Going to Extremes

What acting taught me about the limits of empathy
Mosaic with theatrical masks, Capitoline Museums, Rome (B.O’Kane/Alamy Stock Photo)

I had to buy a hatchet. A real one: the kind that you can use to cut a tree down or split open someone’s face. That’s what the scene called for, not a reenactment of George Washington standing beside a cherry tree, rueful and wee, but an unhinged husband, having fallen off the wagon, chasing his poor wife around the living room.

The frantic pursuit is the climax of Come Back, Little Sheba, a largely forgotten play from the somewhat less forgotten playwright, William Inge. But I undertook the scene—complete with lurching, braying, and wildly swinging a blunted hatchet—as part of a different dénouement. 

Exploring the art of acting was my attempt to remedy a failing of the first draft of my dissertation about the ethics of empathy. In its conclusion, I had grandly speculated on, but failed to actually explore, the outer limits of empathy. My advisors’ criticism was well-taken, but it did present a dilemma: How do you investigate empathy when it involves behavior far outside your comfort zone?

It was a tricky matter—morally, methodologically, and mentally—and I was fortunate that the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago afforded me the intellectual latitude to resolve it. The program is known for resisting narrow disciplinary boundaries, and it had already given me the freedom to explore what figures from Adam Smith to Michel de Montaigne to Barack Obama have to teach us about empathy. My favorite study focused on William Shakespeare, the subject of a chapter I worked on under the guidance of one of my advisors, Harold Bloom. The chapter examined the time Shakespeare spent strutting and fretting his hours on the Elizabethan stage. The eighteenth-century literary critic Elizabeth Montagu had compared his talents as a playwright to the whirling dervish in the Arabian Nights, someone who could “throw his soul into the body of another man, feel all his sentiments, perform his functions, and fill his place.” I speculated that he could do so, in large part, because as an actor he’d honed a capacity for what I called “radical empathy,” an uncanny aptitude possessed by those actors who seem to dissolve into their roles whenever they step foot on stage. 

The answer to my conundrum, it turns out, was already written into my work. I needed to explore the actor’s craft and find out what it might teach me about the limits of empathy—and the toll that such an exploration might exact. It helped that I was living in Chicago, a city with the most vibrant theater scene this side of the Hudson (and the most ardent community of actors in the country). After a bit of research, I settled on the Artistic Home, an award-winning storefront theater and the city’s premier acting studio for training students in the Meisner technique.

How do you investigate empathy when it involves behavior far outside your comfort zone?

That approach to dramatic performance is named for Sanford Meisner, who instructed a remarkable array of actors and actresses, including Grace Kelly, Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck, and Diane Keaton, in addition to directors Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer and playwrights David Mamet and Arthur Miller. The success of Meisner’s New York City–based Neighborhood Playhouse, where he served as the director of the acting department until his retirement in 1990, made him the most successful heir to the revolutionary reevaluation of the actor’s craft begun by the Russian actor, director, and theoretician Konstantin Stanislavsky.

Stanislavky was the founder of the famed Moscow Art Theater, and he came of age when figures like Anton Chekhov were writing plays whose naturalism proved an awkward fit for the grand theatricality most actors then favored. Stanislavsky responded by shifting the attention of his pupils. Rather than emphasize the exterior elements of dramatic representation—an arched eyebrow, a graceful step, lucent syllables—Stanislavsky instructed them in what he called the “School of Experience,” a series of exercises, often improvisational, that aimed to induce realistic behavior onstage rather than studied affectation. The latter approach he termed the “School of Representation,” and even at its most accomplished, he claimed, it produced a kind of acting that “has beauty but no depth. It is effective rather than deep.” Indeed, whatever an audience might gain from such vivid displays, they lost something far greater: “You marvel, but you don’t believe.”

For Stanislavsky, the test of an actor’s art was ultimately quite simple: to be or not to be. Meisner described successful efforts at putting this method into practice as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” But Meisner focused on one element of the Stanislavsky System in particular, taken from An Actor’s Work, the manual Stanislavsky modeled after the two-year conservatory he led, an element that was largely overlooked by other enthusiasts: communion.

Communion involves the relationship between the individual actors on stage and the elusive quality that distinguishes a lively and unpredictable exchange from a stale recitation of set speeches. To help young actors embrace the creative liberty required to achieve this, Meisner devised the Repetition Game, an exercise that is the cornerstone of his technique. 

In the four courses that make up the Artistic Home’s basic curriculum, the Repetition Game is not simply foundational; it fills more or less the entirety of the first eight-week session. While a few variations are introduced during that time, the essential exercise is at once simple and slightly terrifying. Having assembled on the risers in the small studio at the back of the theater, students are prompted by inspiration or the instructor’s urging to come down, two at a time, for an unscripted confrontation. It begins by one of them making an observation (“You’re nervous”), which the other has to repeat (“I’m nervous”), back and forth (“You’re nervous,” “I’m nervous,” “You’re nervous,” “I’m nervous”), until, moved by an impulse, one of them makes a new observation (“You’re annoyed”). Then the repetition, which includes any physical behavior that suits the moment, starts anew.

If this exercise strikes you as a bit deranged, you’re not alone. Indeed, you’d be just like any student in a Meisner class encountering the Repetition Game for the first time. When you are called down in front of your fellow students, one question immediately flashes before your mind—“Oh God, what am I supposed to do?”—and it is that question, or any question for that matter, that exercise is designed to eliminate, in order to make way for something more primal.

“I wanted an exercise for actors where there is no intellectuality,” Meisner writes in On Acting. “I wanted to eliminate all that ‘head’ work, to take away all the mental manipulation and get to where the impulses come from. And I began with the premise that if I repeat what I hear you saying, my head is not working.” That points to the primary reason for the stiff discomfort of the amateur actor or the gilded insincerity of the School of Representation—a head that is busy “working.” Such self-awareness makes for bad acting, at least as far as Meisner was concerned. “My approach is based on bringing the actor back to his emotional impulses and to acting that is firmly rooted in the instinctive,” he writes. “It is based on the fact that all good acting comes from the heart, as it were, and that there’s no mentality in it.”

Meisner’s insight, which is ultimately essential to understanding the requirements of radical empathy, is that stable patterns of thought tend to confine our behavior. I don’t mean this merely in terms of the restraints of self-consciousness, though so much of Meisner training, not least the Repetition Game, aims to unravel these, but more profoundly in terms of what I call in my dissertation the “sentimental physics” that determine the warp and woof of social engagement. 

Long before we reach adulthood, we develop settled ways of engaging each other and inhabiting the world. These habits not only limit the range of our expressiveness, they establish well-worn grooves of preferred social behavior. Transcending them is no simple matter. That’s not only because, like the manner in which we walk and talk, they are second nature to us, but also because, in the company of others, our conduct is not a series of isolated incidents. Whatever we do in such moments, we are always taking account of other people—whether to thwart, entice, comfort, or provoke them—and our words and deeds are informed by a moral sense that gives them parameters and purpose.

We develop settled ways of engaging each other and inhabiting the world. Transcending them is no simple matter.

If you end up only playing yourself on stage—an eventuality for some actors, though usually inadvertent—such constraints are no great matter. But if you want to inhabit a character with whom you share little in common, the ability to break free from familiar behavior, and the moral sense underwriting it, is vital. I may treat my own dear mother with the utmost reverence, but if I am playing the Prince of Denmark, it must feel natural for me to give Gertrude a verbal thrashing.

The overriding aim of the Repetition Game and other improvisational exercises like it is fairly straightforward: to prepare the actor to meet another character wherever she’s standing, rather than to force her to come to you. “Only the artist is responsible for stretching,” Stella Adler, another of Stanislavky’s American acolytes, writes in her guide to acting. “And it isn’t easy. But when the artist does stretch, the entire world limbers up.”

Stretching yourself in order to open up the entire world of human behavior is a provocative way of sizing up the requirements of radical empathy. Think of it this way: What would you have to do not merely to understand someone whose behavior is extravagant and strange—say, the mercurial self-destructiveness of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler or the bumptious bestiality of Streetcar’s Stanley Kowalski—but to channel their feelings? The first task is no doubt challenging, but it is only the second that we would properly call empathy. 

Meisner training can be emotionally confounding when it attempts to free up the range of one’s behavior and thereby open a wider channel for an unruly community of characters. When I began my instruction, I hadn’t yelled at anyone in fifteen years. By the end of it, I had grown accustomed to screaming my guts out. Guiding students through such an experience requires a hand that is disciplined, caring, and, above all else, conscientious. I was quite fortunate that, in an industry that is sometimes blithe about the health and welfare of young performers, the teaching staff at the Artistic Home, led by Kathy Scambiatterra, the artistic director and a formidable actress in her own right, is a model of professionalism. 

Still, an actor’s craft will never be without substantial peril because of the simple fact that, as a matter of practice, the actor must not only inure himself to deeply unnerving behavior, he must embrace it. Scambiatterra described this as “raising the stakes” of a scene. When we progressed from preliminary exercises to improvisational episodes, she advised us that we must always seek to make the strongest dramatic choices. We were not to behave with prudence or propriety but, as Voltaire once said of Shakespeare’s art, with an eye toward “all that we can imagine of what is greatest and most powerful, with all that rudeness without wit can contain of what is lowest and most detestable.” 

Voltaire didn’t mean this as a compliment. Whether because of a twinge of conscience or, more likely, a pang of jealousy, the imp of the French Enlightenment favored dramatic works that tidily reaffirmed the sensibilities of polite society. We, however, do not. Not typically—or at least, not on the stage. In our daily lives, the case is otherwise, a distinction that reminds us that the requirements of civilized conduct and those of the creative arts are not necessarily one and the same.

Meisner acknowledged this. “I don’t like actors very much, though I do like to act,” he said. “It’s enjoyable—sometimes. But I don’t like what it brings to the surface in my personality: the self-centeredness, the childish vanity, the infantilism. That’s what an actor has to have.”

Far be it for me to argue with one of the foremost acting teachers of the twentieth century, but from my own experience at the Artistic Home, Meisner seems to be confusing an essential requirement of an actor’s craft with an occupational hazard of Stanislavsky-inspired systems. When they were filming Marathon Man, a young Dustin Hoffman explained to his esteemed co-star, Sir Lawrence Olivier, that he had stayed up for three days straight in order to achieve the cinematic verisimilitude of a man who had, well, stayed up three days straight—to which the elder actor memorably replied, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?” What Olivier was driving at is a simple truth overlooked by many earnest young actors: one need not go mad to convincingly play a madman. Olivier understood this because he came to the stage without studying the Meisner Technique, Method Acting, or any of the other Stanislavsky offshoots, preferring to focus on the outward elements of an actor’s craft that Stanislavsky identified with the School of Representation. That is a choice that British actors make far more than their American counterparts, who prefer the approaches that monkey with the mental habits that guide their behavior and invite the kind of inner lawlessness that Meisner somewhat charitably describes as “childish vanity.” The promise of such acting techniques is that they can liberate us to understand and even channel the lives of others far different from ourselves, but that capacity can come at quite a price to one’s moral and psychological stability.

 

Consider, again, Come Back, Little Sheba. To most members of the audience, the climactic encounter I described is most memorable for the crude theatrics of a frenzied stumblebum chasing his poor wife about the parlor. But even if you include the most treacherous elements of staging such an intensely physical scene—I rehearsed tumbling over a couch, hatchet in hand, more times than my poor knees care to remember—the greatest difficulty of inhabiting the part convincingly is channeling both venomous feelings of hatred and self-loathing.

In the scene, the husband Doc, drunk for the first time in years, returns home late at night after skipping the dinner his wife Lola has held for Marie, their boarder, and her fiancé, Bruce. Throughout the play, Doc’s feelings toward the chipper co-ed are a combustible mix of unacknowledged attraction and paternal endearment, but she also represents a vitality and optimism the middle-aged man no longer enjoys, a reality for which Lola, disheveled and slightly dotty if also entirely devoted to him, serves as an infuriating reminder. 

“Tell the world I’m drunk!” Doc screams at her, after smashing their fine china and trying to swipe her with the hatchet. “Tell the whole damn world. Scream your head off, you fat slut! Hollar till all the neighbors think I’m beating the hell outta you. Where’s Bruce now? Under Marie’s bed? You got all fresh and pretty for him, didn’t you. Combed your hair for once, even washed the back of your neck, put on a girdle. You were willing to harness all that fat into a bundle!”

Lola’s response highlights the fact that, whether or not Doc ultimately lays hold of her, the greatest blow has already been delivered. “I would rather you hit me with that ax,” she tells her husband. “Honest I would. But I can’t stand to hear you talk like that.”

It’s an unsparing scene, and for an actor to be successful in it, he must taste something of the acrid cruelty that poisons Doc. He must hate as Doc hates, a hatred for himself and for what his life has become, a hatred for which Lola is a symbol, an instrument, and an innocent bystander.  

Today, far more than when I began my dissertation, we are confronted by people who seem liberated by their hate and liberal in their hatred, and there is some thought that empathy might be the antidote to a society fractured by such divisiveness. It’s a nice idea, but one that I believe confuses empathy with other virtues: tolerance, understanding, amity, goodwill, and humility. Indeed, empathy is often regarded as being inclusive of these virtues, but that assumes the practice of empathy is conducive to them—indeed, that it endows us with a kind of moral perspicacity that elevates us above the parochial commitments that divide us. 

Forgive me if I am unconvinced.

Set aside the practical challenge of convincing the ill-inclined to embrace empathy. What does it really mean to take this task seriously? Cultivating empathy is no small undertaking. Trying to feel what those who hate feel, sincerely and without censure, is no less exhausting than learning Farsi, mastering flamenco, or adopting any other craft of being until it becomes second nature. And yet, unlike these other tasks, the commitment to radical empathy also carries with it the danger of moral contamination. The same may be said of any exercise that asks us to stretch our consciousness far beyond the familiar, to make unexceptional and intimate that which is alien. As some of the greatest actors of the past fifty years have demonstrated, doing so may be consistent with creative genius, but the payoff, beyond the realm of arts and letters, is limited. I am certain the stage would be lost without them, but I am not so sure what channeling the seven deadly sins will teach me about being a better person.

One may be solicitous of the experience of others without ever exploring the outer bounds of empathy. Knowing the trials another has faced is not the same as enduring them, and as a matter of prescriptive ethics, the two make for very different invitations. The first is an encouragement to mutual understanding consistent with the claims of a compassionate pluralism; the second is a call to suffering and disorientation. It is only the first that a democratic politics demands.

Making a dedicated practice of stepping into the shoes of another is probably best left to the committed actors I met at the Artistic Home. For the rest of us concerned about a fractured world, a different task is in order: we can embrace the other-regarding impulse of empathy that honors the lives of others and attempts to reckon with their experiences, all while remembering that, in the face of pain and suffering, empathy isn’t actually required. A humbler custom suffices: I needn’t feel your pain for you to have my assistance. 

Published in the February 2021 issue: 
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John Paul Rollert has written for the New Republic, Harper’s, the Washington Post, Slate, and the New York Times. For writing featured in the Atlantic, he was recognized by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers in its 2017 “Best in Business” Competition.

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