By Meg Foster
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This quote is the essence of empathy—moving beyond mere sympathy and taking on the perspective (and the burden) of others in order to fully understand them and have compassion for them.
Christ calls us to empathy because he is empathetic toward us. He became flesh, made his dwelling among us (John 1:14), made himself nothing, took on the nature of a servant, and was made in human likeness (Philippians 2:7, 8). As much as Christ sacrificed to “climb into our skin,” it seems that Christians are reluctant to do the same for their fellow humans. I am certainly guilty of this; however, one way that I have learned to be empathetic, and in turn to be more Christlike, is through acting.
Acting is a full-contact exercise in empathy—if done correctly. To portray a character, you must involve your whole being, inside and out. You must change your physical and vocal qualities to appear more like the character. You must also dissect the character’s every line, looking for the objective, motive, and desires for the character until your mental and emotional states match the character. Finally you must merge all your work to form this new creation, this character who shares your body. This is the ultimate buy-in. This is empathy because every word, movement, gesture, and emotion of that character is carried by you, the actor, and you can’t help but understand and defend your character. Few actors finish a production and are left unchanged by the characters they portrayed.
Creating the Character
I was a theatre major at East Tennessee State University, and our spring production was Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God directed by Bobby Funk. Upon researching, I learned that the play was related to deaf culture, and for our production there would be actors of varying hearing levels; and the actors would not necessarily be matched with their character in that regard. The roles I was most interested in were characters who were either deaf or hearing-impaired. I listened for days to Heather Whitestone, a hearing-impaired Miss America contestant, and her interviews from 1995 in order to procure the most authentic voice possible. Because of that, I was given the role of Lydia, a hearing-impaired character. I had won the role, but that was only the beginning of the work I had to do.
Our director cast the show a semester ahead of time in order for us to take an additional class to prepare for our roles. In it we reviewed principles of acting, had an introduction to American Sign Language, and had lab hours that we had to complete with a partner whose hearing ability did not match ours. Because Lydia was hearing-impaired, I had a partner who was hearing-impaired. I can remember seeing his frustration as he was teaching me sign language or trying to communicate with me. I also remember how his face radiated when we had small victories in our communications, both in sign and speech. I was beginning to understand American Sign Language, but more importantly, I was beginning to understand Lydia and how she was caught between the hearing world and deaf culture.
While I found this struggle of Lydia’s to be noble, there were other characteristics about her that were less than admirable. Lydia had a strong desire for attention and often went to extreme measures to get it. This was not something I ascribed to in my personal life; in fact, I tried my hardest not to seek attention in a negative way. While some might have seen this as a conflict of interest (if I, a Christian, portray a character who taunts others to get attention, would I be promoting it?), I saw it as a chance to empathize with Lydia. I chose her physical qualities, added to my vocal work, and began the emotional transformation.
Throughout the rehearsal process I came to realize that being hearing-impaired can feel like being bilingual but not being fully understood in either language. This constant struggle led Lydia to choose attention-seeking ways in order to be understood. While I do not condone the character’s behavior, I understand why she made her choices. This made me a better actor, but it also made me a better person. If Lydia were a real person, I wouldn’t think less of her (unfortunately, something I would have done before portraying her). I would feel like I could communicate and empathize with her.
Beyond the Character
During the production, I found empathy for other characters as well. The plot centers around the romance between James, a hearing teacher at the deaf school, and Sarah, a deaf alumnus who works at the school. The play comes to a climax with a fight the two are having. It is a heavy exchange in which Sarah refuses to speak even though she has worked so hard to do so, and James is so upset that he stops signing to her. The plot then backtracks to show the audience the beginning of their relationship and what brought them to this fight. Upon first reading this scene, I thought that James was callous and controlling and Sarah was at fault for being in a relationship with a hearing person.
But every time I watched my fellow actors rehearse this scene, I saw a different nuance, and I came to understand each character better. What appeared to be just a fight was really a battle to save a relationship and to step across cultures. I never would have seen that if I had just watched it, but I was in it. I wasn’t playing either role, but I was invested in this play that I had to understand them.
By opening night, every actor had developed empathy for these complex characters and their stories. What happened because of this was more than just a quality production—we had a beautiful sense of community. In other productions, there was always one show where there was an interpreter for the deaf and hearing-impaired community. This time, there was no need because we all—deaf, hearing-impaired, and hearing actors—carried the burden of making sure that every member of the audience understood every word we said or signed. It was beautiful.
If we use the same fervor to understand one another as actors use to understand their characters, not only will empathy be achieved but so will a unique community of compassion. In acting there is believing, being, and doing. The same is true if we want to be like Christ.
There is no haphazard, lukewarm loving of other people. We are to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). If we are to truly have compassion for one another and want to carry each other’s burdens, we must be willing to get to know others beyond facts. We must listen often and observe people, looking for every chance to lavish each other with empathy. We must go so far as to climb into others’ skin. It’s no less than what Christ did for us.
Meg Foster is a high school theatre and French teacher and an adjunct instructor at Milligan College.