Darren Hengst, the Grace and Mahlon Buck Chair in Performing Arts at The Haverford School, gave a presentation titled “Performing Arts - Empathy, Connection, Communication,” during the annual Best for Boys Speaker Series in May.
Hengst discussed how performing arts can bring out the authentic nature of boys and hone their ability to communicate, bridge connections between themselves and others, and build empathy.
During the presentation, Hengst discussed how boys taking part in performing arts can develop life skills such as:
- Problem solving
To demonstrate how performing arts can build these skills and connections, Hengst showed taped performances by current theater and music students at Haverford, including a performance by sixth former Nachikethan (Kethan) Srinivasan and composition work by fourth former Julian Caesar.
In his theater classes and working with student performers, Hengst noted that he poses questions rooted in empathy to help the boys prepare for a performance. While it allows for an authentic performance on stage, it also provides a life skill in taking time to consider how others are experiencing the world.
“I ask students whether they have ever felt similar to their character before, or whether they can relate to their character,” said Hengst. “When the boys can understand these characters, they can feel what they feel, which translates to the stage and to life.”
When students can empathize with their character or with others, they can support their scene with those real emotions. Using Kethan’s performance as an example, Hengst noted how Kethan’s ability to understand his character gave a more focused performance. That type of empathy and awareness is applicable across educational disciplines and is a foundational skill, according to Hengst.
This is how The Haverford School prepares boys for life. There is a challenge, the boys immerse themselves in the situation and become vulnerable, and they use problem-solving skills and empathy to face the challenge.
“This is how The Haverford School prepares boys for life. There is a challenge, the boys immerse themselves in the situation and become vulnerable, and they use problem-solving skills and empathy to face the challenge,” said Hengst.
Hengst noted that other performing arts disciplines, including music, can also provide significant growth for boys. Fourth former Julian Caesar was tasked with composing an original song in Upper School Music teacher Mark Hightower’s class. Julian wrote a poignant musical about COVID-19 and the realities of the pandemic.
“I’ve watched Julian’s performance many times and I see Julian is able to identify and empathize with the pain that people have felt over the past year,” said Hengst. “It is the perfect example of how students can process and express their emotions using writing. Students are sometimes able to say things through writing instead of in their daily life.”
Hengst also shared how the arts can be used to cultivate and nourish the parts of students that may otherwise lay dormant. He also notes how students come together when creating a production or find a new part of themselves that the larger community wasn’t aware of.
“Boys who may be introverted or quiet in the classroom may find a new part of themselves on the stage using these skills,” Hengst said. “These skills and experiences are things they can continually leverage throughout their development because these skills, over time, become inherent and transferable to any environment they find themselves, and that is what is wonderful about the performing arts.”