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Lindsay Cummings PhD '11 explores empathy in theatre in new book

By: Lindsey White,  Department of Performing and Media Arts
August 8, 2016

What does it really mean to put yourself in another’s shoes? How does your perspective color your role as a theatre patron? Although you may intend to understand the journey of the other, your empathy is unavoidably influenced by your experiences and prejudices. Author Lindsay Cummings PhD '11 examines the role of empathy in theatre in Empathy as Dialogue in Theatre and Performance, available now from Palgrave Macmillan

From the back cover: “In this book, Cummings argues that empathy comes in many forms, some helpful to understanding others and some detrimental. Tracing empathy’s genealogy through aesthetic theory, philosophy, psychology, and performance theory, Cummings illustrates how theatre artists and scholars have often overlooked the dynamic potential of empathy by focusing on its more ‘monologic’ forms, in which spectators either project their point of view onto characters or passively identify with them. This book therefore explores how empathy is most effective when it functions as a dialogue, along with how theatre and performance can utilise the live, emergent exchange between bodies in space to encourage more dynamic, dialogic encounters between performers and audience.” 

The book, which is the first full-length book devoted to the consideration of empathy within theatre, is an expansion on Cummings’ Cornell dissertation. “I think being at Cornell really allowed me to pursue a range of methodologies. My book—and my scholarship more broadly—doesn’t fit easily into categories. I draw on feminist theory, performance studies, phenomenology, affect studies, and scholarship in community-based theatre. In the book, I engage philosophy, aesthetic theory, psychology, acting theory, and more. These are all areas with overlapping but also quite distinct vocabularies and methods of inquiry.” 

Regarding her experience as a PhD student at Cornell, Cummings explains how faculty members nourished her unique scholarly passion. “The wonderful thing about Cornell was that none of my committee members ever tried to shoehorn my dissertation into a simple category. They asked questions, challenged me, and pushed me, of course, but never in a way that encouraged me to make my scholarship or methodology less eclectic. I know a lot of people who, in graduate school, had to fight their committees at every step of the process. I always felt like the project was mine, and the committee was there to support me. What a gift!” 

Cummings’ time at Cornell helped her confidently transition from dissertation to full-length book. “I needed to rework chapters with structural issues, update the scholarship to reflect things published more recently, and expand the material, but I didn’t have to look at the dissertation and think, ‘What is salvageable?’ Instead, I could look at it and say, ‘What works? What doesn’t work? What could be better?’” Lindsay Cummings is Assistant Professor of Dramatic Arts at the University of Connecticut. Empathy as Dialogue in Theatre and Performance is available for purchase on Amazon.

Lindsay Cummings