In the past few weeks I have spontaneously encountered several posts, blogs and articles that have focussed, in their own way, and often without explicitly aiming to, on the significance of empathy in shaping and enhancing the audience experience. The first was an article about the importance of encouraging boys to read more in order to develop their empathetic skills by identifying with fictional characters. The rationale, in a nutshell, was that children, and in particular boys, are not only playing less regularly with other children (and thereby missing out on playing out different roles and empathising with a diverse range of characters), but that they are also reading less. The cumulative effect of this shift in how children spend their leisure time, it was argued, is that children are becoming less and less empathetic. A counter-argument to this is the view I encountered in a blog post which claimed that the wonderful world of video gaming is actually enhancing young people’s empathetic skills and awareness.
It’s been hard in the past few weeks to escape from both pundit and professional reviews of Kate Bush’s long awaited return to live performance. A recent post on her fan page provided a particularly intimate account of the gig. It was written by a fan who had been lucky enough to secure a front row seat. The fan described in some visceral detail the unforgettable experience of hearing Kate breathe, of seeing her sip water in the wings and even of hearing her panting between the songs. As someone who has been accidentally spat on by Jodhi May while absorbed in her performance as Una in David Harrower’s Blackbird from a front row seat at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre, I readily identified with this privileged proximity, which affords a rare insight into the physical processes involved in artistry-in-action.
In this bright new age of live streaming and digital archiving, it could well be argued that technology is somehow democratising the kind of empathy facilitated through close proximity. A recent Nesta report found that audiences who watched a National Theatre live streamed performance reported higher levels of emotional engagement than audiences who saw the same performances live. Having recently watched a few RSC performances live-streamed from Stratford-on-Avon to Leeds, I can readily identify with the emotional benefits provided by the close-ups, not just of actors but of captivated audience members too, and I enjoy the sense of vicarious buzz generated by live recordings of the auditorium before and during a performance.
As an audience researcher, I have often been struck by theatre-goers’ fascination with actors. My conversations with audience members have taught me that many theatre-goers are motivated to attend performances to develop their world views by being encouraged to empathise with stage characters and put themselves in their shoes. At the extreme end of the audience engagement spectrum, some audience members have told me about going on “pilgrimages” to the West End and Broadway to see famous actors on stage, hopefully catch a glimpse of them at stage door afterwards, and ideally even engage them in conversation and collect their autographs for posterity.
Matthew Reason’s work with dance audiences illustrates how many audience members engage in processes of “emotional and kinaesthetic empathy”, which lead them to “invest sympathy” in characters and experience performances “with their whole bodies”. Another audience researcher, Stephanie Pitts, has conducted some fascinating research into empathy by engaging with audiences of a chamber music festival at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. Stephanie’s work uncovers the positive impact created through empathetic engagement – for example with musicians who stand up before a performance to introduce one of their favourite pieces of music.
The qualitative studies of audience researchers like Matthew, Stephanie and myself are complemented by some seminal quantitative studies, which also provide strong indications of the powerful role of empathy in delivering a positive audience response. One such study by Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak demonstrated that the emotional resonance of a performance was strongly dependent on empathy and highly correlated with spiritual value. Surveys with American audiences clearly revealed empathy to be a strong indicator of intrinsic impact, with empathy helping audiences to recall performances they had enjoyed up to 40 years earlier.
I am currently working with Yorkshire Dance and Breakfast Creatives to explore to what extent (if at all) technology might be able to deepen and/or enhance audiences’ empathy with dance artists. Over the past year, we have been developing a new, responsive online platform that is heavily inspired by Liz Lerman’s renowned Creative Response Process. The aim of the platform is to use technology to bring new and existing dance audiences into closer proximity with dance artists by sharing film clips of their works-in-progress and inviting regular feedback; and by facilitating live chat sessions, which might explore the signs, symbols, inspirations and meanings behind the developing pieces. One underlying objective of this is to explore whether a prolonged and multifaceted exposure to artists can increase audiences’ empathy, which in turn might break down some of the traditional barriers to engagement with contemporary dance (e.g. perceived inaccessibility) and enhance the existing experience for more regular attenders. Only time will tell… and we’re finally getting very close to finding out, with our public launch taking place on 17th September. Watch this space!
Dr Ben Walmsley, Lecturer in Creativity & Collaboration
 Reason, M. 2010. Asking the audience: audience research and the experience of theatre. About Performance, Issue 10, p.19.
 Pitts, S.E. 2005. What makes an audience? Investigating the roles and experiences of listeners at a chamber music festival. Music and Letters, Vol. 86, no. 2, pp. 257-269
 Brown, A.S. and Novak, J.L. 2007. Assessing the intrinsic impacts of a live performance. WolfBrown, San Francisco.