Theater As The Future of Empathy in Northern Ireland

Marion Cassidy (COL ’23) is a senior History major and Art History minor. She served as a 2021-22 GIS Fellow.

“If I’m one of the people who want peace, and I am, then I need to be prepared to meet these people…but in terms of justice, things are still up in the air.”

This quote is from a woman named Katherine, a participant in a theatrical production titled I Once Knew A Girl about women’s experiences during the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland. Katherine is just one contributor to Theater of Witness, a theatrical performance initiative that invites people to share their stories of suffering in order to bring them together to heal and reconcile. Her quote raises interesting questions: Is reconciliation possible after traumatizing conflict? How do people find peace after experiencing trauma? How can one experience justice after experiencing trauma and conflict?

Many people may think of live theater as a form of entertainment, in which they can sit back, relax, and enjoy a show. However, theater-makers are increasingly using the form of live theater not only to make political and social statements, but to create empathy. 

In Your Shoes program logo, white text on Georgetown blue and gray background

Theater of Witness’s work, with the broader goal of using performance to create understanding and empathy, is similar to what I have witnessed and participated in through the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics project, “In Your Shoes”. The “In Your Shoes” methodology consists of two people sitting down and having a half hour conversation about a topic, such as home or identity. Then, they each find a one minute section of the other person’s dialogue and transcribe it verbatim into a monologue to perform in front of the rest of the group. The idea is simple: inhabiting the life your partner through acting gives you the experience of what it is like to be in their shoes, thereby creating empathy towards them. 

I have been lucky enough to experience the profound impact of this work. I first participated in “In Your Shoes” on Zoom during the Covid-19 pandemic, and after a year of being a university student at home, it was the first time I truly felt connected to other people outside of the family I was quarantined with. Having the space to share and listen to others who wanted to connect and understand my experiences, when we were all collectively experiencing isolation and fear of the unknown, gave me hope that the future would be better. I was able to find commonalities, and more importantly friendship, with other participants even when we had different social views and lived experiences. Using my knowledge of creating empathy through theater, I looked at the work of the Theater of Witness organization as a case study in examining how and if theatrical arts can create empathy and understanding between large groups of people who have experienced traumatic conflict: in this case, The Troubles. 

Founded by Teya Sepinuck and supported by a Peace IV Grant from the European Union–a collection of grants given from the EU to lead peacemaking efforts and create shared public spaces in Northern Ireland from 2007-2013–Theater of Witness collected stories of peoples’ experiences in The Troubles and created multiple theater shows from their testimonies. The shows were devised by the participants over a span of several months and culminated in people sharing stories from their lives onstage. While all of the participants have different stories, they all share the desire to participate and engage with empathy theater. Their willingness to be honest and generous about their trauma is how empathy can facilitate genuine understanding. 

This work is not for everybody, and that’s okay. Although performance can be a space for someone to express their feelings, serving as a means of catharsis, it is also important to ensure participants are safe and mentally healthy while performing. The goal is not to re-traumatize survivors by having them bear the weight of conflict or mentally exhaust themselves. Thus, a limitation of theatrical productions can be finding people with the capacity and time to participate in them.  

One way to make empathy theater more accessible to those who may want to participate, but not share their experiences publicly, is by hosting workshops that individuals can participate in. As of December 2021, Theater of Witness offered free workshops for people in Northern Ireland to engage with their methodology. Additional research shows similar theater workshop initiatives have been undertaken with inmates in Northern Irish prisons as well as with university students. However, these workshops can only have so many participants. While they still give individuals the chance to become more empathetic towards one another, they do not necessarily create empathy and understanding for large groups.

This begs the question, how can empathy-creating theater have an effect, not just on the individual micro level, but on a macro level too?

Perhaps, in addition to making the theater empathy methodology accessible to many people, an alternative goal should be focusing on creating large audiences for this work in Northern Ireland. Research has shown that when audiences watch live theatrical performances, they become more empathetic towards the group and identities depicted in the performance. The study even revealed that audience members of a play become more supportive of its social issues/movements, and may even donate money to charities related to the content of the show after they watch it. Live theater is clearly more than entertainment. It can leave a real lasting influence on the lives of those in the audience. 

Creating opportunities for people to watch theater productions, particularly empathy theater about The Troubles, maybe a more realistic way of using theater to bolster understanding and empathy among people in Northern Ireland.

Listening to diverse stories, by participating in empathy theater or watching it, does have the ability to change people. One anonymous participant and audience member of Theater of Witness reflected, “I am so grateful for the generosity of all the speakers for making this their life’s mission. They are changing our wee corner of the world.” These stories give people a glimpse of their peers’ turmoil and grief, allowing opposing groups to humanize one another. Theater work truly is and can continue to be a powerful way of creating empathy amongst people in Northern Ireland, both now and in the future.