Actor Talk: Empathy is Key

I wanted to share a bit of information that is basically an expansion on a tweet I put up last night on break during the Acting Class I teach. This Week we were in a notes session after a repetition. I had a discussion about a choice one of the actors was struggling with. It was a good talk, I really have an excellent group of students right now, and I really appreciate our dialogue after we do each exercise. We ended up on the subject of Empathy.

I teach a method based on the Sanford Meisner approach to acting. I know many of you reading this probably already know that, and secretly judge it, but here’s why I teach the method, before we get into why Empathy is key. One big tenant of the technique is an emphasis on focusing on your partner. You work off their behavior as opposed to generating a point of view from your own head or guts. This allows for more moment to moment acting, and in the end a more truthful performance can take place. However, I have noticed in my five plus years studying and teaching this technique, that a lot of people have an inherent problem with simply focusing on someone else.

Now some people would argue that this hurdle for the actor stems from the inherent ‘vanifty’ that most actors have. There’s a gene in every person that forces to them to want to stand up on a stage and be in front of people. We want to be the center of attention as actors and that’s why we have a hard time yielding our energy to our partners. But I disagree. While, I agree that facebook, twitter… hell.. the internet in general is creating an opportunity for people to become needy self promoting bores, I don’t think that the unwillingness to yield your performance to the behavior of your partner stems from vanity. I believe it stems from FEAR.

This back and forth exchange between actors is an intimate process. In general we do not as people spend a lot of time investing in just listening to people, unless we deeply care for them. Do you want proof? Hey, next time you go out to a big group function, or your have a meeting in your office, watch how many times people check their cell phones for email, tweets or texts. One on one interaction is UNDERRATED and under utilized. We don’t tend to invest in our real lives, so doing it on-stage with a potential stranger you met day one of rehearsal is an unfamiliar and potentially uncomfortable experience. Why? Well, it creates in the end intimacy, investment, it makes you care to a degree about someone. This can feel new to people and flat out scarey. We would much rather preserve our protective bubble of comfort than step out into the risky world of connection.

BUT GUESS WHAT! INTIMACY IS NOT UN NATURAL. You see intimacy is something we actually crave, we need, we must get it. Because when we don’t we never fully continue to grow or evolve. And guess what the path to intimacy is? You guessed it. It is EMPATHY. For me, I describe empathy this way, you choose to experience on an emotionally level the emotional life of another individual. If they are sad, you feel their sadness, and allow it to change you. That is empathyOver on “Shift the Focus Podcast” you have heard J.J. talk many times about how the human brain is wired for Empathy. Do you remember that? If that’s new to you, head to the podcast and check out episode 3. When a little baby receives empathy, receives unconditional love, that baby will blossom and grow into an incredible person. As babies, we don’t know all the ‘rules of society’, so we just lap that empathy up when it comes our way. We eat it like candy. But as we grow to adult hood, we get messages like. Be quite, Fit In, Work Hard, Keep Your Head down, Don’t take risks, Be Strong. All of those little phrases simply enforce a lifestyle based in fear and isolation.

This is (as it has been recently explained to me) is different from sympathy. Sympathy is simply acknowledging another person’s emotional position, but you don’t actually engage in it. Sympathy in essence is incomplete to a degree. It’s a side order fries. Empathy is the whole, Burger, Fries and Milk Shake Combo.

EMPATHY is so crucial for the actor, because once you have it, once you understand it, you in essence become the emotionally present and available actor you wish to become. You’re not simply a musician pounding out notes written for you on a sheet of music. You become the jazz musician who knows the song, but allows the craftsmanship of his fellow band mates to shape and change and improvise new beats, new movements, new moments. Empathy transforms the acting experience from a thought out process to an emotionally invested fireworks show.

But I acknowledge that the process towards being an Empathetic actor is hard. It takes personal work, reflection, admission of insecurities, admission of fear, and perhaps worst of all confrontation with our own embarrassment and shame. But what it yields is far more valuable both personally and artistically. I encourage each artist, not just actor, to try and find their own opportunities for empathy in how they interact with the people in their own lives, and with fellow artists. It really is the key towards finding your own aesthetic and your own voice as a creative person.

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