Is Empathy The Key?

Reese Witherspoon once said, “Acting is empathy.” And truly, she’s right. Without the ability to feel what your characters are feeling, you can’t possibly bring them to life. The Merriam-Webster definition of empathy is:
“the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…”

Having taught acting to young people as a Senior Teacher at The Playground for the past 9 years, and having studied acting for most of my life, I know there are many ways for expressing the need for having empathy in the acting world. Some teachers encourage students to truly “connect” with their character. They talk about really “getting inside” the character’s head—about “becoming” them.

At The Playground, we teach our students about subtext and encourage total commitment to the imaginary circumstances of their scenes. But, in basic English, actors are asked to empathize. When actors give themselves over to feeling what their character is feeling, the audience feels it too. That is the “magic” we hear about—actors who have imagined themselves so fully into someone else’s feelings and circumstances that their bodies and minds, for those moments, believe it’s happening to them.

Watching kids go through the two-year program at our conservatory, I’ve realized just how much acting fosters the ability to empathize. This art requires one to hone his or her empathic skills and the personal growth we see is remarkable.

In the advanced classes at The Playground, one of the exercises we use to help students with this skill is to have two scene partners sit facing one another on stage. These actors will be speaking the lines of their scripts.
Two other students in class become the “thoughts,” or subtext, of the seated actors. Each “subtext” student stands behind his assigned actor, and after each scripted line “their” actor says, speaks aloud what the actor is thinking.
It forces students to step out of their own opinions and feelings and into someone else’s.

It’s amazing to see how easy it is for students to crawl into another person’s brain and feelings when they are challenged to do so. I think actors are given a gift by being challenged to open themselves to the viewpoints of others. It’s a gift that has far-reaching possibilities. What if these skills were taught in public schools? What if all children had the opportunity to take an acting class that emphasized the empathy in the art?

Teaching kids to step into a character’s head gives them the opportunity to use the same skills in their everyday lives.
If a child is in an argument with someone else, but with acting training, has learned to see things from another’s point of view, he can get a glimpse of where the other person is coming from. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to diffuse an argument. A glimpse leads to an understanding.

If children were taught this from an early age, the way they interact with others would change for the better. Not only would it help them to see things from other people’s points of view, it would, inherently, lead to a much less “me-oriented” existence. We are all the stars of our own life- movies, but when we step into and care about the lives of the other characters we come in contact with, our movies have a lot more heart.

Children are, by far, the most skilled humans at imagining. Maybe it’s time we helped them use their great imaginations to climb into the feelings of others. An empathic young generation could get so much accomplished! Empathy opens one’s mind to other ways of seeing, and in a world with so many differing points of view, the only way progress can occur is if we open ourselves to seeing someone else’s. Acting is a prime way to give young people this gift. With it, children—people—can do wonders.

Acting School: The Playground