Empathy is a prized characteristic in my field of work. It’s the source of inspiration, the evidence of your imagination. I’ve always considered myself an empathetic person: easily moved by the stories of others, able to hop fluidly from one viewpoint to another. Then my musical theatre teacher told me I’m “not a feeler.”
“Anne, you are a do-er,” my teacher, Cathy, began as I stood on stage, awaiting my critique. I gazed past the bright lights into the dim audience where she sat with my classmates. A do-er, she said—which is a great thing—and a thinker. But apparently not a feeler.
Personal insights like this are common in my musical theatre class, which goes beyond music, or even performance, and digs into the subtle intricacies of interpersonal communication. Every couple of weeks as I perform a new song, I develop a new character and a new situation. More than singing, I am creating a story, mining the lyrics and the music for meaning and figuring out how to communicate that meaning authentically to my audience.
“The feeling! That’s what we’re working on,” Cathy continued. “I want you to really try to tap in more to how you feel. How you are responding to your situation?”
After three years of working together, I know her well enough to know what she’s asking for. And it’s not just emotion, but a concrete physiological response. When I say in my monologue that I met the man of my dreams, I may feel “happy” or “excited.” But what does that excitement feel like, physically? Where do these emotions come from inside my body and how does their energy travel through me? It’s the light in my eyes, the flush in my cheeks, the effusiveness in my gestures. Perhaps a bit of bewilderment at the intensity of my own joy that’s expressed as a self-conscious touch of my hair. That’s the kind of thing she expects to see from me on stage.
The feeling! I realize how I gloss over these sensations in my daily life. I mask them with words. At the end of a long day, I might say that I’m “stressed” — a word that becomes shorthand for the change in my pulse, or the tension in my muscles that adds a brusqueness to my movements, a clipped efficiency to my footsteps. When I think about it, I’m amazed by the amount of activity that happens inside of me that I do not consciously feel.
I think it’s this consciousness that is the key to empathy. I have to admit that having my ability to feel called into question stung a bit, so I dug in and began to look for an answer to my problem. Being a word person, I began by re-examining the definition of empathy. A quick Google search took me to Wikipedia, which defined it as “the ability to share the sadness or happiness of another through consciousness.”
With my original understanding of empathy and feeling, it would have been enough to be aware of the verbal and physical signals that other people are sending. Basically, just be observant and sympathetic. But my musical theatre exploits have opened my eyes to a broader definition, which I now take to mean a two-way consciousness– an awareness of others, as well a consciousness of my own feelings that allows me to recognize their expression in others and express them more clearly to others.
This heightened sense of empathy can be an important part of the creative process in any discipline, whether delivering a dramatic performance or designing a dramatic form language. If you really understand and really experience the feeling behind an emotion, then you can re-create it more authentically. Done well, a craft becomes a form of communication in which an audience or an end user can recognize the truth and, hopefully, a piece of themselves.
So I’m trying to be more conscious. For my new song this week I’m delving into the expression of feelings like loneliness, want, frustration and regret. I’m working in front of mirrors, recalling experiences in my past. And how does it feel? When I get up on stage, feel the physical pull of these emotions in my chest, hear them coloring my words and, after it’s all over, hear a sincere applause from my classmates, it doesn’t feel like loneliness at all.