in their place (Davis, 1996).

It is important to remember that the cognitive and emotional aspects of empathy vary within each individual and, even then, within every situation; however, both will always play a factor, whether in ‘real life’ or through art, including in the performance space. If we take the example of theatre, depending on the traumatic experience being communicated, there are varying likelihoods of spectators having directly undergone a similar experience, and this will have the most obvious impact on whether emotional or cognitive empathy is dominant in their emotional response. Instances might include racism, persecution, physical or mental abuse, sexual assault, physical violence, discrimination, gender-based violence, the loss of a loved one, mental health issues, and so on.

The necessarily “complex imaginative process involving both cognition and emotion” (Coplan, 2004: 143) means that we cannot expect all the spectators of a performance to experience exactly the same emotional reaction, and to exactly the same extent. As well as the differences in empathic engagement given above, a spectator’s natural empathic disposition will play a pivotal role. This is most clearly defined by Simon Baron-Cohen’s explanation of the “empathy bell curve.” Broadly speaking, the majority of the population fall within the middle segment, corresponding with medium or ‘ordinary’ ranges of empathy, while those in the lower range have ‘low’ levels of empathy (potentially leading to dissociation) and those in the upper range experience ‘high’ levels of empathy (possibly resulting in vicarious trauma) (2011: 13). Empathy can thus be seen to function in a similar way to some people being naturally-talented athletes, through to others having no athletic aptitude at all – although this is obviously based upon physical characteristics, as opposed to mental/emotional ones.

If we continue with the athletic metaphor, it is possible to see ‘empathy’ as a muscle that all humans are born with, and which needs to be ‘flexed’ and exercised in order to maintain and strengthen it. In this case, theatre can be seen to function as a sort of ‘empathic gym.’ Empathy can be exercised and maintained through witnessing a performance, but it can also be stretched and developed, depending on the ‘exercises’ being utilised – the experience(s) being communicated, and exposure to new experiences that are outside of what has previously been seen.


Baron-Cohen, Simon (2011) Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty. London: Penguin Books.

Coplan, Amy (2004) ‘Empathic Engagement with Narrative Fictions.’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 62 (2): 141-152.

Davis, Mark H. (1996) Empathy: A social psychological approach. Westview Press.

Dean, Carolyn J. (2004) The Fragility of Empathy After the Holocaust. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

%d bloggers like this: