It’s been a while since I have been asked to act in a piece of contemporary realism. I’ve been lucky enough to work in film and television quite a bit over the past couple decades, but my theatre resume skewed decidedly towards the classics. That said, I had forgotten how a character, especially one fairly close to home, could really sink into your bones.
In one of our first rehearsals, I exited after my final scene and broke down in tears; not sappy, whoa-is-me tears, but angry, frustrated, F-you-world tears. I hated every character in this play. I wondered where the intelligent people were, the people I recognize from my own work in higher education. And in our notes session after the run, I just lost it. I had what my friends call a Ginger Snap.
It wasn’t me talking… and I could feel it. After some distance and time, I realized it was Mr. Meyers: part of the working class, a mostly silent person with no given name, a man who is more device than fleshed out character. And yet even he had the power to seep in and take me over.
I say this because “dumping” (as it is often called) is not something that is readily taught even to those people who are privileged enough to have received formal acting training. And this is highly problematic. It leads to crippling emotional distress and in extreme circumstances, it can even lead to death or suicide. Luckily I recognized what was happening and I employed some techniques taught to me by one random teacher in my days in NYC. For what it is worth, they helped.
There is a real danger in the job of acting that most people won’t acknowledge, but it is a necessary danger if our goal is realism and understanding others. We are taught to find the positive choices in every character; no one tries to be a villain even if their actions may lead you to judge them otherwise. Very few people are as willing as actors to toy with their emotions and consequently their own mind for the pay off of a hoped “better understanding.” But it is also this exact exercise that is missing from our current social crisis. As actors, we quite literally and figuratively walk in other people’s shoes. We are empaths because we take time to understand the complexity of character and the “why” for everything they think and do. We understand the impact of our actions on others because our actions are quite literally the tools of our trade.
I often wish everyone could take an acting class, if for no other reason than to develop a higher sense of empathy. I wonder if we made theatre as mandatory as math and science, would we even be in this situation of inequality any longer. Theatre is not a panacea, but it is a tool for better understanding and empathy, and if only for that reason, every person would benefit from practicing it.
Our hope with this play is not that you might enjoy it, rather it is that you experience it, see yourself in these people, and don’t so easily credit yourself as not being “like that.” In short, that you join us in empathizing with these people and checking our judgement at the door.