What is Acting?

I am always trying to educate myself, always trying to examine my own prejudices and failings in the hope that I will learn and become a more rounded human being. I sometimes get it wrong but I try. And I use one emotion to do this: empathy.

There is, to me, an alarming argument that I have a huge problem with that keeps rearing it’s head and it’s bringing into question all that we do as performers, as artists and it is making me nervous for the future craft of acting and the industry itself.

A year ago, a young, straight, actor friend of mine called me up in a complete state of anxiety. He was offered an audition. And I was confused. That’s great! Why the anxiety? The audition was for a gay role and he was deeply concerned about the trend to call out straight people for playing gay roles. He was truly anxious and battled to accept the audition (we weren’t even talking about accepting the role) BUT AN AUDITION. He wanted to know what I thought.

I asked him one simple question: What is acting? And I have been thinking about this question in relation to this new pernicious argument that is slowly gaining traction and power in social media and it’s starting to have a profound effect on people’s perceptions of the industry.

My answer to this question is that acting is empathy. It’s a process of empathetic connection whereby, through rehearsals, you do all your research, you learn your lines, you ask questions about this person and the world they live in, you argue and push your director and yourself to always dig deeper. Then you stand up and learn how to move that character, speak in that character’s voice. Intelligent actors know that all this is crucial to well rounded, truthful portrayals of a character. Theatre previews test this each night with a new audience while you rehearse more in the day questioning what you learnt from the audience. And then you are ready to say, ‘This is it, this is my portrayal of this character, I can do no more, for now’ on press night, when the show transforms from pure exploration to the business of doing it the same for each performance. It is a lot of work. And it involves pockets of self doubt and angst and joyful discovery.

There is always more to learn, but as an actor you learn as you live. As you live, you gain more experience that teaches you about life. You learn too, about people who are “other” to you, and you start to see empathy as the key to some understanding. Not complete understanding – IT CAN NEVER BE COMPLETE, but some.

At the end of rehearsals I often feel that all my work wasn’t enough. I have learnt over the years that this is a good feeling. I am one very limited human being so how can I know everything and get it right all the time? You can only use what you have in that moment. After ten more years of living I would probably be able to deepen that character in ways I can’t imagine now. This applies to plays themselves, to writers, to directors to filmmakers. We are limited human beings telling limited stories and we will always get something wrong.

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For my straight friend, I told him that it doesn’t matter that he is not gay BUT if he does get the role that he approaches it with the correct empathy and openness to learn about the gay experience. That he must do his research on the struggles of liberation. That is acting. Acting immediately implies NOT REAL, BUT REAL ENOUGH.

The argument, for example, that only gay actors should play gay roles is dangerous and limiting. It expands to plays, novels or any artwork. It expands to interpretations of plays, it expands to subject matters. All are now being policed by some vociferous voices on social media platforms that politicise and petition and their main argument is that IF YOU HAVEN’T LIVED IT HOW DARE YOU TRY AND MAKE ART OUT OF IT. The fact that we are limited human beings is now being seen as the perfect tool to use to attack artists. Reputations are smeared, work disappears or is so heavily criticised that the vociferous voices become de facto directors of the work, getting them edited to their viewpoint. And audiences turn away in fear that they might be smeared with the same brush. When did we become like this? When did we stop celebrating the limited nature of art? When did we start demanding that lived experience is the only way to make art and stepping outside of that, needs to be policed?

A friend of mine, a white Australian woman has just written a novel, a novel that took months and months of struggle to complete. Her main character is a mixed race, Chinese/European male. She has been told because she has chosen that type, and because she isn’t that, no publisher will touch it. She has even given the novel to a mixed race Chinese/European friend and asked his opinion. The friend loved it and was grateful for the representation but publishers are too scared to engage in case of criticism. And the point my friend made is powerful: Am I only allowed to write from a white, middle class woman’s perspective now?

In acting, I will portray your life because that is my profession. I am human and I hope that my skills will mean that I approach your life experience with as much empathy and respect as possible knowing it will be incomplete. I am not a murderer but I have played murderers. Can only a murderer truly understand what it is like to kill someone? Yes. But I am human and I will use my empathy to understand that, at times, I too have wanted to kill someone. I know that rage. I have felt it. I am human just like that murderer. We are linked by emotional states that we all understand. Where we diverge is action.

I am worried that this argument is so loud and is being confused with the very real need to see greater representation of minorities, ethnic and sexual, and the commonly forgotten plethoras of human experience. That change is needed is to me unquestionable. And I hope the industry continues to create opportunities for these forgotten or ignored voices. It’s part of the reason I write this blog. Change and Learn.

But when the loud voices shout: NOT GOOD ENOUGH! HOW DARE YOU! And change an artwork based on a visceral, offence reaction they then create an atmosphere where we are too scared to create anything. It creates a limited discussion in which we shut down empathy and learn nothing about ourselves and each other.

Here is my empathy for the loud vociferous voices: It must be so frustrating living a limited life in some way that when an art work comes along that seems to trivialise or is not encompassing enough of how difficult your life is then you will react viscerally. I am old enough to have seen the representations of gay people in TV and films as mainly negative, and I shouted alone because back then there was no such thing as social media. It hurts and you want better. Queer as Folk was the first time I saw something bordering on my reality and it was flawed but perfect at the same time. But it doesn’t excuse the way we are so easily offended and then turning that into active hate that shuts down artworks and shames the people trying to make it.

The very definition of an actor would become mute and the craft of acting would become pointless. There would be no craft. If I can only play myself what is the point? I PLAY THE ROLE OF MYSELF IN EVERY WAKING MOMENT OF MY LIFE. I do not want my limited self to be the only thing I can understand. I don’t want my limited self to be the only part I can play. I want to empathise. And I find it insulting that I cannot or shouldn’t empathise with someone else’s life or viewpoint, that somehow my empathy, as deficient as it is, is still not enough…that dangerous slope we have all been sliding on for the last four years in politics.

And deficiency is inevitable. Isn’t it?

We need to start embracing deficiency more, not as something that limits infinitely but only as a stage on the process of learning. The implication of the vociferous voices is that we should always get it right. I know my limited self and I know I make mistakes. How dare someone tell me that my art is not good enough because I can’t know what it’s really like? Well that is the human experience isn’t it? I am born into this body, this mind, this experience. I am a walking subjective machine. But the only tool I have to understand you is….


And if you deny the acting profession or the plethora of artists the right to ‘informed empathy’ what is the point of this industry?

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