Here’s what actors do, in one way or another. Imaginatively, they work to enter the experience of a person, a character, imagining circumstances, beliefs, thought-life, sensory preferences, histories of relationships, and perhaps most importantly, what their particular characters are hungry for, long for, and have been living without. They then shift their physical and emotional lives to somehow begin to interact with other players to present a story of what it means to be human in a very particular place with very particular cultural, historical, and personal factors in play. (Note: Imaginative, sensory detail is important. Where does the character’s particular hunger land in their body?)
One of the cardinal rules of acting is that you cannot judge your character and hope to enter into their hearts and minds. Be it a murderer, a savior, a lover, or a hated foe, to judge the other as an actor is to kill the process of entering in. People judge from the outside. When you’re inside the head of the character, none of that judgment can be going on, because it’s not going in their heads. Get it? Whenever you watch an actor that somehow isn’t quite succeeding in disappearing into the character, one of the culprits to watch for is a position of judgment in the approach.
This is a process of play and of work. It is imaginative, muscular work that takes time, energy, thought, research, conversation, experimentation, and failure. We watch, we offer the work to others, we try to learn what we can about what it means to be human through these interactions. Our work is to humanize the 2-D characters that lie on the writer’s page, enflesh them, give them voice, and hopefully, serve that character without judgment.
Will I play characters that are not like me? Characters who hold opinions in politics and religion and sexuality and economics that differ from mine? I hope so, or there won’t be much to do.
All of this is simply to suggest an exercise for all of us. Especially if you’re not an actor, give this a shot. Pick a person, a real human being (call them a character if you’d like) that sits on the opposite side of the fence from you on some piece of human living that you think is really important. Perhaps it’s a person (in actor terms, a character) that you don’t like very much, that you’d shout down if you could, or maybe it’s someone you fear. Pretend you got cast as that person, and now it’s your job to get inside their head, without judgment, to grasp what their hearts are like. Where they came from, what they’re up to, what they see as important and necessary. Where do their disappointments lie? What are their heartbreaks? What is the shape of their human brokenness? What makes them laugh? And what do they long for? What do they want?
If you’re really gutsy, you’ll realize the only way to actually find any of this out is to move beyond your imagination and actually go ask them. Befriend them, get to know them, differences and all. Of course, the actor’s work is not try to change their characters. The characters are what they are. We will only understand them or not, enter in fully or not, offer our bodies as places for their stories to live or not, and finally, love them or not.
Let’s say you get all this good information about the character. What’s the next step? What’s the next piece of the work? (You’re going to like this.) Now your job is to figure out where all the deep, soulful things you found out about the other lie in you. Because the work of the actor is not to find how the character differs from them, but to find where the places of intersection are. How are we alike? The assumption is this; all the soulful things that make one person unique are somehow also located in me, and all possibilities lie within us all.
Maybe call this the deep drilling into the old phrase, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
We are all the other.
Humanizing, isn’t it?
To restate the exercise: Be an actor. Lay down your opinions for a minute and try to imaginatively enter the experience of those you oppose. Your convictions may not change (changing anyone’s convictions is not the point), but I’m guessing the tone of voice, rhetoric, and conversation might.
And then, who knows what the possibilities might be.
All the world’s a stage…