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Compassion = Action: How Acting Craft Can Teach Us How to Transform as Americans

Seven Pillars Acting is not only a technique; it’s a philosophy on personal transformation. And, the cornerstone of that philosophy is compassion. One gains greater compassion when one learns to see without (meaning outside of oneself) as opposed to focusing within. To see outwardly, the self must be quieted. Listening is crucial. Openness is key. We teach this all in the Contact Pillar, and in Circumstance and Meaning, actors expand their tools in anchoring in external stimuli. If they can experience what the character sees from the character’s seat, then they cannot judge their characters, and therefore, they are in the process of transforming through compassion. And by studying the creative craft of compassion, our actors learn the human component of that lesson as well. Through compassion for our characters, we can transform as actors; through compassion for others, we can transform as humans. Thus, though compassion for our communities of color, we can transform as Americans.

Painting by Andrew Dat Tran @doctaword


Compassion is clearly what we need as Americans right now at this painful time in our history. There is too little compassion, too little seeing outwardly, a lack of questioning one’s own experience. White people have said that they are compassionate for the plight of the black community, but I think we have not, speaking from experience. If we were truly compassionate, we would be outraged, mobilized, active, and loud. And we would not stop until real change took place in our society. This past week’s events have activated a great awakening regarding the absence of compassion amongst white Americans. We have our black and brown Americans to thank for that call to sober up.

Interestingly, novice actors do a similar thing. They think that understanding a character alone can enable them to transform into the role, and that is just not so. I can understand but still hold my seat. What leads to transformation is compassion, which is an active experience of another’s perspective. It is that feeling that actors need to activate their transformative powers… and it is that same sensation that white Americans need to stir within themselves in order for our world to take the leap toward true racial equality.

Social distancing doesn’t encourage looking outside oneself. On the contrary, our current sequestered lifestyle has drawn us into the echo chambers of our minds. And those we see, likely family and close friends, are more likely to share common beliefs than they are to challenge them. And then along comes the murder of George Floyd, and the echo chamber is crashing around us. Our own voices cannot heal; we must look without.

I love the double-meaning of “without.” I borrow it from the Spiritual Living faith (“As within, so without.”) It also means a surrender of the self; giving up and going without the armor of one’s beliefs and past experiences in order to gain a clear perspective. Actors must go without themselves in order to take on the full experience of another. Of course, what makes acting delicious is the misto of the actor with the character, but that comes with only bringing the essential. Dropping the bull shit, in other words. And, white Americans have some shedding to do, as well. What racist beliefs have we held on to, and how can we purge the bull shit?

If we as white Americans use the tools that our acting craft is teaching us, then we recall this important detail in the Circumstance Pillar: “real” circumstances are no better than “fictional” or “imaginary” circumstances. What is real is often composed of imagined content and fictional narratives, and what is fiction is often drawn from one’s own life circumstances. We are always on equal footing with our characters. Our “reality”, if we esteem it too highly, blots out our ability to truly take on the circumstances of our characters. Therefore, we must be willing to believe that only by taking oneself less seriously and questioning one’s thoughts, can we even begin to perceive that another person’s perspective can be valid, vivid, and real for us, too.

Again, our acting craft can enable and empower us with tools to gain greater compassion for our communities of color. I think this is absolutely a key part of the purpose of choosing to be an actor. I love to act and choose to act because it teaches me that I can transform my perspective. I can walk a mile in another’s shoes, which always leads me to deeper compassion. When I am more compassionate, I am less angry, scared, or judgmental. Instead, the boundary between myself and other falls away. If we can do this in our acting craft, imagine how we could employ these tools in our society. If there were no lines between me and a POC, no differences in rights, privileges, value, etc., then we would automatically transform as America’s population.

Seven Pillars Acting stands with the protesters and demonstrators taking part in the movement to end police brutality and systemic racial injustice. BLACK LIVES MATTER. Let us call into question our narratives, beliefs, and perspectives that are very convenient and tightly wound to our identities and know that while we hang on to our precious past, black and brown people are dying. This is not acceptable, and it must end now.

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© 2013 by Sonya Cooke. All rights reserved

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