Get thee to a theater

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Plenty of learning (and becoming better people, and all that) occurs outside the school building. Now we’re getting a sense of how effectively it can happen inside a theater. We’re better off seeing a play performed live than reading it or watching the movie version, new research suggests. Live theater seems to make us more tolerant and empathic, too.

In the first randomized study of the effects of live theater on students, high schoolers were assigned by lottery to see stage productions of Hamlet or A Christmas Carol, or no live theater, by researchers at the University of Arkansas. Here’s what they found:

Knowledge and vocabulary

Students who saw a play performed live demonstrated considerably better knowledge of its plot and vocabulary than students who had read the same play or seen it performed on screen. “Plays are meant to be seen performed live,” wrote Dr. Jay Greene, professor of education reform, who led the study, in Education Next. “The story can be conveyed in a movie, but it doesn’t engage the viewer in the same way.”

Tolerance for others

Students who attended live theater later demonstrated greater tolerance for human diversity and difference. Here’s how students responded to statements relating to tolerance:

“Plays critical of America should not be allowed to be performed in our community.”

  • Students who saw a live play: 9 percent said yes.
  • Students who did not see a live play: 21 percent said yes.

“People who disagree with my point of view bother me.”

  • Students who saw a live play: 22 percent said yes.
  • Students who did not see a live play: 30 percent said yes.

Understanding others

Students who saw live theater seemed to have an improved ability to read the emotions of others. They scored higher than non-theater-going students on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, which is thought to measure the ability to infer other people’s thoughts and feelings by looking at their eyes.

In a previous study, the researchers found that students who participated in a field trip to an art museum demonstrated increased knowledge, tolerance, historical empathy, and critical thinking than students who didn’t.