VIEWS: 11 PAGES: 4 POSTED ON: 12/18/2011
Empathy Points of Empathy . A major publishing company executive recently expressed reservations about the seriousness of contemporary actors. "They seem to all just want to be in television shows now," he said. "I'm not sure they are serious enough to be interested in a book about empathic acting choices." That is a damnably sad commentary coming from one so high up the publishing ladder and is an opinion that I hope is not accurate. An actor's challenge is to get the audience to relate to his character as he helps the other actors, the writer, director and production team tell a story that is hopefully more than plain-fool, pie-in-the-face, Keystone Kops entertainment. I contend that actors can make empathic acting choices even on a sit-com or a commercial, even in a beach-blanket bikini movie. It is not necessary to wait until you are cast in a drama by Ibsen or Shakespeare to be thinking about the audience and why you became an actor in the first place. If we are not acting with the intention to communicate with one another, to affect one another on some deeper level, then what is acting all about? Stardom? Money? Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame? Empathic acting choices are based on the self-evident premise that all humans act to survive. This is what we have in common. The lowliest petty thief and the highest executive officers are exactly the same in that regard. A woman who remains with her abusive husband is taking what she thinks is the best course of action for her survival. It would be a mistake to play her as a pure victim; it is better to justify why she has stayed in the relationship. Find the survival mechanism. Regardless of how banal or awful or outrageous a character's behavior may be, the actor should search for points of empathy. How is this character successfully surviving in the world? Why does he figure that robbing the 7-11 was a swell idea? Surely, he had other options! The key to meaningful acting is always the empathic acting choice. (Charlie Chaplin understood this exceedingly well. I'll devote a future Craft Notes section to him....) Don't go for the obvious. Justify the extraordinary. Any fool can portray an evil person as an evil villain. It takes a true artist to figure out why the villain is the way he is, why the the bad choices are being made. Good and Evil, Hope and Courage, Dreams and Regrets, never ever die. They are Points of Empathy and the actor's coin of the realm. Willa Cather, in her book "The Song of the Lark", wrote the following passage, one of my favorites. I wish every actor would frame it, put over her desk where she can read and reflect on it daily : "Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is."
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