Empathetic Acting – Okay or Nay?

“I’m curious about other people. That’s the essence of my acting. I’m interested in what it would be like to be you.”
– Meryl Streep

***

Okay, my dander’s all up.

For those of you that know me well, I’m sure you’re shocked. I mean, me?  Irritated? Feeling passionate about something? Shocking, I know. But alas, ’tis true.

And in this day and age, you’d think it would be about politics or Trump or something. But nope. This time, it’s about theatre.

Theatre?

Yep, theatre. I’ve argued over a lot of things before, but theatre is new to the list.

[Disclaimer: I had originally intended to say that I was arguing with an actor for the first time, but my husband politely reminded me that that is sooo not true. I have a lot of friends who are actors. And I argue with them about everything. So, I scratched that and made it a little more specific – it’s definitely the first time I’ve argued with someone about acting.]

To be even more specific, the argument was over who should and shouldn’t portray certain characters.

Okay, here’s how it started. This was a post I saw on Facebook.  Apparently it’s a new “pledge” that we’re supposed to take, both as actors/directors, but also as theatre and movie-goers (that’s all of you):

“As a cis performer, I will never play a trans character. Should I ever direct or produce, I will never cast a cis actor to play a trans character. As a cis consumer, I will do my best to avoid projects that do the above. In addition, as a white actor, I will never play a non-white character. As an able-bodied actor, I will never play a character with a disability.

I will not occupy space that isn’t mine.”

I write about a lot of things in this blog, so I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I’m a community theatre actress. I’m also sure I’ve mentioned that I live in tiny little nowhere, right smack in the middle of the bible belt.  And if you didn’t know, now you do. And armed with that knowledge, I’d say you could probably correctly infer that “trans” actors, “non-white” actors, and “disabled” actors are probably a bit few and far between in this area. So, when I saw that “pledge” that all of us actors are supposed to take, I recognized the absurdity – at least for my little neck of the woods.

If we waited for those people to show up – especially ones that had the ability and the desire to tirelessly work, unpaid, for months, to produce a show that would be viewed only three or four times – we’d never get anything done.

So, I said that. I commented on the post.

And it all went downhill from there.

I was accused of not hearing these people’s cry for justice. For not allowing them to tell their own stories.

Okay, stop.  If this were Hollywood, there might be tons of people showing up to claim these roles. But it’s not. It’s a little county in the middle of the North Carolina mountains. We performed The Wiz for goodness sakes. We had approximately one and a half black people in it and we had to beg them to do it.  (And how lucky we were to get them – holy crap, they were phenomenal.) But were they offended that we did the show anyway, even though we were unable to cast the entire thing with people of color as it is intended?

I don’t think so.

Or were they?

We did To Kill a Mockingbird. While we had a few people of color who were able to join us but, again, we were faced with a 99% white cast. But we still did it. And it was phenomenal.

Should we have left that story untold because we didn’t have enough people of color to play the roles?

We performed Wait Until Dark. I portrayed a blind woman, Suzy. Should I not have done that? Should we have not performed that powerful show about a disabled woman who uses her superior intellect to outwit her would-be killer? Should we have not shown that audience that anyone can overcome their disabilities and kick some bad guy booty, simply because we didn’t have a real blind woman to play the role?

And how about when we performed The Dixie Swim Club. My good friend and actress Rebecca portrayed an aged woman with Alzheimer’s disease, who didn’t leave a single audience member dry-eyed for four straight performances. Should she not have done that?  Should she not have given a voice to the millions that suffer from that horrendous disease because she didn’t herself?

What about my sweet friend Cynthia portraying Shelby, the diabetes-ridden daughter in Steel Magnolias? Should she not have done that since she’s not diabetic herself? Should I not have portrayed her distraught mother who loses a child because I’ve never lost one myself?

No.

No, no, no.

Let’s stop this.

Theatre is one of the most beautiful things around. If you haven’t been a part of it, you’re missing out. It accidentally teaches you empathy. You become another person. You literally “walk a mile in their shoes,” so to speak. What better way to understand someone than to tell their story? To actually become them?

Now, I get it. I know where this pledge came from. Apparently Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson was recently cast as a trans man in an upcoming movie and there has been a cry from the trans community about not being represented fully because it is not a trans person playing the role. There’s even a hashtag for it – #supporttranspeopleinentertainment. I get it. I do. But my question is this – was there a more qualified trans candidate?  You have to be more than trans – you also have to be an actor. A damn good one. Acting is a business, like any other. You have to be great at what you do, or you’re going to passed over.  I’m all about fighting for equality – believe me. I run my mouth about it all the time. But there comes a time when you have to really ask yourself what you’re doing. Are you really asking for equality? Or are you asking for special treatment?

Regardless of the big Hollywood story, however, let’s take it back down here to our level. In the community theatres of the world, you are just not going to have the abilities to fill every role with a person who is what they’re portraying. And, frankly, isn’t that what acting is all about?  Isn’t that what we’re doing?  Telling a story for someone else?

Is there really something wrong with that?

If you ask me – NOPE. Not only is there not something wrong with it, but it is exactly what we all should be doing – acting or otherwise. We need to take every opportunity we’re given to try to understand what it’s like to be someone else, and to let their story be heard. For the actors of the world, we do that with our acting talent. For the writers of the world, we try to do that with our writing talents.

I recently read Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. Ms. Picoult wrote a powerful, almost life-changing novel from three perspectives – a privileged white lawyer, a discriminated black nurse, and a male white supremacist. And my, what a story it was. In the end of the book, she wrote an author’s note. In that note, she said that she was well aware of the backlash she’d receive from writing this book. How dare her try to speak as a black woman? And she was right – there was definitely backlash and mixed reviews. But as she described in her note – she has written about many characters in the past – victims of rape, men, abused spouses – all things that she, herself, is not. And how did she do that? By talking to them. By learning about them. By putting herself in their shoes and living their lives through her words.

And why did she do it? Because she could. She was given a gift. She’s a storyteller. And with this gift, she knows that it is her duty to give voice to the voiceless. She is using her talent to change the world, one novel at a time. And, personally, I think she’s doing a damn good job of it.

Stories deserve to be told. Silencing them is never the answer.

Never.

What say you?

***

“Stop explaining yourself. Shut up and act!”
~ Craig MacDonald

***

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