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.