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Empathy & Playwriting: An Introduction

I could swear by your expression

That the pain down in your soul
Was the same as the one down in mine.
That's the pain,
Cuts a straight line
Down through the heart;
We called it love.
So we wrapped our arms around each other,
Trying to shove ourselves back together.

~Hedwig, Hedwig & The Angry Inch

Who am I and why do I do what I do?

I am a short, 25 year old, straight female Asian school teacher living in California
and my experience with older, tall, transgendered/post-op female German immigrants
to the US who are rock stars is zero. Seeing
Hedwig & The Angry Inch
on Broadway in
2015, and feeling the amount of sadness, love and passion I did for the pieces
protagonist, Hedwig, was so powerful that it made me feel like I not only understood a
piece of that very particular American story, but that I was equipped to stand against the
struggles that she faces in her particular life journey.
Im aware it was fiction.

I became a teaching artist when I was 19, and since then, I have helped hundreds
of students, from 4th graders to recent college graduates, develop hundreds, verging on
thousands, of plays. It was only natural that when I left the California Playwrights
Project to become a full time classroom teacher, the playwriting process would follow
me, would linger in my curriculum, and would transform the way I teach.

Playwriting as an Empathy Builder

Im sad for no reason. Really, no reason. I have a good family, a bunch of good friends,
but Im just sad, and I take everything personally, and its stupid, and Im sorry, I
dont make much sense, Im sorta bad with words, it--- Shit. Sorry, sorry I know
Im not supposed to do that self-degrading thing. It sorta just comes naturally, I guess?
I dont know if Im trying to be a good person and not a narcissist or something or if I
actually hate myself. Hell A lot of things I do are to appear nice. I dont think, uh, I
know who I am anymore. Im just that quiet kid who holds the door open for strangers,
but cant work up the courage to look them in the eye and smile, huh? I try so hard,
yknow, but its like, not enough, I guess.

High Tech High North County, California,
from the play
Perfectly Sane

Inevitably, students always write about themselves, no matter how much they feel
they are hiding behind fiction. The playwright of the excerpt above, shared with me
shortly after the first reading of
Perfectly Sane
, that he, like Seth, was institutionalized
for his clinical depression, and he, like Seth, couldnt always understand why he felt the
way he did when he felt a deep melancholy set over his shoulders. Playwriting helped
this student put his feelings on paper, but reading his piece out loud with my class (and
eventually, putting it onstage through a college theatre troupe) did something equally
powerful: students around him were beginning to understand his story and his struggle.
They were beginning to see him clearly--even though we were discussing fiction.
An example that is a little more fantastical: I recently helped workshop a play by
a rather quiet and quirky daydreamer of a student. In the workshops that I run for
playwrights, it typically begins with a reading of the play out loud, with different people
in the room reading different characters lines--never the playwright. The playwrights
role is to listen, to let go of the work they have put on the paper and see it transformed
by the room. Then, we take some time to write down Pops, Questions, and What
Ifs? and then spend some time discussing these things. I will go further into what these
terms mean later in my methods. In *Lilys play, a plant becomes a sentient being, and
instead of sitting and observing the world, gets to speak up and participate in it. It takes
very little to connect Lilys quiet nature to the quiet nature of the protagonist in her
My students in Room 129 were seeing the quiet Lily through a
much different light- they were beginning to peel the onion that is her very individual,
very quirky personality that lay far beneath the poised, quiet and regal posture.

It is wildly important that students be allowed to explore the world that they are
currently experiencing and that as educators, we craft experiences that allow them to do
this without fear of judgment. Equally important, however, is that students are allowed
to share this exploration with one another because this helps students gain a larger
understanding of the world outside of themselves. It does what literature has always
helped us do--understand one another. This research seeks to answer the question:
How can playwriting activities help students build empathy?

Why Empathy?
I became entranced with theatre as a child because it helped me live hundreds of
other lives.
Paula Vogels
How I Learned to Drive
helped me tackle my way through the
moral dilemmas of abuse and molestation. The stage adaptation of Steinbecks
Of Mice
and Men
helped me identify and understand Lennie in a way that I think helps me be a
more adequate teacher. It took a forced exposure to theatre in school in 2nd gradea
stage adaptation of
The Princess and the Pea
to make me fall in love with theatre and
then beg and plead with my parents to allow me to watch more of it and partake in it
with parts other than audience member. While I very much see literature as an empathy
building activity, I argue passionately that theatre allows
, even those with a
limited reading skill set, to witness a real human experience, in a live way, and that this
is an even more powerful empathy building activity. It is important to preserve this art,
and the first way to do this is to build a community of young people who are sharing

stories worth listening to. In order to craft a play worth listening to, we must pay close
attention to the honesty and authenticity of each voice in the story. In order to build that
honesty and authenticity, students
be empathetic individuals. In the playwriting
process, writers try on many voices, and sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesnt.
When it doesnt, writers revise and revise and revise until they get that particular voice
. This takes empathy.
In my literature review, I go into detail about why actively teaching empathy is of
utmost importance at this time. As a teacher, I have myself used the art of observation to
see students interact with one another and with other teachers. I remember a teacher
friend of mine during my first year teaching showing me a 3 ring binder of referrals she
had written up. When I looked through the binder, there were many referrals written up
for Rudely speaking to another student Yelling at the teacher etc. My second year, I
co-taught with a teacher and we made it a point to not allow the words Shut up in our
classroom because it seemed to be a gateway for students to be mean to one another.
Here, at my current site, I have observed some of this similar behavior. However, there
are other things standing in the way of how we understand one another.
With the dawn of technology, it has become increasingly easier to interact with
one another without ever actually seeing one another face to face. Technology is one of
many reasons why it has become
important to actively help students build
empathy in the classroom, and not to expect empathy to be a byproduct of traditional

At my school site, we have a significant number of students who have Autism

Spectrum Condition. Research has told us that individuals with ASC have broad
impairments in both self-referential cognition and empathy (Lombardo, 2007). This
school sites population made me even more curious and interested in empathy building
in our youth.

Identity Exploration, Reading & Writing Skills and Other Byproducts of

Playwriting Projects
Along the road to exploring this question, I have explored how students can
explore their own identities through the art of playwriting since it is not typically the
five-minute scribbles of rushed writing that transforms a persons empathic potential: it
is the pieces of theatre that are so honest, the pieces that reveal so much truth about the
human experience, the pieces that are so connected to the writers core identity that it is
almost difficult to call it fake by labeling it fiction.
I have to come clean: I cry a lot because I love touchy-feely stories. Im a sucker
moments in the classroom, the ones where you can tell a student has come to a
grand discovery not about some literary device or plot line, but about
him or herself.
As a literature teacher, the skills that come through reading and writing are
immensely important to me. However, it is my hope that this research will help writing
teachers of all levels to structure playwriting experiences that not only enhance literacy
experiences and learning but help students dive deep into the vast terrain that is the text

of their own lives, and to expand their life books and their empathic potentials by
experiencing the stories of others.
I majored in Literature and Theatre when I was in college. I still love to snuggle
with Shakespeare, to drink tea with Hemingway, and I still make it a point to teach the
classics, tackling
To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo & Juliet, Fahrenheit 451, The Joy Luck
with my students year after year, because I think there is something that we
must garner and learn from the past. However, what has come to the forefront of my
mind, and therefore my teaching, in recent years, is the vast importance of the
Who is the student
and what is he or she experiencing? The playwriting process
helps students uncover the answers to these questions, and by engaging in a community
of writers, each individual student comes to expand their story.

I want to be happy now. I only know what I want right now. And maybe what I want
now will be the last thing I ever want, but at least I would be happy right now. We
cant experience the future, we only can experience the now. You know what I mean?

High Tech High North County, California,
from her play
Together, Selfless

You may write about anything. There are no limits to the subjects you can touch.
Be unafraid of your craziest, wildest questions. Ask them. This is a standard monologue
I give to students who enter my playwriting classroom.

You really think I dont know real life, that Im detached from the real world, because I
dont appreciate a culture where as soon as you walk off a campus in the rich part of
town, where the student body is almost all upper-class white kids, you see nothing but
the poorest neighborhoods and some of the poorest schools in the country, and nobody
really cares? Because I dont appreciate all the Confederate flags hanging up in every
county of every state in a five-state area? I feel lost here. I think everybody does, and is
afraid to admit it because theyve been here too long.

El Dorado High School, Arkansas,
from his play
On the Mississippi

I invited Brenda to my 10th birthday party at the YMCA and when she laid eyes on
you, you would've never thought this girl never saw a black person in her life. I don't
need a girlfriend...right now. Long Island is full of stuck up Madonna wannabes and
ditzy Tiffany wishies. And don't even get me started on the almost non-existent
African-American community.

El Dorado High School, Arkansas,
from her play
My Mothers Keeper

*Jeremiah, a senior, was experiencing rather difficult ethical dilemmas in his

mind about his identity as a white male in the rural South when he appeared at my door
in 2012. A play written by *Glory, a quiet black 10th grader, entitled
My Mothers
opened up a dialogue and respect between the two very talented writers that
would last far beyond the time they spent in my room. They were experiencing two very
different sides of race relations as young citizens of America, living in the South. I
actually just recently spoke to *Jeremiah, who is now living in New Orleans, still
unraveling his feelings about race relations in the South.
It is okay to feel lost.
It is okay to feel sad, and happy, and quiet, and introverted, angry and loved.
All of these things are okay.
In this research, I wanted to unravel the specifics- the nuances of playwriting that
may help a student expand his or her empathic potential in a community of writers. I
have seen playwriting activities transform students in a multitude of ways--their writing
abilities, their reading abilities, their ability to listen and analyze, etc. I specifically
wanted to explore:
can playwriting activities help students build empathy?