Acting on Empathy

By Jason Marsh | September 1, 2005 | 0 comments

The Natyasastra, a Sanskrit text believed to have been written roughly 2,000 to 2,500 years ago, presents the theory of the rasas—aesthetic emotions shared between a performer and audience members, different from the emotions we experience internally.

“‘Emotions’ in the Indian aesthetic performance system, far from being personal … are to some degree objective, residing in the public or social sphere,” writes Richard Schechner, a theater director and New York University theater professor, in his essay “Rasaesthetics.” Schechner says that the eight original rasas (a ninth was added later) encompass the “basic emotional ingredients” of human experience—emotional states available to all of humankind.

Through his “Rasabox Exercise,” Schechner has trained actors to express these emotional states. Performers create a three-by-three grid on the floor, with the name of each rasa in its own separate box. Then they take turns stepping into each box, associating feelings and ideas with the Sanskrit word written inside of it, and developing physical expressions that help communicate that emotion. The goal, says Schechner, is to train actors to become “athletes of the emotions.” Like a basketball player who comes off the bench and snaps into action, these actors would have their bodies trained to almost instantaneously express an emotion and instill a certain feeling in their audience, even if the actors themselves don’t feel that emotion.

“The most important thing is to communicate the experience, so that the audience has the experience,” said Paula Murray Cole, an actress who has helped Schechner develop the rasabox exercise and has trained in it herself, and now helps teach it to others. “The physical expression isn’t necessarily what the actors are feeling. But it’s about knowing the forms of expression that transmit the emotion.”

Cole added that this kind of training has applications outside of the theater. She said it has made her more aware of how her physical actions, such as breathing patterns, can help her recognize internal emotions she didn’t realize she was experiencing. And she said that skill has made her more aware of others’ emotions as well, as she’ll be a more sensitive witness to the physical cues offered up by strangers and acquaintances. That helps explain why she is using the rasaboxes in a program she is developing with NYU’s medical school to train doctors in nonverbal communication.

“By giving people practice—attuning them to what is visible and what can be seen, heard, and felt—it’s sort of opening up the permission for them to see, hear, and feel it in others,” she said. “It ought to be taught really early on.”

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Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.


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