why acting matters

We who love acting don’t do it because it matters, we do it because we love it. However, it’s useful to know why whatever it is you love doing makes a contribution to the larger world. It helps you move through the world with a bit more of a spring in your step, and you don’t have to feel, in our case, like there is anything frivolous about what we are doing. And if it turns out that what we are doing makes, or has the potential to make, a vital contribution to our world, more the better.

I am a passionate reader of political blogs, liberal political blogs in particular (the other kind not being good for my blood pressure ;) ). Earlier this month I read a piece at Digby’s Hullabaloo which has been knocking around in my brain, and I think offers some valuable insight into the precise way in which what it is that we do is such a precious asset in our world, or can be.

Digby quotes a Boston Globe article:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

And of course that is only the beginning:

…it appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions. A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He led an influential experiment in which more than 1,000 Illinois residents were asked questions about welfare — the percentage of the federal budget spent on welfare, the number of people enrolled in the program, the percentage of enrollees who are black, and the average payout. More than half indicated that they were confident that their answers were correct — but in fact only 3 percent of the people got more than half of the questions right. Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. (Most of these participants expressed views that suggested a strong antiwelfare bias.)

People generally don’t change their minds over salient political issues through rational argumentation. And I think that’s where the (really good) actor comes in.

A really good actor can arouse not only sympathy for the character’s plight: he can actually arouse empathy. The people sitting there watching can experience the character as an extension of themselves. In other words, the barrier between the self of the actor and the self of the observer can be temporarily dissolved. Plato was so worried about this possibility that he proposed that the dramatic poets should be banished from his imaginary republic. The threat to people’s rational capacities seemed to him to be just too great; people could entirely lose track of the distinctions between themselves and others. This possibility of forging an empathic bond between the actor and spectator is rare enough that most people haven’t actually experienced it, but important enough that striving to fulfill this promise and keep this possibility alive is, to my mind, among the most legitimate and worthy of pursuits. Lucky thing, since I teach acting.

I think this possibility of empathic bonding is one of the ways in which people might be brought to revise their views of situations in the larger society. Not by being told that what they believe is wrong, but by getting that the other guy dreams, the other guy hurts. That the other guy’s dreams and hurts are our own dreams and hurts, the differences are superficial. Not by being told this, but by getting it, getting it because some actor embodied that dreaming and that hurting in a compelling and undeniable way. In a way that lets you see something in the other guy’s eyes that you’ve never been able to see before.

2 Responses to “why acting matters”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    A 30 year veteran drama teacher told me she encourages students in her class by telling them that their performances can "change people's lives." At first I thought this was a little over the top, but on further reflection, especially on my own life, I think she's right. And BTW–it works for the gals, too (the empathetic bonding thing :) ).

  2. Mother of Invention Acting School Says:

    Hi Anne.

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