Imaginative LeapSympathy is a word we often hear, especially when imparting condolences, and it is defined as expressing sorrow for another person’s hardship. But empathy is a different concept, one that takes sympathy to another level. By definition, empathy is the ability to share in and understand someone else’s feelings. It is not always something that comes naturally. Instead, people tend to be self-absorbed—too wrapped up in our own problems to fully empathize with another person. As actors, however, enabling empathic imagination is essential when it comes to playing a role that is outside one’s comfort zone.

Actors and directors are encouraged to get personal with their work, but, in order to do their jobs effectively, they must often expand beyond the periphery of their own experiences. According to Willem Dafoe, acting out a role that does not stem from one’s life experiences is the “purest kind of performing.” It is rewarding, in part, because of its implied challenge and distinctiveness.

To bring about the level of acting that Dafoe is referring to, an actor must have a voracious appetite for observing and learning about other people. Actors must readily acknowledge that people who are very different from us do exist. Their histories, needs, and problems are beyond those that they have encountered. Actors have the challenging task of realistically portraying these people; therefore, actors must strive to understand others to the best of their ability.

This process of sharing and understanding another’s experience can be achieved through two methods: constructing a metaphor or employing empathic imagination.

A metaphor, generally spoken about with regard to figurative language, is a form of comparison through which the unfamiliar is illustrated in terms that are familiar. Using this technique, actors create a connection to the character using their own comparable experiences. They ask themselves, “What have I experienced that is similar to what my character is going through?” Then, through channeling those same emotions, the character may be adequately portrayed by the actor.

Drawing upon empathic imagination, on the other hand, means connecting to other people’s predicaments or dilemmas and then placing them in a position of supreme importance. This unselfish method, though, is not always easy to come by. Unfortunately, filmmakers are often too preoccupied with looking ahead to the next task to empathize with a character. But the outcome is better served by a commitment to live in the moment. Choosing to vicariously experience another person’s thoughts, feelings, and background lends itself to an exemplary performance. The actor and director cannot tell a character’s story without imagining his or her life.

Empathy is a combination of human emotions that develops over a lifetime. The behavior of infants exemplifies the antithesis to empathy. Because they are helpless and entirely dependent upon others to care for them, their demands are naturally self-serving. Then, as infants grow into children, they depend upon mature influences to help them strike a balance between their self-centered needs and their impulse to reach out to others.

Humans are capable of empathy whether it comes naturally to them or not. The good news is that it can be cultivated, in part, by utilizing a set of exercises to jumpstart the imagination.

Putting Empathy into Practice

In order to practice empathic imagination, it might be helpful to engage in one or more of the following exercises:

  • Cut photos of anonymous individuals from the pages of a magazine. (Eliminate the caption so that it does not direct or influence your thoughts.) Imagine their lives by supplementing backgrounds, motivations, thoughts, etc. to the designated people. At this end of this exercise, you will have created both inner and outer personas for your character(s)—a technique that will prove helpful when doing the same with a script or for your next role.
  • Select a person you have interacted with (someone you have observed but don’t know well), and speak aloud in the person’s voice. Start by describing the person’s physical appearance—statements such as “I am tall, allergies cause my nose to run eight months out of the year, and my hair is prematurely going grey.” From there, transition into free association, coming up with things about the person’s inner life that you don’t know to be true but that you create on the basis of your own imagination. Here are some suggestions: “I feel insecure about my height, so I wear flat shoes to downplay it”; “I am smarter than the men I date, but I’m afraid to let on because my intelligence might intimidate them”; “In elementary school, I chose chocolate milk at lunch—even though I didn’t like it—because that’s what my friends did.” In addition to being an exercise in creativity, this activity also cultivates empathy.
  • Take your script and do the following for each character in it: Think of three ways you are like the character and three ways you are not. (These should be both positive and negative, so be honest with yourself so that the activity will be productive.) This can be done alone or with a group of other actors.

The Significance of Storytelling

When it comes to creative projects, subject matter can be difficult to create. Writers, for example, are encouraged to write about what they know. The same is correct when it comes to storytelling: True narratives make the best stories.

Storytelling, like any craft, is an art perfected with practice. If you need a prompt, challenge a friend, family member, or co-worker to give you a word. Then use the word(s) to make up an intriguing and spontaneous story.

Although the above technique sounds like fun, it has practical applications as well. Many professionals tell stories in order to illustrate a point or premise. Directors and teachers use examples from their own lives to clarify acting principles. Mike Nichols, for example, makes a practice of this at the New Actors Workshop. He uses anecdotes based on his own experiences to illustrate and solidify theatrical scenarios. But directors and teachers are not the only ones who can benefit from this concept. For actors, this exercise in storytelling challenges the imagination. It sharpens one’s ability to create fiction and characters and to tell true, nonfiction stories with grace and confidence.

Make it a priority to tell stories, thereby watching your creative faculties grow and develop. And don’t forget to key into your audience’s reaction. After all, they are an invaluable, objective sounding board for your storytelling and for your demonstrations of empathy.