Why Actors Need Empathy

byLiz Eckert

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liz eckert voice and speech teacher new york nyActing is empathy in practice. An actor must be empathetic, especially to breathe life into the role of someone who might be considered despicable. You can’t play a character that you’re busy hating. You have to busy yourself with understanding her behavior, and feeling what it is to be that person in those circumstances.

You don’t have to like her; but you have to be willing and able to enter into the experience of what it is to be her. And that is what you’re demanding of your audience: to enter into a shared experience with fellow human beings on the stage or screen, and feel something of what they are feeling.

In order to have an empathetic experience with another person, we have to be empathetic with ourselves; we have to know what it is to feel what we feel, and speak through our own experience. This may sound a little ridiculous; how do we not feel what we are feeling?

We do this by identifying emotions such as sadness, anger and joy with the physical sensation of repressing those emotions, which any socially functional person might do for a number of reasons. One might not cry at work, because it’s inappropriate in an office setting. One might not yell at one’s partner for fear of being abandoned. One might not erupt in a gleeful giggle to avoid being judged as silly.

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So we feel the emotion, but we also feel all of the muscular and mental roadblocks that protect us from expressing something potentially dangerous. When we speak from a place outside of what we are feeling, the most we can do is talk about our experience from a safe distance. This keeps our audience at a safe distance as well. The voice becomes a utilitarian vehicle for information without the immediate expression of the moment.

But when we plug in; plug into our bodies, plug into the natural flow of breath that enters and leaves our lungs, plug into the blood pumping through our veins, plug into all the little nerve endings that get excited, and the vibration that rattles our bones when we speak our truth, we lay the groundwork for empathy. When we fully enter into our own experience, we are more available to enter into someone else’s experience, and bring our audience with us. We speak with a voice that carries the nuance and spontaneity of the moment.

For more information about the voice and speech classes that Liz teaches, as well as other acting classes at the Maggie Flanigan Studio, visit the studio online or call 917-789-1599.

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