“Shake all cares and business from our age…”

King Lear

No one would deny that self-care is a hot button topic now. I am always fascinated by what starts a trend and this one is no exception.  I learned to wonder about the inspiration for societal trending as a freshman in college, when my wonderful (crotchety and tough) history professor pointed out how architecture reflects the times–using the example of buildings constructed in the uncertain 1970s, with its pressures like the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the recent assassinations of so many prominent figures. He encouraged us to see how those tensions might be reflected in the fort-like structures erected in that era. My mind exploded as I thought about the high school I had just graduated from, opened in 1973, with slits for windows that made power outages (not uncommon in Texas) chaotic, high brick facades concealing any sign of the vulnerable humans inside.

So, as the topic of self-care is gaining momentum, I ask myself: is our emphasis on self-care in this period the result of news cycles that are difficult to get through without exasperation, or because uncertainty in markets and politics creates high levels of stress, or because of personal challenges and frustrations?  

Whatever the cause, we are inundated with articles espousing hot baths, meditation, and time to get away–from the kids, from the pressures of work and home, from others. I wonder though that no one is proposing attending theatre as a mode of self-care….

I know, I know, you might say that I am biased (and you’d be correct), but hear me out.  I believe that attending theatre–especially a theatre like the American Shakespeare Center–can be a healing experience. In a time of division like the one we live in, theatre’s ability to increase empathy and act as a place of catharsis might be more than self-care for individuals, it may actually be self-care for society as a whole. 

When you go to see a play, you are choosing to embrace art, to put yourself above the tasks on your to-do list, to give yourself a couple of hours of respite from the world. When you choose to see a play at the American Shakespeare Center, where, as you may have heard, ‘We do it with the lights on,” you are also choosing to be part of a community celebrating the act of coming together in common purpose. But, without even choosing to do so, you are also increasing your empathy levels.  

In a study from the University of Arkansas that came out a few years ago, researchers demonstrated that high school students who attended a play–versus reading it or watching a movie–saw a measurable increase in empathy. In a follow-up that came out just recently, the study design showed increased levels of tolerance, social perspectives gained, and an increase in vocabulary and understanding–I would add one more positive piece that we have witnessed at ASC, which is that kids and adults who see (and “get”) Shakespeare feel smart, increasing their confidence along with the measures mentioned above.

When we share space with others, and when actors performing complex texts engage us in their story, we both leave our own world, and gain perspective to adjust our view when we return to it.  We see how humans address challenges and gain insight into approaches we might take to address our own. We share light and air and laughter and tears which lets us know that we are not alone and that we are part of an ongoing story, stories of humans that have outlasted some nations.  When we come together to see art in action, we palpably demonstrate a hope, a hope that conquers the current with the embrace of history and faith in the future.  

Plays, playing, players, playhouses are the site of self-care because when we let the work of life go and come together to create, share, and reflect on art, we deny the stress of the present a place to roost and allow our breath to escape and our jaws to relax. I can’t think of anything that does so much for our mental and emotional state, both as individuals and our community as a whole.

Tell us some of the other ways seeing plays heals you in the comments below.