Notes from the Empathy Gym – December 2019

Notes from the Empathy Gym – December 2019

December 2019


We are often reminded of the precariousness of live theatre. That something can go wrong at any moment. Lines can be forgotten, entrances missed, scenery can refuse to move when asked. It is this inherent danger that keeps us on the edge of our seats.

We just came through previews and opening of Groundhog Day and I often hear from folks who specifically subscribe to previews that they love the possibility that flubs will occur. They are attracted to the unpredictability of early performances. Once actors have settled in, their very confidence can make a performance seem predictable. We know that they know what they are doing. When actors are just discovering their roles, they bring a level of attention that only comes from the fear of making mistakes. First previews can be particularly driven by terror and be exhilarating for just that reason.

In the third preview of Groundhog Day, the turntable that perpetually brings our weatherman’s B&B room around to its umpteenth repetition of the day, failed to stop on its mark and ran about ten feet past. When the lights came up on stage, the room, by now facing audience right, was in the dark.

Like good troupers and improvisors, rather than just going on with the scene, Ryan Drummond and Rinabeth Apostol both made deadpan comments about how much darker this particular morning was. The audience was in stitches and by the time the technicians got the turntable back to spike, there was a big round of applause.

At our Rising Star talkback the other day, one of the kids asked, “Do you professional actors still experience stage fright?” From the actors came unanimous laughter, nods, and verbal affirmations of “Of course we do.” No matter how much experience you have, if you care about your work on stage you will experience that queasy feeling in the legs, a terror that never leaves you.

Professional actors learn to welcome dread—embrace it, rather than try to pretend they don’t feel it—because fear can be their greatest friend; it reminds them to be fully present and fully alive with every cell alert in the moment.

Mr. Drummond, currently playing the protagonist in Groundhog Day, credits his dad, also a performer, for naming that willingness to live in fear “staying frosty.” Gandhi, also a victim of stage fright, summoned his mission to conquer his fears. “Be stubborn…because you have considered the maximum number of people who will benefit and wish to serve them by solidly banging the drum for what you know to be true.”

Why do we cheer when something goes wrong and the actors adapt? Why do we love previews and dress rehearsals when the possibility of errors is exponentially higher? I think it is because these situations instinctively awaken our community spirit. Much less likely to happen in opera, ballet, or symphony, where precision is the be-all and end-all, and completely absent from film, this “crispy” sensation we get in our bones is unique to live theatre where spontaneity is one of our most prized virtues.

New research led by the UCL Division of Psychological and Language Sciences (PaLS) at University College London has found that “watching a live theatre performance can synchronize your heartbeat with other people in audience, regardless of whether you know them or not.” The leader of the study, Dr. Devlin, notes that, “Experiencing the live theatre performance was extraordinary enough to overcome group differences and produce a common physiological experience in the audience members.”

Hearts beat as one. The risk that something will go wrong focuses us on the action. The actors channel their fear into commitment and we give them our commitment and support. We become a community, strangers and family alike, drawn together by our common hopes, that by facing fear and the impossibility of certainty, we will be united for a few hours in our laboratory of life and that some of that unity will rub off onto our lives, our community and our world.

Theatre is the most ancient art, and yet I feel we are still pioneers, always searching for the intangible bond that we know exists between us. Thank you for that pioneer spirit as you commit to the journey. I used to say that our subscribers are the finest human beings alive. But perhaps what I really mean is that we know a secret that we must share with others who have not yet been able to work out in the empathy gym!

Please write me anytime to discuss. Or support our mission with a year-end gift.

Yours, Bill

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Bill English is Artistic Director and Co-Founder of San Francisco Playhouse, and in twenty years with Susi Damilano, has guided its growth from a bare-bones storefront to the second-largest theater in San Francisco.

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