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Standing In Someone Else’s Shoes: How the Arts Deepen Understanding Through Stories

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

“What are we but our stories?” —James Patterson

Stories are woven in and out of our lives; stories offer the power to create connection. I bet if I asked, you could tell me about a favorite Christmas story you have. Or, maybe that one camping story everyone loves to retell whenever you are together. My friends and I love when one of us starts the conversation with, “Remember that one time…” I know I’m going to remember “that one time” — time and time again. These visceral memories demonstrate the power of lived experiences in shaping our relationships, personalities, choices, successes, failures, and pain — they combine to create our sense of self and the story of humankind.

The arts are one of the most powerful ways not only to tell a story, but to feel a story. Have you ever watched a dancer as they perform a dance dedicated to a loved one? Or listened to a performer sing a song from a musical, totally enmeshed in the circumstance of that character? These moments can be life changing, because while living and breathing our own story is magical, living and breathing someone else’s experience is vital: “It’s a human need to be told stories. The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.” —Alan Rickman

When we live and breathe the experience of another person, we step into their shoes. We see their preferences, successes, failures, and hurts. We understand their actions, reactions, and fears. We develop empathy, deepen relationships, and become more aware of the value of different experiences, and identify the similarities that can act as a unifying thread across the bridge of human experience. To be in someone else’s past, present, or future adds value and beauty to our own existence.

In theater, the goal of the actor is to dive deeply into the character’s life and create an honest portrayal of their lived experience. The number one rule in acting is to not judge the character you are portraying. An actor’s role is to use the information given by the playwright and use imagination and clues from the script to create material that fills in the holes: fundamentally, we don’t know where the character has been, what the character has experienced, or what the character has seen. In essence, we don’t know the stories that brought the character to this point in the show. We don’t know their whole story. This same pattern can be true of each of us as we participate in the shared stories that surround us now: COVID-19; the 2020 election process; the Black Lives Matter movement. Can we ask ourselves: “Am I able to step back from my story long enough to honor someone else’s?” And if we can take a moment to pause, reflect, and stand inside someone else’s present reality, what do we learn about ourselves? About someone else? Artists dedicate their entire lives to creating and telling stories — they feel and share the power of stories.

“Maybe it’s not about the happy ending. Maybe it’s about the story.”

The end of our current societal stories is unclear; but maybe it’s not about an ending at all. Maybe it’s just about standing hand-in-hand with someone vastly different from us as we listen, truly listen, to their words, feelings, and memories. We have the opportunity each day to value and honor other people’s experiences, in all their rawness. And maybe, just maybe, if we gently hold someone else’s story safely in our hands, they will hold ours.

This post was written by Andra Thorne, a past president of the Utah Advisory Council of Theatre Teachers.

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