Monday, February 14, 2011

How theatre changes the world

I believe that arts can change the world. That is why I do what I do (besides having a ton of fun doing it). I believe that the arts are important. After a conversation with a friend tonight though I have decided that there is a need for me to further articulate that idea. It is no good for me (and my fellow artists) to just talk about whether arts make a difference; we have to specify how  they make a difference.

The scientific basis for my thoughts comes from a psychological research tool called an implicit association test (or IAT). These tests ask people to group sets of words as quickly as possible. For example I just took an IAT that asked me to click the "e" if I was presented with a "male" word (father, son, uncle, boy, etc.) and the "i" key if I was presented with a "female" word (mother, daughter, aunt, girl, etc. ). I was then presented with a series of words that were either liberal arts or sciences. Finally I was asked to do the two sets of words in conjunction; press "i" for male or science and "e" for female or liberal arts. Later the combinations were switched with female and science grouped together and male grouped with liberal arts. The idea is that by measuring how quickly I complete each task and how many mistakes I make, assumptions can be drawn about how closely I associate women with the arts and men with the sciences. In other words, to reveal my subconscious prejudices. This gender study is only one of many IATs looking into opinions about race, ethnicity, age, culture, sexuality and lots of other cultural markers. If you would like to learn more about these tests, or take a few, you should check out Project Implicit.

In one of my classes in college (I can't seem to recall which specifically) we were discussing implicit association tests and the professor told us a story of a man who took a test on race and was upset at his results. The results told him that he had a strong association of Caucasian with good and African American with bad. He took IAT over and over again trying to improve his results and had no luck. Then one day the results changed, and his score improved. In reflecting on what could have changed that day to alter his score he noted that he had spent most of the day watching the Olympics. All day long he had been seeing positive images of African American athletes overcoming challenges, working hard and succeeding. After that influence it was much more natural for his brain to associate African American with good when he was asked to do so.

I believe that arts can change the world because art can change people, but I don't think this change happens radically or quickly or even noticeably (at least in most cases).  I think the arts change people by exposing them to new ideas, foreign places, and unknown cultures. I believe and hope that the people who come see the productions that I am a part of, leave with just a little more understanding of the people and cultures and ideas that piece of theatre explored. I doubt that the change would be dramatic enough that the people in the audience would notice it, but if their metaphoric IAT score changed by just a point or two, that's progress.

My vision of a better world is based on the golden rule of treating others as you would like to be treated. I believe that treating others with respect comes from tolerance of difference, and tolerance comes from knowledge, and knowledge comes from exposure. The theatre is a place where we can be exposed to foreign ideas in a safe environment. Hopefully, eventually, that exposure leads to more tolerance worldwide and the ability to work together with respect and kindness to create a better world.

No comments:

Post a Comment