When I was growing up, I hated math. I really, really hated it. I had no desire to spend my time performing random operations and reaching arbitrary sums. My grandmother once came into my room, demanding that I take it more seriously. When I protested that it was pointless, she said I might feel differently if I ever wanted to be a scientist. I told her flatly that I didn’t want to be a scientist.
I think about that every time I need a calculator for a 20 percent tip.
Most of us aren’t trying to figure out how to put a person on Mars, but we all use math in some way. That’s why every first grade class in America learns the multiplication tables.
Acting is the study of something equally foundational.
At its core, acting is the art of empathy. Rather than learn to project the image of another person, actors learn to receive the world as someone else. Learning to act is learning to listen.
If you walked into acting 101, chances are you’d hear something along the lines of “focus on the other person”. In the context of class, that means your scene partner, but it’s a tenant of acting on every level. Focus on the other person.
Focusing doesn’t mean looking at or thinking about a scene partner, but simply giving them attention; turning off the analytic mind, the tendency to make judgments, and openly receiving what is given.
What makes acting so hard is that openness can be lost as easily as it can be reached. Our minds are always turning inward, whether in self doubt or self exaltation, and an actor must unlearn these habits enough to remain open for each performance, responding believably to what they receive on any given moment. This requires constant vigilance, start to finish; even if a performance begins with openness, it can be lost midway through.
Imagine yourself playing Hamlet. Your father has just been murdered by your uncle, and your mother has just married him. You’re standing in front of her, accusing her of complicity. She denies it, evading your questions by asking you how you could think such so harshly of her. This angers you, and you lash out at her on the line “you question with a wicked tongue.”
Suddenly, someone in the second row coughs.
Unprepared for this sudden diversion of your senses, you hear this with your own ears instead of Hamlet’s. Your attention drifts off your prevaricating mother towards your own private thoughts. You remember that this morning you were having a bad hair day, and you hope the audience hasn’t noticed. What if there’s an agent here tonight?
But wait! You realize, with horror, that it’s your line again. You try to remember what Hamlet is supposed to be doing- He is angry! To demonstrate your anger, you turn away from your mother and stamp your foot against the ground.
Caught up in yourself, you have no idea what your scene partner is giving you. Say she broke down crying; your action was not a response to that new information. You would have been angry no matter what she did with her line. Her tears had no effect on you, because you were projecting a static Hamlet, based on how you think Hamlet acts, instead of letting your Hamlet experience his world.
Just as you don’t have to be Neil Degrasse Tyson to benefit from math, you don’t have to be Daniel Day-Lewis to benefit from acting. Learning to receive the world the way it is, and not the way we want it to be, is pertinent to everyone.
In a time of global suffering, it’s easier to read the news through a veil. A University of Michigan study of over 14,000 American College students found that empathy has fallen 40 percent since 2000. Sandro Galea, lamenting this falloff in a piece last year, referred to it as “compassion fatigue”.
Essentially, our growing consumption of information from secondary sources, particularly online, has dulled our empathic capacity. We are less and less capable of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, instead processing news of hardship the way we might absorb information for a test. Though technically more informed, the lack of empathy has also made us effectually apathetic; If we aren’t suffering directly, we don’t feel the urge to make a difference.
When someone cuts us off in traffic, it’s easier to write them off as a jerk than to consider that they may have just lost their job. When someone is crying on the subway, it’s easier to look at our phones than to think that their father may have just passed away. With the proliferation of handheld devices, we are given a constant excuse to look away. We are no longer seeing the world around us, but building a perception of it from behind our walls. And we wonder why over 50% of Americans report feelings of loneliness.
Growing feelings of isolation are evidenced by a resurgence in the popularity of meditation and yoga, activities that make us feel more in tune with the world. Acting does the same thing, but by way of literal interaction. Instead of finding a source of emotion within ourselves, acting teaches us to find it in someone else.
State boards of education are unlikely to add acting to their core curricula, but maybe they should. In a time with a lot more talking than listening going on, it might not hurt to remember how to set ourselves aside, and focus on someone else.
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