Zachary Fine

In the Room: Part 2

HOMO EMPATHICUS or The Science of Loving Theatre



1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

I’m a few weeks into rehearsal for a show that I’ve written, am performing in and am playing a version of myself…and I’m in search of….empathy. I think. Amongst the many questions I’m asking myself as an actor in this process are; who am I, and what do I want? It’s funny to be working on a character that is me but not me in a way…and I’ve been finding I spend a good deal of time holding myself back from all out war on myself. Eventually I will either figure it out or I won’t and the show will open and people will be in the seats and they will spend an evening seeing if there was anything fruitful that came from my tussle with my “other” self. Whatever the outcome, I know that struggling to have some empathy towards this fictionalized version of me is probably healthy and is in fact the process I invariably go through as an actor working on any role.

I know it is a useful exercise that makes me feel, ironically more whole, even though it’s by relating to a fractured or divided self. Why go through this process? Various rationale I suppose, but one amongst many is empathy. I enjoy the process of developing empathy towards a character I’m playing… and I’m enjoying the process of developing a little more empathy towards my fictionalized self. Empathy makes me feel less alone…and I like feeling less alone.

According to some unconfirmed sources, Muhammad Ali wrote the shortest poem in the English Language, which reads just like an Ali left hook; swift and powerful and a little goofy; “Me. We.” It is a testament to Ali’s genius that both as a fighter and a poet, he could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. In South Africa there is a short and satisfying Zulu and Xhosa word used to describe empathy; Ubuntu, which according to Archbishop Desmond Tutu means “I am because you are”; Martin Buber, the great Jewish theologian and philosopher, articulates empathy as “I and Thou.” All of these phrases and adages have contributed to my appreciation and contemplation of empathy, and have in fact been deciding factors in my choice to work in the theatre. But I wanted to know more about empathy; I wanted to know if there was any scientific validity to the value I’d placed upon it. This is what I found.

Since the early 90’s scientists have been able to articulate a process called “mirror neurons” which actually proves scientifically that we are “soft-wired” to experience another person’s plight as though we are experiencing it ourselves. Which is to say, the exact same neurons light up in our brains when we are doing a thing, as when we are observing the exact same thing being done by another.

We have a cognitive recognition of similitude between us and another, and as Jeremy Rifkin, author of “The Empathic Civilization” points out, “mirror neurons are just the beginning of a whole range of research going on in neuro-psychology, brain research and child development that suggest that we are actually soft-wired not for aggression, violence and self interest and utilitarianism but that we are actually soft wired for sociability, attachment, affection and companionship and that the FIRST drive is the drive to actually belong; it’s an empathic drive.”

Rifkin goes on to brilliantly lay out the benefits of creating an empathic civilization to foster solidarity in the face of our mortality. He concludes by putting forth this challenge; “we have to re-think the human narrative; if we are truly homo-empathicus then we need to bring out that core nature, because if it doesn’t come out and it’s repressed by our parenting, by our educational systems our business practice and government, the secondary drives come; the narcissism the materialism the violence and the aggression; we need to bring out our empathic sociability so that we can re-think the institutions of society and prepare the groundwork for an empathic civilization.”

Like most actors I know, I oscillate each week between hope and despair with regard to my decision to pursue a career in the theatre. Why spend time imagining other people’s super-objective in life…what about my super-objective? What I return to though with confidence is the value of experiencing and exploring empathy.

Being an actor or audience member in the theatre satisfies me because I feel part of a human story that stretches back in time; it’s a story about how ME and WE, together, seek meaning within the cosmos. I believe that fundamental to that lesson of meaning is the ability to create and experience empathy, both as an actor and as an audience member.

My greatest hope for our theatre is that we seek out what Rifkin refers to as our “core nature” as creatures who are naturally prone to “sociability, attachment, affection and companionship” and moreover we remind ourselves that our work in the theatre can and should appeal to our “first drive” which is to belong.

It isn’t easy at all to bring that work to light amidst a society in which our “secondary drives” have taken precedence; but I have no doubt it is a necessary endeavor. The live theatre offers such amazing opportunities for us to grow our “empathic civilization.” With each great performance witnessed, the theatre sends bucket-loads of “mirror neurons” out into the world, enriched by their empathic experience. This is what keeps me coming back to theatre time and time again, filled with hope for the way it can actually change our world.