Sacred Arts: Session Seventeen – Theater and the Art of Empathy

Email to Participants

Our next session is on [date]. Actor Natalie Portman (Black Swan, Closer, Star Wars Episodes 1-3) once said in an interview, “An actor’s job is empathy.” We relate to characters in a film, television show, or play in part because a good actor doesn’t just deliver their lines well and stand in the right place, they strive to understand the person they’re playing, strive to understand human nature—in all its dizzying prismatic splendor.

As we explore the art of theater, we will also explore how acting, being part of a theatrical production,and even watching actors on the stage help us build empathy, which is crucial to our care for one another and our work for justice in the world.

Readings and Videos


  • If you are unable to go see a piece of theater between now and then, there is a wonderful staged version of Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare on YouTube: watch Part One • watch Part Two
  • Engage and encounter a piece of art in this week’s type – remember to follow the process:
    • Observe in silence. Look with your heart, mind, body
    • Initial impressions. Note what you have observed.
    • Learning: learn about the art – who made it, when, why, the style/school, etc.
    • Sharing: reflect in your journal on the impact, meaning, and connections you are making with this piece of art.

Questions for Reflection

  • Rev. Rebekah Savage asks us to heal our own heart to be better able to be present to the pain of others. What vulnerabilities do you feel you need to work through? What keeps you silent in the face of human pain?
  • Mirror neurons connect people emotionally, but can they also connect you to your spiritual life?
  • Russell ends his TEDx talk with “theater helps us do the work that needs to be done.” Have you had either a private or a “public now” moment in a theater that led you to make a change that was needed? If it was public, did having the empathetic experience with others impact the experience?
  • At the end of Lin’s essay you are asked: “Where in your life do you find your deepest sense of belonging?” As you respond, reflect on what role empathy plays in becoming part of a community.

As a Reminder

Our shared observation during our last session were the hymns we sang together. Did you learn a new one? What was your favorite?

I look forward to being with you!

In faith,

Session Plan

Gathering (5 minutes)

Note for Facilitators:

Allow for some chatter, settling in, and other busy-ness;be gentle but firm as you call people in to listen to the reading and check in.

Chalice Lighting, Opening Reading, and Check In (25 minutes)

Our opening “reading” is the song “I Need You To Survive” by Hezekiah Walker; multiple options are available (the original is here:, but know that many versions run over seven minutes. One option is to play the song as performed at our Service of the Living Tradition in 2016 (1:20:35 to 1:26:20):

What are you carrying in your heart tonight? How is your spiritual practice going?  Your work with your spiritual director? Do you have anything to share from your creative work- either something you’ve observed or something you’re working on?

Covenant Review (2-5 minutes)

Note to Facilitators:

Use whatever process your group has established to stay current with the covenant, including reading it out loud together at each session.

Is there anything about the covenant that we should address?

Exercise (5-10 minutes)

Hand out index cards or slips of paper and ask each person to write something general that makes them anxious or frightened, such as “loss of a loved one,” “concerns meeting expectations at work,” etc. Tell them we will be putting the cards in a hat (or bag, basket, or box) and each of us will draw out a card and act out the feeling of what is on it. Tell them we will pause after each event is performed to hold space for the emotion evoked.

The goal of this activity is to recognize that we often say we are doing just fine when we are holding great fears and vulnerabilities. Remind participants that groups such as ours are meant to be brave spaces where we can hold one another’s vulnerabilities. Ask whether this exercise shed light on the capacity for empathy within the group.

Shared Observation (30 minutes):

Note to Facilitators:
It is okay to show the title and identifiers of this observation, because what is intriguing is not the artist or the name/location of this piece; rather, it is what this piece does to us, how we react to it, how we answer the piece’s titular question, “What Is Theatre Capable Of?” You’ll note that there are different and additional questions.

Also note that this is longer than most of our observations, nearly 10 minutes.

Today, we’ll look at this piece of theater disguised as a TEDx talk and engage it with our four steps:

  • Observe in silence. Look with your heart, mind, body. (10 minutes)
    (play the clip )
  • Now, I invite your initial impressions: what did you observe? (5 minutes)
  • We already know that it is a TEDx talk, done in Sydney, Australia. It was created by Australian theatre director Simon Stone, who used his time on stage to deconstruct some of the common visual and audio tricks of modern theatre. This was a one-time performance, utilizing a cast of first-time volunteer actors recruited in the days prior to TEDxSydney 2011 and rehearsed just once, the night before the event.
  • I invite your reflections on the impact, meaning, and connections you are making to our concept of empathy. Would anyone like to share a thought or two?
  • Stone titled this piece “What is Theatre Capable Of?” – how would you answer that question?

Reflections (30 min):

Note to Facilitators:

Invite participants to choose the prework observation, reading, or reflection question that most intrigued them. (Participants often reflect that the readings inform their observations and experiences but don’t necessarily lead them into deeper discussion; often, they set the stage for the individual and shared observations or their own creativity.)

  • In the prework, you were asked to see a play. What did you see? What did you observe? How do you connect with the show?
  • How do you connect with this art form? Are you a practitioner, spectator, first timer? How does that affect your approach to this art?
  • You have been invited by both Montgomery and Russell to look first to yourself before you try to transform the world. How might theater help you do this?
  • Turning to the reading, what moved you or piqued your interest?
  • Was there a moment of “public now” when the audience seemed to grasp the same idea at the same time? What was that like?

So What? (10 minutes)

How does this reflection relate to your spiritual journey? Your creative work? What are you inspired or challenged to do next?

Gratitude and Closing (5 minutes)

As you prepare to pack up and clean up, each person, as moved, says one or two words about something from this session for which they are grateful or how they are feeling in this moment. After everyone has said a word, close with a brief statement of thanks and appreciation, and clean up art supplies as needed.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>