As an actor, there are many tools from many different schools of acting for us to utilize, play with, keep in our toolbox or leave alone if that tool doesn’t resonate with us. These tools help us to discover deeper aspects of the character, to tap into emotions needed to play the scenes, relate in appropriate ways with the other characters, to play the period of the piece, to find the physical characteristics of our character and much more.
One of the grandfathers of acting who’s tools and methods still are referred to and used widely today is Stanislavski. His “Magic If” was a simple, elegant way to discover or create nuances for the character based on possible past experiences and more. We analyze a script first to find all the detail about our character that we can, but the script only gives us so much. We need to fill in more detail based on clues, or simply out of our own imagination.
Example: I’m playing a working class man in the 1930’s who is deciding to leave his family.
What if… Our character was abused as a child. How might that past affect his present relations and his decision?
What if… His father died before he was born, so he never knew him. How might that lack of a father example cause him to struggle in the role of father himself?
By imagining these possible back stories and history, it can color the performance I give providing depth, layers, nuances to the struggle he feels. Things the audience is not directly aware of, but will greatly enrich the performance.
As an audience member, the work being done by the actors and the production team is intended to draw you into this story so you might feel the struggles, empathize with the characters, consider the dilemmas they face and wonder how you might handle the same situation. This is the work of the audience when watching a performance.
In order to really feel the impact of a story, we need to be able to imagine ourselves in their situation. No we don’t live in the 1930’s. Maybe you’re a woman instead of our a working class man like our character, so your situation and choices in his dilemma would be different. But you can consider the “Magic If” of it. What if you were faced with the same challenges he is? Or what would you feel if you were his wife witnessing his emotional breakdown and wondering what to do. By considering how you might feel or what choices you might make given yourself in a similar situation, we more deeply enjoy the experience of the performance. This hopefully will lead to further consideration and discussions afterward. It helps us all to be able to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes to relate to them better.
As a society, I think we currently struggle with a crippling lack of this ability. Many people don’t know how, or don’t try to imagine what life is like for others. It’s easier to dismiss them, to blame them, to label them as “bad”. We also have powerful people trying to convince us that certain groups of people are the enemy in order to forward political or other agendas. If we could better imagine and empathize with the struggles of others it can help us all to be kinder, to be more generous, to try to help uplift others who need help.
Imagine if this was something we actively taught in our schools. I remember as a child going to live theatre performances as a “field trip”. We were taught how to behave in a theatre, how to show our appreciation, etc. Sometimes we did followup assignments analyzing the play we’d seen or sharing our experience watching it. If this work regularly included discussion about the “Magic If” of empathy; of imagining ourselves in their lives, just think how powerful this could be in developing our children’s ability to see past differences of color, gender, orientation, religion, nationality and more.
The arts can teach us so much and expose us to lives and situations we might never be part of otherwise. Perhaps we could be using them as a platform for teaching empathy as well as a great form of entertainment.
Patrick Spike is the Theatre Community Liaison, system expert, and one of the original architects of the Arts People software system, with over 30 years in performing arts creation and administration. www.patrickspike.com