Arts Education: Empathy as a Tool for Global Unity

Featured Image: Actors at the Ubumuntu Arts Festival (taken from the The New York Times)


By Maya Vaknin


[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e walk apprehensively. My hand grips the hand of someone unfamiliar, someone whose name I’d only just learned. My eyes are shut, and besides, the hallway is dark except for the glow of a single flashlight leading the way. Up ahead, the person in front of me jolts to a stop. I stop too, keeping my eyes shut. I wait for the signal, heart pounding, ears warm. There’s hushing and fidgeting before me. This is not what I envisioned my first day of high school to be like.

“Please rise and welcome the Drama Class of 2018!” A roaring applause overtakes the room as I open my eyes. The lights rise to illuminate us: eighteen freshmen standing in a line on the auditorium stage. In the audience, yelping and wooing comes from over a hundred bright eyed students––sophomore, junior, and senior drama majors––welcoming us. My first memory from high school is also my most treasured. This was the moment I officially became a drama major at the Professional Performing Arts School.

“Art is this incredible vehicle for getting people to think deeply about human experience,” said Keith Ryan, the principal of the Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS), which is located in the heart of midtown Manhattan. “Here, we use the arts as a lens for giving people insight into different types of ideas and perceptions. Through acting as a character, through the nature of ensemble in performance, and as audience members––the arts curriculum invites people into a discussion about empathy and human experience.”

Attending any New York City Public School is an adventure in itself. Attending a public performing arts high school, though, is an unrivaled experience. Going into PPAS, I thought my life would be split in two: academics on the one hand and performing arts on the other. Every morning I had academic classes from 8:15 until, come 1:15 pm, the hallway would fill with students practicing solos and memorizing lines––twirling and leaping to the afternoon’s performing arts classes. I quickly learned, however, that the structural distinction in my schedule existed in spite of the realization that academic learning and arts education cannot effectively exist without one another. In fact, an arts curriculum sufficiently enriches conventional academic learning.


Entrance to the Professional Performing Arts School.


In the classroom, for instance, students were encouraged to use their “gifts” to help them connect emotionally to the academic content. Violet Prete, a current senior at PPAS, has been attending the school since 6th grade. She said that the dual curriculum has helped deepen collaboration with her peers, not only as a fellow student, but as a fellow artist. Whether focusing on acting, vocal, or dance, students spend an exponentially greater amount of time together in rehearsals alone compared to students at typical public schools.

Principal Ryan has taught academic classes at three schools over the course of thirteen years. He acknowledges that an arts education is not and should not be the only way to teach core values, since the arts do not necessarily engage every student’s interests. Despite this, he emphasizes that the arts especially have the ability to shape leadership, citizenship, and communication skills––but that the concrete impact is not quantifiable.

On the other hand, Heather Lanza, the director of Waterwell––an NYC-based drama company that also runs the PPAS drama curriculum––does not believe that the benefits of an arts education are difficult to measure.

She described empathy not as a “checkbox” that one can satisfy, but as a muscle that can be exercised through constant practice and reflection. How does an arts education help students work this muscle? Ms. Lanza said it is twofold: one, in the act of seeing a performance, and two, in playing a character. Just going to the theatre is a test of empathy, and an actor’s training likewise tests the boundaries of understanding oneself as well as others, which in turn enables students to humanize people who might be different from them. It is this principle of “humanization” that is perhaps the most fundamental––and revolutionary––aspect of teaching and learning the arts.

“There are studies that arts training allows for higher critical thinking skills that aid students in their academic learning. But so much of arts education consists of drop-in programming. We’re really lucky at PPAS to have a four year scaffolded curriculum with the same teaching artists, with a consistent program––of course, drop-in programming is better than nothing, but a one-time workshop won’t make any sort of seismic shift in a young person’s life, or a cultural shift in a community.”

We often forget empathy in the classroom. People feel things––or don’t feel things––and that often determines the course of history itself. So often, too, did something I read for theatre connect to a conversation had in English or Humanities; or did something I learn in Voice & Speech connect to a principle covered in Biology. The dual curriculum allowed me to sew this thread of connection, linking seemingly unrelated concepts to form a more complex understanding. Ms. Lanza agrees that in a purely academic environment, standardized education tends to encourage “right” answers, as opposed to meaningful reflection and critical analysis.

“An academic curriculum is essential––but there is an urgency right now in the need to raise empathetic young adults who can make choices in the world.”

Ms. Lanza attributes the callous and self-serving actions of people in positions of power to this lack of empathy––and she is not the only one. After the 1994 Rwandan Genocide––a mass slaughter of the Tutsi ethnic minority directed by the Hutu majority government––the country implemented the National Unity and Reconciliation Commision with the aim of fostering tolerance and a culture of peace and human rights. To this end, the newly elected democratic government famously mandated theatre education in every primary and secondary school. They recognized drama as a way to increase empathy, making it more difficult to ever dehumanize another person enough to have another genocide. Drama as discussed in Western tradition, however, is not necessarily a part of Rwandan artistic tradition. For this reason, the government initiated various drama education training programs, training teachers to be able to work as drama educators.  

In 2013, Ms. Lanza went to Rwanda as part of a partnership between the City University of New York and Rwanda’s Kigali Institute to help instruct these teachers. She describes the excitement and commitment of the teachers, and the hope that this model would make a real difference.


Map of Rwanda.


According to their website, “Project Rwanda” aims to “develop the use of theatre and drama strategies as educational tools to help promote unity and reconciliation among Rwandans, and to create job opportunities in Rwanda by building applied theatre troops.” Ms. Lanza describes the way in which the program utilized group devising, as well as another international model of applied theatre: Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.

The main concept of Theatre of the Oppressed is a conception of theatre as a “rehearsal for the revolution.” In his “Poetics of the Oppressed,” Boal anecdotes the implementation of this mode of theatre in a barrio in Lima, Peru. These anecdotes range from detailing small-scale problem solving to massive instances of change. On the smaller scale, Boal describes a woman unsure of what to do about a scandal regarding her husband. Acting out the dilemma onstage, her fellow audience members could then step in and suggest solutions to her problem. A lively competition of ideas ensued, until finally a realistic and satisfactory approach was settled upon. As a result, the action “ceases to be presented in a deterministic manner, as something inevitable, as fate.”  

Another young woman in Lima, Peru was asked to explain in a tableaux what her hometown was like. As it turned out, her hometown was in the midst of political turmoil. The image she arranged was a rather defeatist one, of an actual castration that had taken place. Then, she was asked to arrange the image into an “ideal” outcome. The trick comes with the third step, when the woman is asked to get from the first image, the reality, to the second image, the ideal. The purpose of this activity is to envision a concrete outcome––an agreed upon end goal––and then determine realistic, feasible ways to get there. This is the mode of theatre that drama educators-in-training sought to implement in Rwandan schools, for it explicitly places an emphasis on community problem solving, feasible solutions, and literally stepping into the shoes of another person.

Unfortunately, allotted funding does not necessarily create enough jobs for the newly trained drama teachers. There is a stark divide, said Ms. Lanza, between the implementation of the mandate in rural areas as opposed to in the Kigali city. She claimed that the biggest issue internationally is that people do not value the arts as more than an extracurricular: “There is no money for it because it is completely invalued. People are not thinking this is important enough to literally put their money where their mouth is.”


Augusto Boal presenting his Theatre of The Oppressed at Riverside Church in New York City.


That’s not to say the efforts should stop. The national push for arts education as a form of societal rehabilitation establishes Rwanda as an example in the international community. Since the genocide, Rwanda has also started the Ubumuntu arts festival, whose tagline––“created for the sake of humanity”––speaks to the potential of the arts to incite positive change. Ubumuntu translates to “Being Human” and was first held in 2015 following the last week of the 100 days commemoration of the genocide.

“The fact that they are recognizing something not necessarily a part of their own history as something that can do that, that can teach empathy; that can stand to prevent another genocide from ever happening again; and that they found it important enough to supply all this funding and remodel the school system––it’s remarkable,” Ms. Lanza said.

Rwanda emerged from the darkness of genocide looking to the arts as a beacon of hope. If people could learn to see one another as just that—people—then perhaps the world would be a more compassionate, tolerant, and unified place. A place where neighbors do not harm one another and where students dance and sing in the hallways. A place where fears are calmed by cheers and promises of love and support.

I often think back to the significance of that first day at PPAS, my own 9th-grade fears like a cacophony in my head. I had never before known the community of love and support that I was about to step into. I came from the the uncertainty and apprehension stirring in the darkness of the stage, not at all anticipating the comfort and community that awaited me––if only I’d opened my eyes.

I see now that this is empathy. It is replacing fear and uncertainty with a calm sense of knowing. It is holding someone’s hand in the dark and stepping together into the light. It is a coming into the world—shifting to a place of understanding that we are all one, united as human beings.


Maya Vaknin is a first-year in Trumbull College. You can contact her at