Empathy unmasked

Illustration by Cameron Cottrill

Empathy unmasked

To get outside himself, a writer takes up method acting.

We talk about empathy a lot these days—most often to observe the lack of it. Consider the president. No, not that one. Barack Obama, who warned in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, that the nation was suffering from an “empathy deficit.” He’d been saying as much since at least 2002, when he gave an address at a Rockefeller Chapel event commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and bemoaned “an empathy shortage, an empathy deficit.” “We’ve become so cynical,” he told the assembly, “that it almost seems naive to believe that we can understand each other across the gulf of race or class or region or religion. It’s so much easier to retreat into what’s familiar.”

It’s also tempting to stay put. Sympathy is one thing (I can feel sorry for you just fine standing over here on the other side of the room) but stepping into the shoes of someone whose life looks a lot different from yours is frankly a little terrifying. The democratic benefits of closing that distance are one reason the distinguished law lecturer made his recommendation—“Not sympathy, mind you, but empathy”—but to anchor one’s ethics in a sustained commitment to empathy is no small undertaking. Set aside all of the detective work to make sense of someone’s daily affairs beyond a tidy list of stereotypical traits. What would it mean for you not just to understand a stranger’s experience but to actually fulfill the fundamental requirement of empathy: To feel what she feels for the reason she feels it?

Seriously, think about it: What would it take to bring home the trauma of an exceedingly precocious child (spoiled and maybe a little bratty) who lost his father in a shocking moment of domestic violence? Or to feel the stinging humiliation of a boorish and proud man being pushed into retirement who believes his boys are lousy and that he has nothing to show for a lifetime of busting his chops? Or to feel the 10,000-watt rage of a young wife who’s sacrificed everything for her husband’s career only to have him drop her like a bad habit when some floozy comes along?

Actors who sign on to play Hamlet, Willy Loman, or Medea face just such challenges, and when I reached the end of the first draft of my doctoral dissertation for the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, “At Home and Abroad: Reflections on the Nature and Limits of Empathy,” increasingly I found myself thinking about them. My research had examined what a range of figures have to teach us about empathy, including Adam Smith, Michel de Montaigne, William Shakespeare, Jay Gatsby, and, yes, President Obama. But, as one of the chairs of my dissertation committee gently observed, I hadn’t gotten around to telling readers, practically speaking, how they might overcome their “empathy deficit.”

Actors are not the only individuals who make a career out of stepping into the shoes of others, but then again, I didn’t have access to any international spy rings, and I hadn’t known any narcs since high school. In turn, I decided that I would try to learn what actors learn—gain an empathetic education, if you will—in order to make sense of the requirements of a radical commitment to empathy.

Luckily, Chicago has arguably the liveliest theater scene in the country, complete with an unruly assortment of acting studios that offer everything from one-off classes and refreshers to what I was looking for: a comprehensive introduction to acting. After spending some time on Yelp, where, much like faculty meetings, the overwhelming spirit is often in error, never in doubt, I settled on the Artistic Home, a well-regarded training studio and black box theater in West Town.

In addition to aspiring Laurence Oliviers, acting classes tend to attract the same assortment of individuals who often congregate in adult education programs: the curious, the bored, the lonely, and the strange. It’s that last group—and the need to sort out the eccentric from the amateur taxidermists—that makes conducting interviews of anyone who wants to enroll in an acting class a fairly routine procedure. Mine was with Kathy Scambiatterra, the cofounder and artistic director of the Artistic Home, as well as a distinguished actress, stage director, and a member of the theater’s ensemble. She couldn’t have been more welcoming when I first contacted her about joining the introductory class, but as I made my way to the interview, passing the hodgepodge of prewar walk-ups and street establishments that share the same stretch of Grand Avenue, I found myself nursing a small knot in my stomach. It had been a while since I’d been given the once-over to determine if I would be an unpleasant presence in a classroom, and while I believed (or, well, hoped) that I would pass the test, I have to say, it was remarkable to feel so vulnerable again.

The feeling of vulnerability, a sense that often dulls with the certainties of adulthood and the satisfactions of professional success, is essential to an actor’s art, a lesson I would learn repeatedly over the cycle of four classes that make up the Artistic Home’s basic curriculum. In the United States, there isn’t a consensus approach to theatrical training, but most of the schools sit somewhere downstream of the Stanislavsky system.

Named for Konstantin Stanislavsky, the actor and director who founded the Moscow Art Theatre at the tail end of the 19th century, the Stanislavsky system broke from previous dramatic techniques by fundamentally changing the actor’s orientation. Rather than working (as actors call it) “outside in” by emphasizing gestures, costumes, and vocal range, Stanislavsky had his students work “inside out” by enrolling them in what he called “The School of Experience.” This involved a curriculum of free play and improvisational games that aimed to free students from customary habits while making them more receptive to a harrowing array of passions, all long before they entered the world of a play or tried to memorize a line of dialogue.

Lee Strasberg is the most famous of Stanislavsky’s American acolytes, but Sanford Meisner’s legacy as a teacher has been most enduring. The Artistic Home’s training regimen is based on what is conventionally known as the Meisner technique, an approach to acting that draws inspiration from the Stanislavsky system by its focus on softening up the behavioral disposition of actors to make them more capable of channeling a wider range of emotions.

Such a process may sound unremarkable, but consider what it would take to eliminate, even for a short time, the tendencies, mannerisms, and tics that everyone recognizes in your daily behavior in addition to the sensibilities that underwrite them. In other words, to relieve you of you. This is no small challenge, and Meisner’s opening gambit is the Repetition Game, the cornerstone of his technique.

I had never heard of the game when I arrived at the Artistic Home. Like so much of what goes on in acting classes, the first blush with the exercise is baffling to anyone whose vision of an actor’s art is almost entirely derived from watching actors. In turn, it seems appropriate that the training studio at the Artistic Home lies at the back of the building behind the theater, for students arriving from the street are required to pass through the setting of an actual play before entering the workshop where they will learn their trade.

The space itself is actually far cozier than the barebones acting studios in many an earnest Introduction to Acting video you can find on YouTube. It’s outfitted with a collection of mismatched furniture and assorted bric-a-brac that would look entirely at home in a flat full of sociology students. The studio is supposed to have the feel of a domestic setting, one that, with the wall of props just inside the door, can be rearranged quickly to give the feeling, if not of Elsinore, then of someone else’s living room.

Students wander through this space to do what students do, regardless of the discipline: take their seats and make an audience. In acting classes, most of the time is spent watching others fumble through the very exercises you’ll soon be called on to do yourself. In the case of the Repetition Game, that involves joining another student with no directions except to engage each other and say what you’re feeling (in Meisnerian parlance, “speaking to the moment”) or to repeat what the other person has already said, allowing for impulses to shift the repetitive conversation. This gives rise to exchanges that look more or less as follows:

You’re scared. I’m scared? You’re scared. I’m scared. You’re scared. I’m scared. You’re scared! I’m scared! You’re scared! I’M SCARED! [an impulse shift] You’re angry. I’m angry! You’re angry? I’m angry! You’re angry! I’M ANGRY! YOU’RE ANGRY! I’M ANGRY! You’re angry? I’m angry. You’re angry. [another impulse] You’re crying. I’m crying. You’re crying? I’m crying! You’re crying. I’m crying. [another impulse] You’re scared. I’m scared.

If you’re confused, that makes you pretty much like every acting student who first encounters the Repetition Game. Explaining the theory behind it, Meisner said he wanted an exercise that had “no intellectuality.” Like Stanislavsky before him, he wanted to remove “all the mental manipulation” that most often leads to self-conscious, stilted acting in order to produce performances “firmly rooted in the instinctive.”

“Instinctive” is another way of describing behavior that my mother would just call “inappropriate.” That’s by design. The brilliance of the Repetition Game is not only that it pushes you into emotional registers that you’re hardly at home in but that it also gives you nowhere to hide. Once you’ve been called into the space, you’re not supposed to play a character or conjure a plotline. You’re just supposed to engage the other actor, and even if you’re a reserved person by nature, when someone gets in your face and says, “You’re full of it,” you might quickly lose track of your inside voice.

Meisner training is not Marine Corps boot camp—for one thing, there are far fewer push-ups—but the intensity of the process should not be understated. You are not only being thrust far beyond your emotional comfort zone, but you’re also expected to give evidence of it. Crying, screaming, and a fair bit of R-rated behavior are all de rigueur in class meetings—no, you cannot remove your pants, and fisticuffs are strictly prohibited—but then again, such conduct is hardly alien to the theater.

Emotionally, the Repetition Game can be brutal. I found it somewhat like being trapped in a Buster Keaton movie: whipsawed, smacked, dunked, tripped, and kicked down a flight of stairs—all in the course of a scene. The experience was a reminder that if you soften people up by pummeling them, it’s going to leave bruises. That may sound extreme—and it’s meant to be—but empathy often requires no less. Adam Smith famously began his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) by describing how we would feel if we spent some time watching someone being broken on a medieval rack, but if the ethical possibilities of empathy require you to be affected by the suffering of others (and thereby prompted to do something about them), you have to allow yourself to be wounded. Otherwise, you’re lying when you say, “I feel your pain.”

Smith’s example is a somewhat gory reminder of why the Repetition Game is just the first step in the Meisner Technique. The exercise is supposed to prepare you to be emotionally receptive to what Meisner called “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”

What did he mean by this? Take the Door-Knock Game, another staple of the training. One student calls another to join her, and the second student comes up with an imaginary circumstance, a “shared specific,” that will give their interaction a little drama. She shares it with her partner before she retreats behind a door, and when she
reenters, the two quickly launch into repetition with a trajectory dictated by the charged circumstance.

Our teacher often reminded us that, as actors, we should always make choices that invite the greatest conflict, so I once informed a fellow writer that his prose was garbage. That episode had some sparks—You’re a loser! I’m a loser! You’re a loser! I’m a loser!—but the one I remember more vividly was a lot less sophomoric. I called a young woman down, and I remember her standing beside me, pondering a “shared specific,” when something terrible flickered across her face. She turned to me. “I told you I’m dying of cancer,” she said, before retreating behind the door. When she knocked and came into the room, the sight was positively devastating.

She wasn’t dying of cancer, any more than Smith’s observer is being torn limb from limb, but the imagination can bring home either set of circumstances to inspire a profound sense of grief.

As I continued through the Artistic Home’s basic curriculum, improvisational exercises like the Door-Knock Game incorporated more and more circumstances, adding layers of complexity and believability to every new scenario. Such additions work against the narcissistic tendencies in the training. Rather than lulling you into the mode of the tortured artist, you learn to harvest and metabolize human experience, letting it fire you creatively.

Such lessons prepare you for the training’s ultimate aim, to inhabit a theatrical role so thoroughly you seem to disappear. Describing the requirements of such an endeavor, Meisner seconded George Bernard Shaw’s estimation that “self-betrayal, magnified to suit the optics of the theater, is the whole art of acting.” In other words, the aim of an actor’s work is to lose himself in order to find a character.

Empathy is not an entirely different enterprise, even if the experience tends to be more fleeting. You are leaving the immediate world of your own experience—your needs, your fears, your present circumstances—and entering a new emotional landscape. You are betraying your self, even if just for a moment, in favor of another.

If we often do so instinctively with those nearest to us, cultivating a capacity to inhabit lives that are far different from our own is daunting. This is true even under ideal circumstances, like those the Artistic Home afforded. The teaching staff created a safe environment to explore the full spectrum of human emotion and taught us how we might attempt to channel strange and outrageous passions in service of stepping into the shoes of a gross gallery of characters. Such work is extremely challenging, not only because it is incredibly time consuming. Creatively speaking, the benefits of such efforts are showered on audiences who watch a gifted actress dissolve into a role, and they are also enjoyed by writers whose talent for empathy allows them to colonize a fictional world with a vivid community of characters.

Cultivating a radical capacity for empathy can have great benefits for an artist—my time at the Artistic Home convinced me of this—but I am more doubtful about its relevance for ethics.

To be sure, I am all for trying to understand the lives of others and extend the catalog of our experience—two activities that lend themselves to the spirit of tolerance and democratic accommodation that Barack Obama celebrates. But the difference between that activity and empathy in any full measure is akin to the difference between my own experience attending your wedding and yours. The practical challenges of bridging that divide are considerable, morally speaking, and I’m not sure the effects are worth the effort.

With apologies to the former president, I think we may do more good not by trying to feel the pain that others feel but by doing whatever we can to assist them. Much like trying to learn a new craft, rather than reaffirming our grasp on the world, such efforts can be revelatory in their own way. By reminding us how others suffer even when we enjoy comfort and security, they can teach us a separate lesson: humility.

John Paul Rollert, AM’09, PhD’17, is an adjunct associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He writes the In-House Ethicist, a featured column for the Chicago Booth Review, and his writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Paris Review.