Feeling Other People’s Feelings

The first time I cried on stage was in college. It was a big deal for me.

I was in an Acting Shakespeare class and was performing a monologue from Cymbeline.  The character I’d chosen was Imogen, daughter of Cymbeline, the king. In the monologue, she is responding to a letter written by her lover and brought to her by her lover’s servant. And while it is true that Imogen is feeling betrayed (her lover is accusing her of having been unfaithful when she was not), and it is true that she is feeling heartbroken, I don’t think The Bard meant for it to be delivered as the full-on blubbering release of messy emotion that I gave it. The language is too crisp, Imogen’s observations about love too eloquent.

My suspicions about my misguided acting choices are confirmed by the comment my professor uttered a few torturously long seconds after I’d finished. “Well…” she said breaking the awkward silence wherein sat a room full of stunned twenty-somethings, her cultured British accent endowing her with authority, “an interesting interpretation, though I’m not quite sure it’s what Shakespeare had in mind.” But I tell you, I was not phased, I was not shamed. I felt elated! light! and why wouldn’t I? I’d experienced a catharsis like none other; because those tears, I now recognize, were not Imogen’s, but my own—they’d been building up for years—and it felt great to let them go! And it felt great to have witnesses. Great to find out that that huge emotion, which I was so afraid to feel, would not kill me when released. Couldn’t kill me. It just wanted to be felt. Needed to be felt.

More recently I cried during an improv scene where I was playing a fourteen-year old foster child who was having a pretty rough time of it. This time, I didn’t go all out. The scene didn’t call for it, but I allowed the emotion to pool in my eyes, to cause my throat to constrict. I cry when I write too. Not all the time. Only when one of my made-up characters is going through some heartbreaking situation—a situation, that I’ve also made up, that I’ve chosen to put them through. Like when Piggin and her daughter get reunited in The Middle of Somewhere. Or in Perfect Little Worlds when Lucy, sitting on a moon-lit beach, feels as lost and lonely as she’d ever felt.

Which kind of brings me to the point of this ramble about crying. It’s not really about crying. It’s about feeling other people’s feelings…while at the same time feeling your own feelings….only through these other people who you made up…made up for the sole purpose of putting them through shit that would make feel something.

Okay, now even I’m confused.

But here’s the thing: it’s a weird transference. And you can trust me on this. Between writing novels and my work at the Fun Institute, I spend a lot of time doing it. I rejoice with my characters, get mad with them, suspicious, all of it. What they feel, I feel. Like I said: weird. But also: not weird. “Put yourself in her shoes,” we say, when we’re trying to understand someone’s motives. All we writers and improvisors are doing (and make no mistake, improvisors improvising long-form are simply writers, writing on the fly, collectively, while simultaneously playing the parts they are writing in front of an audience) all we are doing is turning up the volume on this “shoes” advice. We are not only putting ourselves in our character’s shoes, we are hanging around in the shoes for a while. Sometimes, in the case of writing a novel, a long while.

And it feels good, feeling all those feelings! Kind of like how it feels when you’ve lifted weights or taken a bike ride, only it’s not muscles you’re working out, but emotional depth and flexibility. And it has the added bonus of giving your readers/audience occasions to feel. Emotions can so easily turn toxic when repressed, either slowly poisoning the person who’s holding them back, or spewing out in poorly aimed spurts on those unfortunate enough to get within range. So offering up occasions to feel, authentically, seems a worthy endeavor to me.

That it’s possible to make abstract symbols into a sentence, a paragraph, a story, that makes others feel, well, I find that astonishing—and a goal worth pursuing. A friend of mine, an amazing improvisor named Rafe Chase, recently, wisely, said to myself and a roomful of improvisors, “Sooner or later we’re all going to die. And as far as we know, we don’t get to feel after we die. So why not get in as much feeling now as we can?” Which makes sense to me. Why else would we have been given this gift of emotion? But I’d love to hear your thoughts.

So those are my pithy musings for today. Remember to Live the Love. It’s all we’ve got!

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4 comments

  1. That’s the trick: turning those symbols into feelings. Like magic! Maybe that’s why I like to write–it gives me the chance to express all sorts of feelings. Even ones I thought I’d left behind in junior high (middle school to you young’uns). And they don’t have to be your own feelings, from your own experiences. One of the great things about writing is that you get to play dress up and pretend you are other people, other kinds of people–a foster child, a trans woman, an android. Heck, a dog! Same for improv, I’m sure. (Love that photo!)

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