Been a heck of a few weeks or so. For over a year, one half of the country has been screaming at the other half, respect has been scarce, friends and family have been pitted against one another. Lots of division and disconnection. Lots of big feelings swirling around. And as most actors are hyper-sensitive people, people who feel things more deeply and need to express more fully than most, it can feel like it’s all too much.
And yet you can’t turn away from all these feelings. You can’t harden your hearts and pretend they don’t exist. That’s death for an actor. Whether in the audition room, on stage, on set or in your lives, feeling big and expressing boldly is the only way you can be successful and happy.
But it’s also not easy.
And as the holidays approach and many of you will find yourselves at Thanksgiving tables with family and friends who represent a wider spectrum of views than those in LA or New York, it can get even trickier. What do you say? What do you do? Even with people who share your political views, it can be tough. Either way there’s an elephant in the room. And words can cut, silence can asphyxiate, biting your tongue so as not to say anything that might offend can exhaust you. None of it sounds fun or festive.
But there is another way.
A 2014 study authored by David Broockman at Stanford University and Joshua Kalla at the University of California Berkeley yielded results that validate what most actors already know. They sent out canvassers- some Trans people and some not- to 500 homes in Florida and engaged in a 10min, non-confrontational conversation about what it’s like to be Trans. The canvassers asked people to think about what it would be like to be Trans, to understand the problems of Trans people. The result was that anti-Trans attitudes declined, remained lower three months after the canvass, and those canvassed ended up supporting laws that protect Trans people. Bottom line is if you yell, “You’re a bigot!” in someone’s face they may not change their bias. What changes hearts and minds is empathy. When we see our own humanity in another person they stop being the “other.” And personal narratives that evoke common feelings are the tools and used wisely they can change the world. But of course you know that. Every time you work, every time you audition, you are seeking to offer a truthful emotional experience that moves someone on an emotional level, to help them see their own humanity in you.
And you can do something similar at the Thanksgiving table. When someone vilifies a Trump voter, you can describe a person you may know for whom hope and change have not come. Unemployed, longing for a time when they didn’t feel small, when they felt more secure, when they felt they belonged. They’re angry at their politicians for ignoring them and want to fight back. And when someone says, “Yeah, but all lives matter not just Black lives,” you can describe someone you know who was pulled over four times by the police because he “looked like a suspect,” and on one occasion they rifled through his gym bag, dumping its contents on the sidewalk and, after determining that he wasn’t the suspect, drove away leaving him on his hands and knees picking up his belongings- clothes, props for a play rehearsal- from the dirty sidewalk, humiliated, scared, disenfranchised. When we get personal and emotional, we change the discussion. It’s not an argument. It’s an awareness of how someone feels and how you might feel if you were in their shoes.
And part of your job is to do that work. You are warriors, yielding narrative as a weapon to show us all our common humanity so we bridge our divides, feel for each other, connect to one another, see our common goals as personal goals. And as difficult as it might be to see past our anger, sadness, and fear about this great divide, you are the ones who are charged with bridging it. You are uniquely equipped to overcome it. It is your duty. And you can start this Thanksgiving.