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Community Theatre, Long-form Narratives, and a Loss of Empathy

By Ezekiel McPhersonPublished about a month ago 6 min read
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Myself as Benvolio reacting to slain Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet at The Ouachita Little Theatre

William Shakespeare coined the above phrase (minus punctuation) over 400 years ago as a response from Juliet to her mother about whether or not she could like Paris, a suitor. Approximately she says, “If there is anything likable there, then I will look to like him.” Her remark was one of genuine interest and commitment to look the man over. Juliet sets off to accomplish that plan but inevitably has her attention magnetized away by an attractive peer that she meets at a boozy masquerade ball.

I have recently completed a community theatre production of Romeo & Juliet, and I was struck by Shakespeare’s timeless narrative as I have never been before. And through all of the engagement that we had with the show, there was a consistent theme in commentary about the show: THIS SHOW IS LONG. There were endless raves and compliments, and I believe that we did the show justice, especially for an amateur troupe of community actors in Arkansas; but despite LOVING the show, many referenced the two-and-a-half hour runtime as lengthy. Some less tactful remarks discussed not expecting to “BE AT THE THEATRE FOR 4 HOURS,” which is absurd in its inaccuracy but revealing in its tone.

The case of the diminishing American attention span has been well-studied; look at the media habits of the majority of our population in 2024 and spanning the last several years, and you notice skyrocketing engagement with effervescent-runtime mediums such as TikTok and YouTube Shorts as well as a constant downtick in movie-going and novel reading (the physical medium, not the blurry, snipped-to-bits experience of listening to a novel while doing another activity). Then it begins to come as no surprise that American, deep-south populations waltzing into a community theatre for the first time in a while would describe (a slightly edited-for-time version of) the most famous story in the West as LONG. I am not here to convince you of our problem with attention, looking deeply at stories, or being good listeners; I think that the data speaks for itself on that subject (1). What I aim to discuss is the next couple of thoughts once you accept our fallen state: the tragedy that this lack of attention represents and the benefits of purposeful engagement with long-form narratives.

So Juliet’s mind is captured by a different suitor and she finds love and happiness…for a minute. This seems like it could be antithetical to my idea of attention span problems being new or being especially harmful. I mean that’s part of the beauty of Romeo & Juliet; yes they die, but they truly lived and loved. Their love is the likes of which many never experience in a lifetime. However, we miss an important morsel of storytelling when we just take this on the surface. William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and especially Juliet as characters who are lost to the folly of youth and emotional first love. As you experience the show, you realize that Shakespeare doesn’t insinuate that Romeo and Juliet have found some special meaning of life or wisdom that most of us lack; rather, Shakespeare indicates that ALL of the adults in their lives ultimately failed them by not helping them to navigate this adolescent moment with more resolve, patience, and thoughtfulness.

In other words, Juliet’s dive into love with Romeo and refusal to “look to like if looking liking move,” as well as her eventual death is the ultimate repercussion of a juvenile, unchallenged, whimsical attention span. I write in hyperbole, but we see so clearly that Juliet’s internal response is more like this: “Look at him? I’d rather move on something now!”

Ultimately, this is where we sit today: when asked to sit and look long at something, we’d rather move! And this is problematic for a couple of reasons. One, it inflates our impatience. Two, it hampers our empathy.

A person committed to consuming long-form narratives like Romeo & Juliet is a person who tends to be less concerned with their busy schedule and who is willing to patiently and personally experience the journey of another person. This kind of person is one whom I would describe as a wonderful person to be around because they are a good listener and they listen to connect and to understand, not to respond. On the other hand, when I am inundated with minuscule narrative experiences, I am training myself to listen and engage with others only in spurts of 1-3 minutes rather than becoming a patient, interested presence in the lives of those around me.

And then empathy suffers. Research from PLOS One (a peer-reviewed, medical journal) from 2013 has linked fiction reading with a greater ability to show empathy to people around you (2). And the language used here is so amazing: “High[er] transportation led to higher empathy among fiction readers.” When engaging with these longer-form stories, we are transported more deeply for longer amounts of time into others’ relatable experiences; empathy grows here!

Short forms of media train me to only touch other’s stories briefly, intermittently, and with a “just-the-facts” attitude, which predisposes me to hold them emotionally at a multi-arm distance. This can then create an entitled, selfish outlook on the stories of others that tries to convince me that others’ narratives only matter insofar as they directly influence or affect mine. I begin to believe that unless there is a benefit for me, then listening to the long-form narrative of another human has no real point. This dystopic thought shakes me to my core because, at a tragic level, it resonates.

How many times have I shared a story or recommended a movie or invited someone to my play, received little to no response, and wanted to yell, “Can’t you just care a little bit?” And it chills me further to realize that I am a victim of this trend as well. Being one of the most involved members of the cast and crew of Romeo & Juliet inherently made the long-form narrative ABOUT ME.

What happens when I engage in long-form media without selfish stakes? I watched Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) by Martin Scorsese recently; it was long-winded. I was recommended a wonderful fantasy novel by a friend, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, and I felt that it was a little dense and hard to start. I have more than a handful of half-finished television shows and half-read books lying around my watching queue and house. I so quickly become inundated with the sub-minute spurts of shocking or stimulating shots of media; long-form storytelling seems pricey in terms of the time and resolve it will take to get through it.

But who am I becoming? An impatient, disinterested, lighting-paced consumer of narratives that only present value to me or serve me in some way. I have lost my ability to listen to a storyteller for what I might experience along the way. And slowly, methodically, I am ceasing to be able to see the point in listening long to the narrative of a fellow traveler in life for no point other than to be an ear, to be moved, or to learn. And now, in light of this foreboding revelation, I grab myself by the shoulders and plead with myself (and you are welcome to stand behind me to hear the tirade).

STOP living mindlessly and obeying the whims of pop media and thirty-second storytelling. Quit thinking that your story is the main event of planet Earth. And let go of the time rope of your life that you’re charring your hand on by trying to keep it from slipping, and give three or four hours to someone’s hard-produced art or well-thought-out story.

GO engage with art, real art made by humans for other humans. Hitch up personally with others in conversation around a table or across a bar and ask them to share a narrative about their lives. Listen more than you talk. Respond more than you react. And give time to growing your ability to share empathy and compassion with others by listening to their stories.

With the trends of attention-span-killing story lengths and time-valuing egocentrism skyrocketing, we are on the precipice of becoming a civilization of juvenile, thought-to-thought, apathetic squares who cannot stomach each other’s long-form stories. But slow down. Take a breath; take another. Then absorb instead the soft parental urging to listen long and look at long-form narratives for something to like. And instead of the death and grief and arguing and miscommunication that came with Juliet’s story, we will experience what her life could have been with all of the romance and flavor and beauty that can only come from the spice of other people’s stories sprinkled in amongst our own.

Footnotes:

  1. Here’s a business advert company’s write up about short-form videos. https://www.yaguara.co/short-form-video-statistics/ // And here’s the National Endowment for the Arts findings about the decline in literature reading. https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/RaRExec.pdf
  2. Here is a link to the article in question with the abstract at the top of the page: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3559433/

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About the Creator

Ezekiel McPherson

Writing is fun, and I do it that way. Out of interest and spare time come any creations :)

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