How To Change the World: A discovery & Questions

Instinctively I’ve always felt that theatre has the power to change the world. Theatre being collaborative, reflective, and capable of teaching and inspiring empathy. I am constantly referring to practices of applied theatre to seek answers, solve problems, and generate awareness of issues/ideas. Sometimes I am told when I go in to work with a group that this group is “stubborn, unwilling, uncooperative, etc.” and I just smile…because I know, that while it may take time…given time, the groups I work with become cooperative and invested in working together to create, question, and explore. They can’t help it! Thats the power of theatre! While the exercises and games we utilize may look on the outside like silly games, they are truly complex and deserving of more time and thought. I also walk into those rooms with the firm belief that people are inherently good and want to contribute to the communities they are a part of. I’m often labeled optimistic and naive for this belief, and once again, I just smile…

This writing is prompted by some reading I have been doing recently for an online course through Coursera entitled How to Change the World. A great task to be sure. I’ve been reading about the commons and the tragedy of the commons…and a great deal of about the philosophies of Hobbes and Smith regarding the selfishness of mankind. It’s been a tough pill to swallow as I read through and learn about the systems and organizations over the past hundred years or so that are based on the Leviathan or Invisible Hand models. Thats not to say that there aren’t philosophers like Rousseau that make cases for the human capacity for empathy that inspire cooperation and selflessness without the need for incentives or punishments. Needless to say, its all been very educational.

This morning I read the first chapter of The Penguin & The Leviathan by Yochai Benkler and while reading his introductory arguments for social/political/economic/educational systems based on the practices of collaboration built on trust and cooperation I thought, “this is what theatre for social change/applied theatre does best!” He goes on to talk about the overwhelming evidence that the idea that human beings are inherently selfish and act purely out of self-motivation is incorrect! Accord to Mr. Benkler, the studies show that only 30% of human beings act MORE out of selfishness than not (again, more – not SOLELY out of self-interest) and that more than half of the population in all of the various studies and experiments acted MOSTLY in the best interest of others and the larger community. That is significant. Firstly, it is not so black and white. There is no clear-cut and simple answer. We all act out of self-interest at times, we all act out of a self-less desire to help others and the communities we are a part of. According to the research compiled by Benkler, however, more often thank not human beings tend toward serving the collective good. So, why are most of our systems and structures based on a theory that is incorrect? What can we do to change the current systems we are working in…and more importantly, how can theatre for social chance and applied theatre contribute to this shift in the way the world functions?

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