An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Isobel W. '18

After the RENT production took place this January, I began thinking more about the tough issues as portrayed in theater and how plays can spark empathy from both the audience and the cast toward these issues.

Starting with casting, according to drama teacher and director Michael “Micky” Place, “We seek productions that both represent the diversity of the student body and also strike an energetic cohesion between actor and text. Casting is in service to these priorities and is certainly one of the many subjective parts of the process of creating a resonant narrative.”

In the faculty survey, some teachers spoke to the fact that all students, regardless of their identity, should have a role to play. Audience members hope to see characters they can relate to onstage, and many poll respondents concur that theater productions should reflect the diversity of Lakeside.

On the other hand, when playing characters of extremely different backgrounds from one’s own, there is definitely the risk of that an actor may struggle with the feeling of overstepping boundaries. For example, RENT includes many characters (my own role included) who struggle with homelessness, poverty, and addiction. I’ve never experienced anything close to these issues—and at first, I worried that such a role would feel disrespectful to the people who currently face these problems.

As our production began, however, I didn’t feel like I was simply appropriating junkie culture or turning a blind eye toward these major issues. Instead, I was gaining a greater sense of empathy for both the characters in RENT and people experiencing addiction in real life. On the topic of building respect towards the issues that theater often portrays, Micky eloquently states,

“Spending dedicated time authentically imagining what the circumstances of another human being are and then combining those ideas with your own experiences, vulnerabilities, objectives, and desires, makes it quite difficult to disrespect a role you are inhabiting. When a character is in a challenging, less personally familiar, situation, research, lived experience, thoughtfulness, and social context all play a role in how we understand what it is we are actually engaging in and what the impact of that portrayal is. You become the biggest advocate for your character, and actors often engage socially in issues that they come to care deeply about through their work.” I and other cast members found that researching New York City, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the impact of addiction aided us in empathizing with out characters. This process is especially important when portraying historical events or issues very pertinent today.

In terms of censorship (or lack of it) in theater, Ms. Fisch states, “I think that flexible thinking about what a community needs is great, I think censoring certain genres, shows, authors, etc. to keep people from feeling uncomfortable is not particularly productive. It doesn’t make us a better community. Having said that, however, we have to be thoughtful about the context we give and scaffolding we do if the intent is to engage in specific conversations.” Censoring a production because the issues featured in it are difficult to talk about as a community prevents learning opportunities, for both the actors and the audience. More than one teacher in the faculty survey spoke to their belief that it is appropriate to censor plays that contain excessive violence and profanity—topics you might not want your grandparents to see at a Lakeside production. There is a distinct line between censoring unnecessary content and censoring major issues or topics for fear of discussing them, however. If we had censored every single issue in RENT that may be difficult to talk about, the play would be a completely different, G-rated story—and the cast couldn’t have felt the same level of empathy for the characters they played.

Finally, on the topic of theater as a medium to start social conversation, Micky writes, “In a time in which our most convenient means for communication may be resulting in less human empathy, live story-telling remains a medium in which you are asked to engage with people as they face challenges, take risks, and experience massive, high-stakes change as they strive to take the next step in their lives (most plays are about that, anyway). People can relate to that pursuit, regardless of where you are from or what you believe in, and it can build a bridge that can lead to social change.”

It is critical for us as students, citizens, and world-changers to view live theater in order to best understand those with different (or even similar) backgrounds from us. We can even gain a more nuanced view of historical events through theater. Whether a play is comedic and lighthearted or focuses on challenges and strife, it is crucial for us all to view drama productions to gain a larger understanding of all types of people.