Creating theatre, shaping people – cognition, emotion and empathy in drama practice

Mrs Katrina Riveros, Head of Co-curricular Drama

‘I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being’ (Thornton Wilder).

It is a strange thing, acting — pretending to be someone you are not. It could be viewed as deceitful if it were not for the fact that actors are pretending in the knowledge of being watched; that the role of the ‘watchers ’— the audience — is critical to completing the dynamic organism that is theatre. When creating theatre, purpose and context frame the shaping of action to communicate ideas to an audience. Whether the purpose be to entertain, challenge, inform or confront, at the core of most quality theatre is meaning. Theatre aims to ask questions about humanity and life and, since its origins in Ancient Greece, has encouraged audiences to make sense of their world through the actions and interactions of others.

Engaging with drama certainly provides students with opportunities to experience ideas, stories, emotions and situations beyond their own. Drama in education is often associated with attributes of fun, self-esteem and confidence building, which, although present, are more by-products or tangential benefits, rather than core skills of our practice. Deep philosophical and socio-critical inquiry, creative problem-solving and psychological understanding of human behaviour are much more at the heart of our subject. We are on a search for truth and meaning (no ‘biggie’); a humble quest that engages head and heart. Hence, as we create and critique theatre, we are shaping people.

The nature and potential of drama as a means of human inquiry develops a capacity for empathy, both cognitively and emotionally. We understand empathy as seeing something from another’s perspective and appreciating their experience. It is not a stretch therefore for the non-dramatist to see how the art of acting, of ‘stepping into another’s shoes’, may encourage empathy. But is that its full reach?

Psychological studies into acting and empathy have revealed that actor training and regular participation in dramatic activities, develop skills in empathy and intuition that, if transferred to everyday life, can enhance healthy interpersonal relationships. The act of role-play and characterisation requires students to intuitively understand the character’s beliefs, intentions and desires, even though they may be vastly different from their own. The technical term in psychology for this ability is Theory of Mind. Professor of psychology, Thalia Goldstein (2012) asserts that actors use a host of complex psychological skills, Theory of Mind, empathy and emotion regulation to create realistic portrayals of characters. Interestingly, Goldstein’s research found that the ability to read another’s thoughts and feelings is based on whether they practise theory of mind. In other words, people such as actors and psychologists who are consciously and regularly doing this as part of their job actually increase their own capacity for empathy in the process.

This ‘practice’ is inherent in actor training and indeed drama. The learning mode of the drama classroom facilitates empathy through the fictionalised dramatic world and the dialogue in the classroom. Transference of these ‘practised’ skills to our life broadens our perspective and heightens social perception.

It is not particularly surprising that the application of human psychology underpins actor training. After all, it was the philosophies and findings of Darwin and Freud that actually influenced the birth of Modern Theatre, namely Realism. But what are the acting techniques that use psychological skills of cognition and empathy? Although there are many variations on actor training, there are essentially two schools of thought: an ‘inside-out’ and an ‘outside-in’ approach. Both approaches recognise the interconnected relationship of intellect and emotion but it is the order in which mind and body process information that differs.

Our senior Drama studies offer a balance of these approaches to students as they are exposed to a spectrum of key twentieth century and contemporary practitioners. When working in the style of Realism, we employ techniques based on the best-known and most widely used ‘inside-out’ approach — the Stanislavski System. Stanislavski, a Russian actor, director and theoretician, developed the system (which later developed into Method Acting) to develop actors’ emotional and sensory awareness in order to ‘be’ the character through a more truthful interpretation. It is about connecting the actor to the inner world of the play and the inner life of the character.

For student actors, coming to an understanding of a particular character’s actions and behaviours can be very challenging. ‘There is a reciprocal nature between thought and experience that marks the inextricable intertwining of the environment and the actor’ (Lutterbie, 2011). The process of analysing a character first requires students to remove any judgement — and in my classroom experience, also involves evoking a ‘language ban’. I am not talking about obscenities; I ban the word ‘weird’. In fact, I ban it pre-emptively now as I have heard it so many times during a first-time reading of a challenging play text such as Mother Courage and her Children or A Doll’s House. High-pitched, not-so-whispered comments of ‘She’s so weird — as if you would’, cannon around the circle in response to Mother Courage refusing to recognise her dead son’s body or Nora kissing her children goodbye while they sleep before leaving them. Clearly we are at an intersection in their journey to developing empathy at this stage — but we check both ways for traffic, and proceed with caution …and analysis.

At this point, applying one of Stanislavki’s key acting techniques is helpful. No, in fact it is imperative — it is called (drum roll, please) The Magic If (da-dah!). Actors are to pose and hopefully answer the question:‘If I were this character, in this situation, what would I do?’ This specific phrasing changes everything; it calls for the actors to imagine themselves as that person (adopting their values, beliefs, attitudes) and place themselves in their situation. It removes hurried judgement and encourages genuine empathy. Seeing students’ faces as they register the a-ha moment is always rewarding. It marks the deepening of imagined and researched insight into another human being’s world, from their perspective and with their hardships, but with the mind, heart and body of the actor.

However, deepening the connection between thoughts and emotion only comes when the actor embodies the character — moving from ‘thinking’ to ‘doing’ and ‘being’. For our students, it is the visceral experience and intellectual rigour of the theatrical process that engages them with the subject Drama. And in response to the oft-asked question ‘Why don’t you do some plays that are light and funny?’, it is because there is truth to be found and empathy to be gained. How can we miss these opportunities with our young, growing people?

I will leave you with these poignant words extracted from John Malkovich’s speech delivered in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of World Theatre Day at UNESCO in 2012. They inspire my teaching and directing.

May your work be compelling and original. May it be profound, touching, contemplative, and unique. May it help us to reflect on the question of what it means to be human, and may that reflection be blessed with heart, sincerity, candor, and grace. May you be blessed with the talent and rigor to teach us about the beating of the human heart in all its complexity, and the humility and curiosity to make it your life’s work. And may the best of you — for it will only be the best of you, and even then only in the rarest and briefest moments — succeed in framing that most basic of questions, ‘How do we live?’. Godspeed. 


Goldstein, T. (2012, January 19). What, cognitively, does an actor actually do?  [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Lutterbie, J. (2011). Toward a general theory of acting: Cognitive science and performance. In B. McConachie & B. Vermeule (Series Eds), Cognitive Studies in Literature and Performance Series p.24. London: Palgrave MacMillan

Malkovich, J. (2012, March 27). World Theatre Day address at UNESCO. [Video file]. Retrieved from