A Million Little Peaces

The performing arts and conflict resolution

Wicked

Amanda Jane Cooper as Glinda and Emily Koch as Elphaba in Wicked. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

If the folks at (TITLE) for Dummies® or the Idiot’s Guide™ to (THIS THING) ever wrote a how-to guide on building a better world, certainly there’d be a chapter or two on the performing arts.

Much has been said on the value of elevating culture and artistic achievement as hallmarks of a civilized society (such as Kennedy’s speech at Amherst College after the death of great American poet Robert Frost). We’ve also come to understand the correlation between depriving people of the arts and higher rates of crime, lack of critical thinking skills and violence.

Mounting research proves that engagement in the performing arts improves children’s overall well-being. With the music, dance and theater, they get better cognitive abilities and higher-level emotional development plus experience with problem-solving, conquering fear, collaborating, effectively communicating and accessing creativity to imagine better outcomes. Perhaps most importantly, engagement with the performing arts allows children to develop a critical aspect of their humanity: empathy. And now we have the neuroscience to prove it.

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Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings because we can recognize our own—sort of an I-can-see-myself-in-you situation that breaks down the barriers of self and mistrust that often perpetuate never-ending conflicts.

The performing arts allow us to see things differently, to learn viewpoints of people who are different from us and to see ourselves reflected in the artist’s work, often to some revelatory effect. We learn a little something new about ourselves and our world either by watching in an audience or by performing in a show. These are all good things.

Human beings have four basic psychological-emotional needs: belonging, freedom, fun and a sense of inner power (like accomplishment and recognition). When those needs aren’t met, we experience inner conflict first, then we extend that outward—how far depends on our own emotional intelligence. Some of us are emotionally intelligent enough to resolve the inner conflict well; in the extreme, that inner conflict turns into some man taking over a country by murdering entire sects of other humans. Oh, what a place the world would be if we handled our disputes and conflicts with dance battles such as this:

As humans, our other great pull is to make sense of the world, of our inner worlds and the world happening around us. At its core, art is about the human spirit making meaning of the human experience.

Thus, the performing arts attend to our most powerful psychological and social needs, which makes the arts ideal for conflict resolution—or, at the very least, a non-threatening way to broach tough topics and uncomfortable truths. Music, dance and theater can be very safe avenues to confrontation, building empathy and creating the kinds of conversations that can turn conflict into an opportunity for a community to grow in a positive way.

Around the world, people turn to the performing arts to help them access the often easy-to-see, difficult-to-cross bridges between people on opposing sides of a conflict.

In the greater Boston area, a group of artists, educators, public service providers and academics created Violence Transformed, an initiative to respond to violence in the area, give a voice to victims of violence and try to find ways to prevent violence from happening in home, at school and in the community. Initially a one-time art exhibit, Violence Transformed has grown in the past ten years to become a multi-media event with workshops, exhibits and performances throughout the year. In Papua New Guinea, Seeds Theatre Group works to address the frightening amount of violence against women by engaging communities in theater. In 2014, the company collaborated with UNICEF Pacific for the #ENDviolence against women and children initiative with a music video that went viral. In Jamaica, the Sistren Theatre Collective has been working since 1977 as a group utilizing the performing arts as a community resource to address and confront violence and empower residents of all genders to change their situations, especially in desperate neighborhoods in Kingston.

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We hosted a World Cafe discussion during the It Gets Better residency in March 2017.

Here at The Straz, we’ve collaborated with the It Gets Better Project to address violence against LGBTQ youth (read about our work in this article in the Florida Diversity Council newsletter) and supported veteran PTSD recovery through visual art and movement workshops.

As we move, socially, into more interaction with technology and social media than in actual conversations and person-to-person experiences, we see a growing national discussion about the need for activating empathy—even Forbes magazine published an article examining how lack of empathy damages the reputation and impact of business leaders. Empathy, the article notes, is the strongest skill in successful leadership performance.

From a performing arts perspective, what looks like a world in a million little pieces could be a world in a million little peaces:

“. . . Conflict simply exists as a natural part of life. It is what people in conflict do with the experience that determines whether it will be constructive or destructive.”
–from The Art in Peacemaking: A Guide to Integrating Conflict Resolution Education into Youth Arts Programs