I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the greater purpose of musical theatre. It’s been said that if you want to make a billion dollars you simply help a billion people. Now, who doesn’t want to make a billion dollars (especially if you’re an artist)? But the question then becomes how do you help a billion people?
In order to take big actions you have to set big goals. So I’ve begun considering how an artist – say a musical theater writer – can truly change the world. Here are some ways I’ve come up with.
Tell Stories about Underrepresented People.
I think about shows like Pacific Overtures, Porgy and Bess, Allegiance, or even Show Boat. These shows portrayed the lives of Asians, Asian-Americans, and African-Americans at times when audiences had never seen that before (with perhaps the exception of Allegiance…but only perhaps. Asian and Asian-American stories are still grossly underrepresented on Broadway.)
I also think about Shonda Rhimes and her determination to “normalize” television, or movies like The Imitation Game, which brought to light the story of Alan Turing – inventor of the first computer who helped defeat Germany in WWII, but whose story was buried because he was gay.
Allowing people to see themselves reflected back at them can be life changing. It shows them their lives matter, which in turns creates an increased sense of agency, self-esteem, and purpose.
Help Us Cross the Divide.
In many ways, a great deal of our social conflict can be traced back to a supreme lack of empathy. Empathy is defined as “the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions.” When we hear stories about people who are different from ourselves, we are training our brains to practice empathetic thinking.
This can be a great guiding principle for artists attempting to change the world through their audiences (as it has been for me.) By telling stories about underrepresented groups (see #1), we offer white, Middle class theatergoers the chance to increase their empathetic thinking. In the November 2015 Issue of The Dramatist, Lisa Kron and Madeleine George argue, “people feel ecstatic pleasure in having their sphere of empathy expanded. The more separate we as spectators think we are from [a] character to begin with, the bigger the leap across the empathetic divide a piece of theatre allows us to make, the more thrilled we are.”
Make ‘Em Weep.
Related to empathy is the ability of people to be in-touch with and aware of their emotions. This is called Emotional Intelligence (EI) or their Emotional Quotient (EQ).
It’s been shown that the arts and arts education can help increase one’s EQ. According to the Harvard Business Review, “Studies have shown that a high emotional quotient boosts career success, entrepreneurial potential, leadership talent, health, relationship satisfaction, humor, and happiness.” Numerous scientific studies have concluded that basically, a higher EQ can improve the overall quality of your life.
When you craft stories that allow audiences to express their emotions, you are helping to increase their EQs. Furthermore, having an emotional experience is a significant moment of change in a person. Emotions motivate us to do things, even if it’s to think a little differently. This is huge.
Dispense Beauty, Laughter, and Hope.
Perhaps one of the clearest ways that musical theatre can change the world is to simply entertain. A gorgeous melodic strain can illicit spontaneous tears (Sunday in the Park With George). A social satire or a political parody can allow us to laugh at the king, or reduce social anxiety by rendering our fears less threatening (Hair). An old-fashioned “good story” can portray the resilience of the human spirit and give us hope to last us through times of intense struggle (The Color Purple).
It’s important to note, however, that while a lot of these things can occur on their own, they happen more powerfully when they are intended by the artist. This should be a call, then, for artists to create with a greater purpose in mind. The knowledge that you can change the world should motivate you to actually attempt it.
One more thing to remember: changing the world begins with changing one person. It can be overwhelming to think of having to help a billion people, but it’s much easier to think of helping 3 people. Tell a story that you think might affect 3 specific people in your life, and chances are you will affect a million more.