by James Somers, June 29, 2010

One way to appreciate good acting is to try to imagine some of your favorite lines written rather than spoken. Try to clear your mind of the actor’s specific performance. Focus on the words themselves, on the way they look on a page. Now do you see the distance between the screenplay and the speech? Isn’t it remarkable, the work that goes into enlivening those lines?

* * *

I have a mug here next to my keyboard that’s full of water. But I’ve been drinking it just like people in those Folgers commercials drink coffee: the way I go to pick it up; the way I hold it, with two hands; the way I hold it up to my nose, and close my eyes, and inhale appreciatively before I take a small sip; etc. If you were watching me from across the room you’d be convinced that I was drinking coffee, not water, just based on the way I’m moving.

Now the remarkable thing is that because of those movements, I get some of the pleasure, drinking water, that I would be getting if it really were coffee. That is, the movements themselves — the rituals — are enough to trick my brain into thinking the water is sort of rich and warm and fulfilling. How strange.

* * *

Not bothering about those guys at the bar who are being rude and rambunctious, or those cackling girls on the bus, is not just about dissociating to calm your nerves. It’s not just about ignoring them or putting them out of your mind. It’s about actively trying to appreciate their fun on their terms, and being heartened, or cheered up, or at the very least not repulsed by what you discover in their minds.

But imaginative empathy only goes so far, you say. “What about the vociferous leader of a hate group? I can’t understand how someone could get that way.” Can’t you? Work to imagine it! What did you learn?