I recently started teaching a new Basics course at SCR. One I the first things I do is to have people introduce themselves by asking them what brought them to the theatre TODAY. I always get great answers. People who plunge themselves into beginning acting classes tend to be very interesting, brave and bold. There are, of course, the college age folks, who are trying to get into the industry. There are also retirees, ready to try something they always wanted to do. The people that really intrigue me, however, are people who are mid-career, and aren't looking to become ACTORS per se. They are the one who come to my class for other reasons. In the group was this guy, seems funny, a bright professional. We all know guys like him, they come off a little brusque, a little different. He is very successful in his field. When it came time for him to tell us why he was in the room, he told us that his son had been diagnosed with high functioning Aspergers and consequently so had he. I guess a lot of things fell into place for him when he found that out. He told me he has to force himself to look at people, that he wanted to learn what it was like to "feel" emotions and a doctor had suggested acting classes. He mentioned to me that he had trouble being "empathetic." When he said that to me, it sounded like something an evaluator had told him. I'm not sure the meaning of empathy really resonated with him.
I work with a lot of people on the autism spectrum. I'm not a psychologist or a therapist and I don't claim to be. I am an acting teacher. And speaking with an adult who was coping with the diagnosis gave me insights that I never had with my kids. He doesn't "feel" emotions the way you and I do. To me, a lay person, I thought his description of not feeling sounded like color-blindness or tone deafness. He wants to learn how to act like he's feeling. The guy is definitely bright, and very interesting.
And intriguing, since my job is to teach basic acting techniques. There are styles that he could definitely apply, outside in, the British method. Commedia maybe. And anyway, how many of us actors haven't relied on the ghost of a sensation to twist our face into the proper expression of concern or interest when we are not feeling it? I can't teach him to feel, but perhaps a little like Henry Higgins, I can teach him to pretend he's feeling.
So much of emotion is bound up in muscle memory. A tense forehead indicates anxiety, tightly drawn lips equals hurt. Maybe I could invent a modern Del Sartre type method? I did have a kid once whose mother swore he became more affectionate after taking acting classes, because he learned to take the cues he was given, and would smile at the right time, or look like he was listening. Was he? Is teaching person with autism the gestures of emotion going to help him feel the emotions somewhere? And is he faking out if he pretends to be interested when in fact he really isn't? If so, we are ALL consummate fakers.
I'm sure much smarter people thy I have better answers, but really empathy is a taught emotion. Little kids aren't empathetic at all. And acting isn't an easy thing to teach to anybody. Fascinatingly enough, certain autistic people pick it up faster and are quicker to understand the purpose of things like objectives, getting what you want, sticking to your goal in a scene. A lot of the autistic kids I know become very fine actors indeed. Maybe because their slate is so blank, they have no bad habits to get rid of. Starting without their own emotions they can become a character without bruising or sacrificing their own ego. And become a gift to their acting teachers in the process.
I am drawn to these folk on the spectrum. I enjoy working with them, mostly because they can and do put their own feelings aside and become complete characters when in character. I also really love teaching the Basics class. It is about teaching people to act, but more importantly, to connect. The flaws people come in with are usually the gems that just need polishing. Diamonds in the rough.