Francis Tanglao-Aguas

Compassion and Theater

headshot of professor tanglao-aguas

Q: How does compassion relate to theater?

Storytelling works only because of compassion - whether its theater, film, poetry, or dance. Human beings go to these events to listen, observe, participate in stories, and to feel alive. To feel a connection to anaother through a story - whether its western or eastern, it is always about making a connection to a larger community. That connection relies on compassion. The audience becomes compassionate towards the characters.

When the play climaxes, we feel for the main character – that’s compassion. There’s also something called purgation. That’s still rooted in compassion. We purge emotions lingering in our body – whether it’s by laughter, tears, or fear. This is because, in theory, we wouldn’t want to be purged of these emotions by virtue of a real life tense situation. We don’t want drama in our daily lives; we want drama in the theater. How does that lead to compassion and wellness? When human beings specifically, purposefully subject themselves to tense situations that cause the purgation of these emotions that live in our bodies, they are in control of those emotions, making it a healthy experience.

The difference in theater compared to daily experience is that we chose to be there. People go to see movies and plays to cry. When they cry, they cry out of compassion for the characters in the movie. Theoretically, theater, storytelling, drama, poetry, dance, short story, reading all put the audience in the driver’s seat so the audience is making an effort to feel compassionate towards others. Viewers do their health a good service by putting themselves in situations where they can practice being compassionate towards fictional characters in drama.

Imagine that you go to an event that incites compassion from an audience. It's not the audience alone that benefits; imagine the people whose mission and ambition is to create such opportunities. As a performer, you know your job is to incite compassion in an audience. So that’s how its integrated.

Pedagogically speaking, it’s analysis of character. In a course I teach, Acting Asian American, I make it a point to get compassion involved. The students must leave the class knowing how theater, how being an actor, can help them when it manifests in their life. They are surrendering their bodies, their shyness to portray a character. Before they portray their character, they have to feel so compassionate towards that character and become that character. That’s compassion. In Acting Asian American my students are not all going to be Asians. That’s the point. At least in this class, it doesn’t matter what race you are because, for the purposes of the educational process, an African American man can portray a Japanese mother if he really wanted to. A non-member of a particular race or gender can portray that role in this class and before portraying the character, they have to do a dramaturgical research project which I call the actor’s dramaturgical community online report. For example, you’re not Russian but you are playing a Russian. What do you know about Russia? You can’t just memorize the lines. You have to know the history of these people. You have to find their age, you have to research their neighborhood, you have to find out what school they went to. We also research the author. Why did the author write this? This is a formalist approach – a Marxist approach. Formalist means: How does this whole thing work to move society? Because all art in Marxist theory is the result of the society it exists in, whether it prognosticates the future or revisits the past. Even fiction – that comes out of the zeitgeist. In order for you to portray any role, regardless of your race you have to know that zeitgeist – you have to research that world. This is another layer of compassion. Actors have to read, they have to watch, they have to google so their brain is filled with information about the play. The play that I continue to use is 12 1A. This is the bunker number for one of the bunkers in the southwest that was used to imprison Japanese Americans during World War II. So, imagine if you, a non-Japanese American, are now portraying a Japanese American. He’s the same age as you but he’s not only not European American, he’s Japanese – he’s Japanese American – he’s Japanese American during World War II. You can’t portray him even if you share the same age. Connecting with the character is an act of compassion. You find what you share, then you go deeper. What was he going through? What did it feel like when he heard what would happen to him? That’s all compassion. And then, after you have the intellectual research, you have to speak their words. Those personal things – what are they willing to fight for? Do they give up? How do they fight or give up? Those things are not dictated in the script. A combination of the intellectual research with the psychological and dramaturgical analysis of the script takes you to a level of sharing that requires compassion. That spirit can now live in you.

Q: Do actors need to be compassionate?

Yes - and it’s not just compassion. It’s generosity. You have to give up your body and your way of thinking. So, in fact, you also surrender yourself and let that consciousness in. This is an extreme act of generosity the actor must perform.

Is the process you describe one that actors use in their performances you oversee?

Yes – they will make comments like, “I don’t get this person yet, I need to learn more.” Acting is not just about emotions. Emotions happen because you’re trying to do something. Emotions happen as you climb the mountain. Before you feel the pain of your muscles you have to keep walking up. You will cry because of the pain of climbing up the mountain. In this way, the emotion is a byproduct of the action. That’s what we teach our actors. Even the designers have to do the same intellectual research. They know what is needed to make that compassionate moment happen. Props and the colors they choose play into this.This was important for the Laramie Project. They asked themselves: how are we going to seat the audience so that this compassionate moment can happen? So the whole time they’re thinking as if they are the audience.

Q: Was that the reason audience members were seated on stage?

Yes, the audience, because of their perspective, knew what it was like to be on stage with the actors even if they were never going to be in a play.

Q: Does this process vary across different types of theater?

In theater of the oppressed, actors have to commune with the oppressed citizens to the point that those oppressed citizens do not tell their stories to the actors; instead, those people should be in the story telling their own story. They tell their story for the purpose of gaining compassion from the audience.

For some stories, it’s hard to imagine the experience of a character. In Brechtian theater of the oppressed, or theater geared towards social action, stories are told of the common man. This theater incorporates working class people. Compassion can be easier to incite in this form of theater. The audience should also be incited to some sort of social action, or at least engagement. Now, going to see the performing arts is more than an escape because feeling compassion is rooted in deep empathy leading to a desire to do something. That is the key to compassion in how I teach.