Better Living Through ActingPosted: January 27, 2010
So, as my acting class progresses, the work I’m doing is affecting me in ways that I didn’t anticipate.
I knew my heart would nearly jump out of my chest before performing in front of the class. I knew that my fear of making a fool of myself in front of (sober) people would give me moderate anxiety before, during and long after class had adjourned.
What I didn’t expect was that I would end up evaluating the very way that I view and relate to people.
Today my teacher gave us an assignment. It’s called “The Interview”. I’m going to paraphrase, and I hope I’m not violating the teacher’s privacy or rights here, so I’ll just issue a disclaimer — Susan Jackson at City College gave me this exercise to do:
“How many of you watch people? When you’re out in public, pick someone that interests you and just watch them. Are they telling you a story? Do their clothes tell you something about who they are? What are they holding, how are they moving? Here is a list of questions…each of you are going to observe a person and then throughout the semester I am going to interview you…you are going to answer these questions about the person you observed.”
The questions are things like what kind of car the person drives, where they are from, favorite food, proudest achievement, family situation — all things that may or may not be discernible from a 5-minute observation. The point here is that we are essentially creating a character based on this person.
Now, in trying this out on BART, I realized something about myself. I rarely look at people on the train. And when I do look — let me be completely candid and honest here — I am inevitably judging them. I am sizing them up. I’m thinking how attracted I am to them, sexually or otherwise. I’m applying stereotypes to them and assessing how much of a danger they are to me physically. I’m fantasizing about ripping the sunglasses off their face and squealing, “Hello! You’re underground!”
But really, I usually display very little compassion or curiosity about the individuals around me as human beings. In fact, I’m viewing these innocent people in relation to ME. I’m viewing them as intruders in my world.
So, I tried Ms. Jackson’s exercise this afternoon. And when I looked at that mid-20s Asian lady on the train who may or may not have been a student, with her hair tousled and her face free of makeup, and I started looking more deeply to who her parents are, where she lives, whether she has a car or not, whether she has a romantic interest, where she puts her phone at night before she goes to sleep….I realized something.
I feel really alone in the world. But I have drawn this curtain around myself.
And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one! It’s counterintuitive, but living in a big city can be a very isolating experience. The very act of functioning in a city tends to isolate us in the middle of millions, pitting us against unsympathetic employers, kept in a pen with toxic coworkers in our offices and tossed about with vicious panhandlers on the street…and terrorized by stompy neighbors clomping over our heads at night.
In an effort to defend myself and preserve my jaded state, I think I have closed myself off from people. It easiest to avoid having to tell someone to screw off if you don’t make the choice to interact with them in the first place.
But it’s also easy to forget that the guy next to you on BART may not be a criminal who is going to knife you, or a homeless person who is going to try to sell you a watch if you start conversation with them (it happens). In fact, most of the people out there are probably feeling the same way I do a lot of the time…isolated, lonely, tired…and that just a little bit of compassion goes a long way. Even if it’s silently making an effort to understand who they are without judging them.
So I felt much better today than I usually feel when I’m on the train. I felt aware, connected, and compassionate. And this new sense of curiosity freed me up a little bit.
Perhaps this simple exercise of putting myself in someone else’s proverbial shoes for an acting class has melted away a little of my urban jadedness.
Maybe acting is really an ‘act’ of compassion.