Engage & Learn

Character Empathy

By Sandra Delgado, most recently seen at the Goodman in A Christmas Carol Season 11/12 and Chicago Boys

As an actor we are asked to embody the souls of a person a playwright has created. Sometimes this character is someone we would not want to have a conversation with, let alone get to know deeply enough to be able to convincingly portray them onstage. What do I do when I am cast as a person whose actions, words and morals (or lack thereof) I find offensive or deeply disagree with?  I call upon a very powerful tool: empathy.

Empathy is the ability to “intellectually identify and vicariously experience the feelings of another” (Random House Dictionary).  I begin by tossing all judgments about this person out the window. I believe that all people are inherently good, even as they stumble through life and make choices that hurt themselves or other people. I do not believe anyone is innately evil, like the super villains you see in action films. I don’t call these characters “bad.” Dael refers to them in the title of her show as “broken” These broken people have the same fears and dreams that the rest of us do.  Something happened to them somewhere along their path in life, usually early on, that caused a sort of maladjustment or a skewed way of looking at the world and the people around them. My job as an actor is to find out what informs and motivates my characters questionable behavior so I can truthfully play the words and actions the playwright has written.

Sandra Delgado as Lulu and Juan Villa as Papo in El Grito Del Bronx

My process is rooted in my fascination for people.  It combines empathy, my interest in the study of human behavior, and the love and respect I have for humanity. The goal of this process is to create a character in which the audience can see themselves. I ignite the truths I share with my character; I awaken our shared life experiences, psychology, upbringing, and class. The way I prepare to play character whose morals and actions I don’t agree with does not differ much from any other role I prepare for, except I am forced to dig deeper. One role that immediately springs to mind is Lulu, the heart of Migdalia Cruz’ El Grito del Bronx, an unflinching look into poverty, child abuse and murder. Lulu was one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced as an actress. Lulu was a deeply tortured soul, with anemic self-esteem, a big chip on her shoulder, and a brilliant mind. It was hard for me to tap into Lulu’s sadness and anger because it required me to go into some very dark and painful places from my childhood.

Like Lulu, I have felt judged because of the color of my skin. I have felt uncomfortable when I perceive that someone is of a “higher” class then me.  I have felt misunderstood. I have felt angry. I have felt alone. I have felt ashamed. I have felt that I was not worthy of love. I have felt out of control. Look at how basic all of things feelings are…have you felt any of these things before?

Lulu is a broken young woman and shares much with the men you will meet in Ms. Orlandersmith’s show.  Her inner pain results in her lashing out in cruel and reckless ways to her loved ones, ultimately hurting herself and giving her pain even more fuel to grow. I remember thinking “How will I make Lulu’s character someone that people can relate to? All I do is scream at people throughout the whole play. All I do is push people away.” I had to stop worrying about what the audiences perceptions of Lulu might be, and focus on why Lulu was so angry and what she thought she would accomplish through her hurtful actions. Why do you scream? To be heard. Lulu wants to be heard, to be understood, to be listened to, to be respected. Who doesn’t want that? Lulu is trying to protect herself and fight for happiness the only way she knows how. My heart breaks for her, and as an actor I want to imbue her with the dignity and respect she deserves.

A wonderful gift resulting of my process as an actor is the cultivation of empathy in my everyday life. Empathy is a muscle that must be strengthened. And how is strengthened? With use. It is easy to jump to conclusions or react instinctually when someone does something to hurt you or ones that you love. In this situation I try to remember we all have the same fears, dreams and hopes. We all want to be happy. We all want to be loved. By putting yourself in their shoes and thinking about why they act that way, you cultivate compassion and understanding. You become a better human being.