Wednesday, February 11, 2015


A puzzle.

Some formal definitions taken off the web:

Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person's frame of reference, ie, the capacity to place oneself in another's shoes.

Empathy is the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else's feelings.

Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person.
Cognition is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.
Discerning.  Sharing.  Insight.  Fusion.
A mind meld, first depicted in the TOS episode "Dagger of the Mind", is a technique for sharing thoughts, experiences, memories, and knowledge with another individual, essentially a limited form of telepathy.

Force Meld, otherwise known as Jedi meld or Battle meld, was a technique where a number of Force users joined their minds together through the Force, drawing strength from each other. A refinement of Battle Meditation, it was known to the ancient Jedi, though dangerous. While Battle Meditation could influence both the Force-sensitives and the insensitives of both sides, Force Meld concentrates on coordinating and improving the Force-sensitives of the user's side.

Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man. Robert A. Heinlein originally coined the term grok in his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land as a Martian word that could not be defined in Earthling terms, but can be associated with various literal meanings such as "water", "to drink", "life", or "to live", and had a much more profound figurative meaning that is hard for terrestrial culture to understand because of its assumption of a singular reality.
"Eet ees inexpressible !"

I’m working on an article for “Stanislavski Studies” which is an online journal that mainly addresses “the Method” for achieving empathy in acting.  I’m discovering that thinking about the classes I took from Alvina Krause means having to dissect and analyze what I’ve been posting about as “empathy.”  Right off, “the Method” is a way of making the character real to the actor by finding a sensory moment in the actor’s life that is something like the imagined moment in the character’s life -- say, confronting death for the first time.  Maybe the actor is a veteran who has killed, equipping him with access to horrific sense memories.  Or maybe the actor has only experienced the death of pet, which can be enlarged and intensified.  Their acting problems will be different.

In terms of recent neurology terms, this could be called “creating a connectome.”  Not connections between the actor and character, but the electro-chemical connections in the brain that capture thinking.  We know now that there are not “capsules” of memory, but rather memory is reassembled each time a moment is accessed.  But the way the brain “finds” the parts is through sense memory.  Therefore, one of the tasks of an actor is to be constantly aware of his own real life, and to live fully in a variety of settings to increase his sensitivity and alertness to the moment -- to build a “library.”  

But that’s not enough.  All the animals around the person -- mostly the human animals who are reaching for contact with other humans -- have lives full of desire and emotion.  The capacity to feel that -- not just label it in the mind but feel it in the viscera and muscles -- is what anyone in a communication art must develop.  It requires courage because it can mean sharing suffering.

As one learns the interior lives of others, the actor must learn his own interior.  This also takes courage as one may be hurt or disappointed to be different than expectations of himself and others.  Struggling to survive this kind of crisis is one of the fascinations that keep audiences watching for understanding.  A nontypical or rejected fit from society, even from one’s friends and family, is a constant puzzle to solve.  Will one become a hero or a traitor?

As our assumptions are challenged by life and our anchors come unmoored, people are forced to recreate themselves to become post-Christian, post-indigenous, post-middle class or even must set about creating a new global cultural context.  Much of my awareness of this comes from knowing so many Blackfeet over fifty years of evolving.  In the broadest sense we are all obsessed by the need to figure out a post-human culture, though that might turn out to be only a emptiness, no humans left.  If we have a new adaptive mutation, it will likely be towards groking.  I hope.

Then there is the actor’s vital skill of understanding and expressing the interior life of the characters according to a document provided by a writer.  It is not complete until the audience has grasped and felt it in their own bodies.  We know -- can see on an fMRI -- that watching someone do something causes a ghost imitation in the body of the viewer.  This is part of empathy.  “Mirror cells” -- mostly through the eyes -- enable animals to grasp what another animal is thinking and likely will do next.  This is a hunter’s skill.  But also a cooperating community skill.  Some think this is what let us be post-neanderthal.

Behind the “Method” of the actor making a character real stands the acting teacher or coach who guides the student to accessing the skill.  This means they must have insight into the student, knowing what will make them shear off or get stuck.  The teacher coaching a real-world veteran to enact a Greek warrior hero will have quite a different task with much more intense risk than the teacher trying to get a sheltered young person to understand, maybe even to experience the visceral shock and trauma of the role for the first time.  It’s quite different to name something than to really feel it.  But novices must be on guard to prevent sympathy from replacing true empathy.

As Vulcans know, emotion can drive you crazy and kill others, often people you love.  The premise of Mr. Spock is that his emotional capacity is so intense that he must remain rational at all times.  (Think of PTSD.)  This is his attraction to Kirk, who has the “other” kind of intelligence, emotion allowing intuition and action.  Unbalanced and uncontrolled emotion is another way that acting can make the actor crazy, esp. if he or she arrives either inexperienced or out of control.  Such people are often attracted to what they imagine is the freedom of acting.

James Franco channeling James Dean.

The great importance of “work” is to establish the disciplines that will allow the actor (or writer or dancer or painter) to stay within the limits of Rappaport's “river of homeostasis.”  Sometimes it is a very narrow river or too wide to see the banks.  Should one ask people to have real sexual intercourse onstage?  Or even have sexual relations -- uninvited -- with members of the audience at a performance?  Or is that cheap shock, replacing skill and overwhelming the audience with the reality, like a snuff film?  But it is a search for the limits of the river.

The great advantage of acting onstage is that it is usually done in ensemble: the real creation emerges from the interactions of humans in a framed setting who are allowing access to a designed experience.  There is a director, or in the case of acting class, a “professor” -- or a visiting expert, an adept.  “Emotional intelligence” sounds like an oxymoron to most of us, but is an earlier, functioning, “limbic” way of considering felt concepts for which there are no words -- like empathy.  It's much of what got us to this point as a species.  

The problem of the teacher or director is to “see into” the actor at the same time as analyzing what’s happening in that person, having resources to move them to what the production demands, and handling the human desire to spare distress or celebrate excellence.  To do the job can require the individual person to tolerate discomfort for the sake of the production.  

There is another element: human culture, the family of “man” in all its variations.  Those in the arts need to know all as much as possible about how people form and what practices emerge in different ecologies.  Part of access to others' life-trajectories is seeing what they have seen and how it has affected them -- and not neglecting the undercultures.  We seem to have great fascination with drug culture because it is such a problem, so it is a temptation for an actor to want to take drugs to see what it’s like.  That throws more than a few up on the shore of the theatre river.  The line, the "thalwag" (the deepest part of the channel) is probably somewhere between grokking and mind melding.  Empathy is a threadbare word.

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