While some theatres are beginning to open this fall, much of the world has spent a year and a half without live theatre because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many theatre artists are currently unemployed, and without funding, some theatres will struggle to survive past the pandemic.

Why do we need live theatre? Many artists suggest that theatre can improve empathy for those who are different from ourselves, but until recently, there has been little research on the psychology of attending live shows. This is surprising, since theatre has been a major part of our lives both recently and throughout history. For example, before the pandemic, according to Americans for the Arts, about 44 million Americans attended non-profit theatres in the United States each year.

My colleagues and I set out to investigate the effects of attending live theatre.

We collaborated with two theatre companies—the Public Theatre in New York and Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon—to measure the effects of attending three different plays: Skeleton Crew, written by Dominque Morisseau, Wolf Play by Hansol Jung, and the Pulitzer-Prize winning play Sweat by Lynn Nottage. These plays covered different themes that could be expected to evoke concern about social issues: Skeleton Crew was about auto workers in Detroit after the 2008 financial crisis, Wolf Play was about a same-sex couple trying to adopt a child, and Sweat was about working-class factory workers in Detroit.

We surveyed over 1,600 audience members either immediately before or immediately after watching these plays (alternating every other night). In these surveys, we asked about their empathy toward groups depicted in the plays. Specifically, we asked about their ability to take the perspective of groups in the shows, as well as how much they felt concern and compassion for groups in the shows—both of which are considered to be components of the umbrella term “empathy.” Additionally, we asked people about their beliefs about political issues related to the plays—such as income inequality for Skeleton Crew, or attitudes about same-sex parents for Wolf Play.

We also measured whether these plays increased charitable donations. We entered all participants in a lottery to receive a gift card, but also gave participants the opportunity to donate a proportion of this reward to a charity related to the play, as well as a charity unrelated to the play.

After—as opposed to before—seeing the plays, audience members reported feeling more empathy toward the groups of people depicted in them—in other words, they felt like they could take the perspective of groups of people in the play and felt more compassion for them. Additionally, audience members after the show reported more concern for socio-political issues related to the themes of the play. Seeing theatre also led the post-show group to donate more to charity as compared to the pre-show group—whether or not the charity was related to the themes in the play. That is intriguing, because it means theatre may increase generous behavior about issues unrelated to the specific themes explored in the play they just saw.

These effects correlated with how “transported” people felt by the plays. In other words, people who felt more “immersed” or “lost” in the narrative of the plays reported higher levels of empathy, agreement with attitudes related to the show, and donated more to charity.

Given the tens of millions of people who see theatre across the globe every year, we believe that even a small increase in empathy and generosity among theatre-goers can make a sizable impact in creating a more compassionate society.

Our findings build on past research about the effects of other art forms. For instance, other studies show that taking acting classes or reading works of fiction can improve empathy.

Since we published these studies, we have been delighted by the positive responses that we have received from the theatre community. For instance, we recently held an online conversation with Hamilton star Phillipa Soo discussing this study, as well as theatre and empathy more broadly. Many theatre artists believe that the work they do has important social impact, and we hope our study helps demonstrate that impact.

In a time when theatre is struggling, and when arts funding or arts programs in schools are being threatened, it is necessary to provide scientific evidence on the benefits of the arts. While arts funding is often perceived as a luxury, our studies point to the tangible benefits of art forms like live theatre. We hope studies like ours will inspire future collaborations between artists and scientists to understand the role of the arts in society.

For Further Reading

Rathje, S., Hackel, L., & Zaki, J. (2021). Attending live theatre improves empathy, changes attitudes, and leads to pro-social behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2021.104138

Goldstein, T. R., & Winner, E. (2012). Enhancing empathy and theory of mind. Journal of Cognition and Development13(1), 19-37. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/15248372.2011.573514

Dodell-Feder, D., & Tamir, D. I. (2018). Fiction reading has a small positive impact on social   cognition: A meta-analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(11),          1713-1727. doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000395

Steve Rathje is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, where he studies as a Gates scholar. He has published studies on topics such as the arts, social media, and polarization. You can follow him on Twitter @steverathje2.