Inside USD

Cultivating Empathy Critical for Changemakers

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Chances are good that if you’d opened the door to Salomon Hall on Tuesday afternoon, the initial reaction could have been bewilderment. The visual was a group of students walking around rather aimlessly, a bit zombie-like, with index cards strewn across the floor. When the sound of a gong occurred, individuals dropped to the ground and immediately embodied the word scribbled on the card in front of them — glad, sad, mad, ashamed, surprised, afraid, hurt and loving — in a “huge” fashion, as Glaser instructed. When the gong sounded again, students got up, moved to another card with a different word, and the process was repeated.

While from the outside it seemed a bit unorthodox, Terry Glaser, an adjunct assistant professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies at the University of San Diego, used some actor-training techniques to condition students to cultivate the attribute of empathy.

“Empathy is the ability to identify with another’s feelings,” Glaser told those who attended this Changemaker Fest event. “Our focus on empathy helps to unite us all, not divide us.”

Glaser quoted Mary Gordon, author of The Roots of Empathy, about the future and the importance of this skill. “The illiterate of the next generation will not be those who don’t know how to read, but rather those who don’t know how to relate.”

Empathy and a person’s natural ability to display and understand a well of emotions is important for all Changemakers. To have the desire and to passionately change the world — big or small — requires a strong inner confidence and the ability to express it. Emotional experiences, which covers a wide range, are a given when doing change-making work.

“Being a Changemaker is not just for a day or a week, it’s for the long haul. It’s a way to let your soul speak out, a way to create a better world,” Glaser said. “This takes courage. Every day in the classroom, I create a safe space where students learn the skills that will allow them to go fearlessly into the future they imagine.”

Glaser utilized the techniques in a few individual and team exercises that turned this particular group of students, most of whom were strangers when they entered Salomon Hall, into a cohesive unit when they left the two-hour event.

She employed an exercise called “the psychological gesture,” by Michael Chekhov. Glaser described it as showing the physical expression of a character’s soul. Students were asked to quickly develop a character to tell a brief, three-part, non-verbal story. Glaser demonstrated this by depicting a person being bound in chains who punches their way out before exalting with arms raised in victory for overcoming this struggle. She repeated it a few times and her intensity grew along with the visual impact.

She had students work on their respective character and a few shared their impromptu creation. Glaser then had students pair off and exchange what they created. Both students performed their finished product for the rest of the group. She gathered the group for a sit-down circle and had them share what they learned, what they saw, felt, and how they processed the exercise. The dialogue in the reflections was often equal to the physical exercises — it was vibrant.

“How fun it was when we were put together with a partner,” said one student. “Doing it alone, I was bored. But working with someone else made it better for me and showed that what I really do need is that connection with others.”

Students, including a business major, expressed a sense of personal growth and confidence by not worrying about what others saw and that he felt free to act out his character. Some students were so impressed by another’s character that they wanted to mimic it more than their own. A few worked so well together that it was likened to “having a conversation.”

Sammy Bauman-Martin, a junior Theatre Arts major and Spanish minor, said participating in Glaser’s exercises wasn’t a new concept. She’d had a previous theater class with Glaser and understood the outcome.  But, when asked to link the event to becoming a Changemaker, her response demonstrated a change in perception.

“There are a lot of different people on this campus and, sometimes, we might have preconceptions about what others might be like, but until you actually get to see people express their raw emotions, that’s when you really get a chance to understand who they are, why they do things and do them differently.”

Cultivating empathy through these exercises was an opportunity for each participant to realize they can make a difference.

“Each person has the power to change the world; even small change has the potential to send out enormous ripples,” Glaser said. “I see a big part of my job as an educator as doing everything I can to help my students believe in their own power and to find the self-confidence to act on their convictions. I’m as passionate about this as I am about theater. And, really, I don’t see any difference. Theater is not for the faint-hearted, and neither is life. My title says I teach theater, but I believe that, ultimately, what I’m really teaching is lessons for life.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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