“Theater may be the cure for what ails us in the digital world.” So said an article by Tracey Moore in The Chronicle of Higher Education ( April 8, 2016 issue.) Moore goes on to state that acting requires a whole different set of skills than those required to navigate the Internet, Facebook and the myriad of technological gadgets that occupy so much of our time.
Acting requires “fierce concentration and the ability to focus one’s attention at will, significant mind/body reciprocity, a developed and practiced imagination, and the exploration and study of the outside world (other people, other art forms, literature, and one’s own life experiences). Acquiring those skills could be an antidote for college students who are said to be lacking empathy, isolated and narcissistic, distracted and jaded.”
The abilities that are needed for successful acting are also remarkably similar to those that are required in real life. In fact, the author goes on to state that business and management consultants often have acting degrees because the skills they learn—empathy, foresight, and the ability to deal with multiple outcomes—are so useful in many business settings.
The article points out that new acting students have to learn some of the skills that they have never had to
develop. Many of the students, for instance, have no idea how to flirt—prolonged eye contact, light physical touching, playful teasing. When asked to flirt they often skip any preliminaries and go straight to simulated sex. Furthermore, they can’t imagine being bored since they always have a cell phone handy. Acting also requires a thorough study of a character’s situation, life circumstances, and motivations and asks that actors explore the effects of those circumstances within themselves. In a semester, a college actor will play numerous characters, always striving to fill their shoes—almost literally. It becomes a crash course in empathy—a trait that is in short supply on the Internet.
If we think about it, acting and any aspect of the theater are just plain fun. I’ll bet most people remember the plays they did in high school even if they have never acted since. I played a bunny rabbit when I was a freshman in high school and loved every minute of it. As a senior, I played Madame Arcati, the wacky medium in Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit. I was so shy I barely spoke and hardly talked to boys at all. But I knocked the heck out of Madame Arcati! I lost my reticence and became that eccentric lady to rave reviews!!!
It was a turning point in my life. I loved the theatre in part because it allowed me to discover a part of myself that I didn’t know existed. I know that people report they can adopt another persona on the Internet and become someone that they couldn’t be in real life. But I believe that acting requires, shall we say, a fuller kind of empathy. To become that zany medium I had to walk like her, talk like her, dress like her and ultimately believe that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Acting and, in fact, any of the arts are crucial human activities—requiring physical, mental, emotional and spiritual engagement. We cannot afford to lose them in our ever-expanding technological world.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.