Tag Archives: empathy

We Can’t All Be Ron Burgundy

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Good morning, and a very merry Monday to you!

Yet again, I find myself needing to apologise to you, you lovely and patient reader, for not having written anything for a while.  Truth be told, preparation for the Fringe is taking up an insane amount of time, and I’m afraid the whole blogging thing slipped through my incredibly disorganised net.  Today’s blog will be an extra 10% funny and uplifting, just for you.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from working in theatre is that everyone responds to emotional situations differently.  What makes one person cry will make another angry, and what makes one person laugh out loud will at best raise a small smile from someone else.  The bizarre thing is how drastically our emotional responses vary from those of our nearest and dearest.  Certain things that would put you into the Anchorman “glass case of emotion” might only dip your best friend’s toe into the goldfish bowl of vague discomfort.

This can be a very good thing and a fairly weird one.  It’s excellent to surround ourselves with people who can give us fresh perspectives, but sometimes it makes us feel less rational when our friends disagree with our responses.  When it comes to emotional reactions we are particularly vulnerable, because our feelings tend to be relatively instinctive rather than especially thought through.

This is something that has come up quite a lot during rehearsals for Chris is Dead, partly because the content is quite emotionally charged, but also because the people involved are all very different.  Despite his constant cries of “where are all the men?!”, our only male cast member is actually very sensitive to the most upsetting aspects of the story.  (In case you hadn’t guessed, the title of the show pretty much explains what it’s about.  You knew that already, right?)  One of the girls tends to be very good at distancing herself from her character’s grief, and the third is stoically open-minded about how different aspects of the story will affect her at different points of the rehearsal process.

The best and most rewarding aspect of working with these cracking people is the fact that they really respect each other’s views.  It’s hard enough working on a show about death without the cast disagreeing on their feelings about it, so I feel very lucky to be directing three such empathetic and lovely actors.

Although my head is very much stuck in a my-life-has-been-taken-over-by-rehearsals-what-on-earth-is-this-“sleep”-thing-you-speak-of-? sort of place, I can appreciate that the cast’s communal attitude is something that should be more prevalent in the real world.  It might be baffling or annoying to find that we are not on the same wavelength as others around us, but we should have confidence in the validity of our feelings.  We should also make the effort to try and understand where other people are coming from.

Have a stupendously enjoyable Monday.

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Let’s Not Give Ourselves Monophobia

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Hello, lovely reader!  How are you today?

Fear is something that unites us rather than divides us.  The most common phobias in the world include all of the usual suspects – claustrophobia, acrophobia and arachnophobia – and the bizarrely comforting thing about them is that people who suffer from them don’t have to feel alone with their fear.

Weirdly, a phobia is often defined as an irrational or disproportionate fear of something.  How does that work?  Being afraid of heights is perfectly logical, because you might fall and hurt yourself, so why do we call that a phobia?  Likewise, nyctophobia (fear of the dark) makes sense because humans are hard-wired to mistrust the unknown.  Ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) is also very reasonable, because snakes are creepy and poisonous and biblically untrustworthy.  In case you haven’t guessed, I really hate snakes.

The strange thing about phobias and fears is that they make us feel vulnerable, whereas they’re actually very useful for helping us to work out essential parts of who we are.  When we come across a fear in ourselves that seems strange to others (or vice versa), there is an immediate clash of confusion and incredulity: “How can you be afraid of snakes?  They’re so cute!”

Leaving aside for the moment how ridiculous it is to call a snake “cute”, I think it’s worth mentioning that everyone’s fears come from somewhere.  It might be an experience during the formative years of childhood, a reinforced impression that has formed over time or an isolated incident in adulthood, but everything that you’re afraid of makes perfect sense in the context of your life history.  I don’t know where my snake issues some from – maybe watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at a very young age – but they definitely have a valid origin somewhere in my psyche.

In modern life, we have many fears in common with other people: the fear of making a social gaffe, a fear of tripping over in public, or even a cold, clammy dread of falling victim to the whims of rail replacement bus services.  Having these worries in common makes for empathetic conversation and stronger connections between us, which is lovely.

Having said that, we deserve just as much understanding and compassion when we express fear of something that another person is not scared of.  Everyone’s fears are valid, even if we have no idea where they come from.  If we make each other feel weird about our fears and phobias, we are preventing ourselves from getting over them by making us deal with them alone.  Isolation is the enemy of progress, happiness and successful ball games, so let’s not do that.

Have a stupendously enjoyable Tuesday.

Unsplit Personalities

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Good morning!  It’s Noel Fielding’s birthday today, did you know?  On the very small off-chance that he reads this: Happy Birthday, Noel!

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking about personalities, and how very complicated they are.  We have a tendency to separate out different sections of our personalities, because we think that certain bits are anomalous to who we are, and some parts are just plain embarrassing.  It is too difficult and confusing to admit that our bad habits and secret sins are linked to our genes, our upbringings or our life styles.  Much easier to have a persona that can be summed up in three words by the people who know us best, and leave it at that.

We are encouraged to keep up this pretence of simplicity by constantly summarising and censoring ourselves: job applications, CVs, online dating profiles, Twitter biographies and more ask us to reduce ourselves into a few short sentences, and we willingly oblige.  We know that we’re complicated, but we don’t everyone else to know that.

The thing is that every aspect of your personality is linked to something else about you, and that is a really good thing.  Take the anomalies, for instance: I like watching football, which seems a bit random in terms of my other interests, but actually it does make sense.  I like watching events with a large group of people (like when I go to the theatre), I like lots of noise (because I grew up in a big family) and I like having a pint with my friends (that’s just a given).  So even though I’m not a stereotypical football fan, it makes sense for me to like football once you break it down.

When we think of certain personality aspects as anomalous we don’t embrace them for what they are: an important part of what makes us a complete person.  This comes up a lot with mental health issues.  People call depression “the black dog”, which I think is really stupid for two reasons: firstly, making the illness a separate, animalistic entity encourages people to be afraid of it and distance themselves from the issue, and secondly it kind of ruins the third Harry Potter book if you have that association in mind.

I’m not suggesting that mental health problems are a good thing (obviously), but if you have to live with them you shouldn’t have to be afraid of them, as well.  They are part of who you are, but they don’t define you.  There’s plenty of awesomeness in your personality, too, and they’re not necessarily separate qualities.  For example, living with something like depression can give you strength you never knew you had.

Everyone has aspects of their personalities that they wish they could change or get rid of, but you are who you are.  If we refuse to accept the bad things about our psyches as well as the good, we are rejecting a massive proportion of what makes us a real human being.  Think about it: if we didn’t all have bad and good things about us, we would be completely angelic and therefore entirely incapable of empathy.  We’d also be kind of boring.  And you, my friend, are definitely not boring.

Have a stupendous Wednesday.

Time is of the (Vanilla) Essence

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Good morning, you lovely thing!  How’s your week going so far?

If you’ve read my blog post about deadlines you will already know that I think working towards deadlines can be very good for us, but that we should have faith in the idea that opportunities don’t just come around once.  This post was similarly positive in tone, and dealt with the idea that we can afford to wait for the opportune moment.  Having made these fairly optimistic assertions, I would now like to talk about the slightly more frustrating side of things: the best laid plans of mice, men and mortgage brokers can be utterly scuppered by bad timing.  Good timing is like a ticket to your dream gig: you know some people have managed to get hold of it, but your best endeavours haven’t got you anywhere.  Sadly, there is no eBay equivalent for those of us who can’t seem to time things correctly.

In many cases, timing is problematic because it isn’t something we can entirely control.  Your best friend’s birthday party inevitably falls the night before your big job interview, and the season finale of your favourite television show is always showing when you’ve got a hefty essay due in.  In my house, we tend realise that we’ve run out of vanilla essence three minutes after Asda closes on the evening before some kind of cake-centred event.  (For the record, almost all of mine and Ash’s social interactions revolve around cake, and we are not ashamed.)

Currently, timing is just being a bit inconsiderate: I somehow managed to get ill just before today’s recording of Pointless.  This is an absolute pain in the sinuses, but I have two very good reasons not to let this bother me:

1) I have an incredibly compassionate flat mate who is very good at taking care of sickies, and who is unfailingly sympathetic when all I can muster by way of conversation is a feeble “uuuuuurgh my face hurts”.  Everyone should have an Ash in their lives, especially one who always has Olbas oil and vapour rub.

2) Pretty much everyone I know is ill at the moment, and we all know that lurgy loves company.

That’s the main point, isn’t it?  The worst feeling in the world is not necessarily going through something difficult, but feeling that you’re going through it alone.  Bad things don’t necessarily come in threes, but they definitely come in large numbers.  Sometimes it seems that we have stumbled across a school trip of bad news, and the little gits have taken over our mental landscapes with their lunch boxes of doom.  It isn’t necessarily encouraging per se that all of our friends get ill at the same time, that lots of couples break up within a few weeks of each other and that everyone seems to be in a bad mood on the same day, but our problems are so much easier to deal with when we realise that our loved ones understand them.  In many cases, their experiences of your situation will qualify them to offer you good advice, lots of empathy and, where necessary, decongestants.

Have a truly marvellous Thursday.  You deserve it.

Actors are Awesome

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Good morning, you fabulous human being!  I hope that you’ve started your weekend with a decent lie-in.  As you can tell from the time that this post was published, I did not have a lie-in myself.  This is not a problem, partly because I really like mornings (sunshine!  Coffee!  Optimism!  More coffee!!) but mainly because I’ve got an early rehearsal.  My actors are a lovely bunch with a pretty good understanding of my eccentricities, but it would be a bit awkward if they turned up and found their director still in her pyjamas.

We are rehearsing for a show on Wednesday called Date Night, which is a series of three short pieces about relationships and how bad Generation Y is at them.  (Apparently my generation is called that, but I don’t know why.  Pun not intended.)  Anyway, since I wrote all three pieces it would be a bit weird of me to start talking about them, so I’ll talk about the actors instead.  They’re brilliant.

Actors in general are a fascinating bunch of people, and wider society thinks that it’s got the whole lot of them pegged.  Wider society is missing out.  Actors have lots of things in common: passion for performance, a desire to create empathetic experiences with an audience, a clear speaking voice and the ability to memorise enormous chunks of dialogue.  But each actor is unique in the same way that human beings are, and they are blimming fascinating.

No matter how obvious I think a script is or how clearly I’ve imagined a character, there is always an actor out there who can turn my ideas on their head.  It’s actually the main reason that I enjoy writing so much: our minds are full of strange, complicated thought processes – to quote the great Bill Bailey “my mind is unravelling like a tapestry with some angry kittens!” – but we only get one mind each.  I am limited by my capacity to be be just one person, so whatever I write will be likewise limited.  I can imagine situations and write characters, but it is the actors who take the scripts and make them work.  The dialogue needs their unravelling tapestry minds as well as mine.

What do you think of when you read the word “actor”, by the way?  Do you picture Kenneth Branagh, or maybe Laurence Olivier?  Does the word remind you of tortured artistry or living on a pittance?  Maybe even the idea of being a bit pretentious?  You may well be right to think of those things.  But among my social and professional sphere are a whole load of actors who have made me laugh until I’ve cried, actors who have given me chills, who have made me fall in love with their characters or made me want to run a mile.  These are people whom I have grown up with, seen first thing in the morning, spent all day in a pub with and played Monopoly with: the people I know best in the world, in fact.  But they have all managed to astonish me at some point by becoming somebody else when they’re on stage.  It’s weird (and wonderful).

You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but it’s a sensation that I don’t think I will ever become accustomed to.  I hope that I don’t.  Actors, like all people, have got the constant power to surprise you…BOO!  Ok I’m sure you were expecting that…but hey, I’m not an actor.

Have the most unapologetically awesome Saturday.

Autobiography is Irrelevant

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Hello, lovely reader!  How’s everything going with you?  Did you get that essay/presentation/murder trial sorted out in the end?  Oh good, glad to hear it.

Last night I went to the Etcetera Theatre in Camden to see a play called Leaves of Glass.  While it was hardly light-hearted mid-week viewing, it was a very powerful and incredibly well-written play.  The story featured disturbingly empathetic ideas of dishonesty within families in order to keep the peace, and papering over bad memories in order to enjoy the present.  It was so riveting that I didn’t notice almost two hours slip by without an interval (and an audience always notices stuff like that).  I love it when you see a play, or film, or read a book that completely takes over your head space for a few days.  Even if it’s because it’s disturbed your inner well-being a bit, it’s good to really digest stuff like that.  It means it was good.

One of the first comments I heard when I left the theatre was a woman walking in front of us who turned to someone and said “God, d’you think it was autobiographical?”  Strap yourselves in, kids, I’m going in for a rant:

1) If it were autobiographical, would that make any difference to the quality of the play?  Would you enjoy a well-written, energetically performed and cleverly directed play any less because you found out that these things did or didn’t happen in real life?  Theatre is ABOUT life: the whole point of theatre is to show us something that could actually happen.  That’s why we have political plays.

2) It’s really none of your business.  If the playwright has been through any of the things that the characters have then s/he should not have to go into detail about it to gratify your morbid curiosity.  Also, you just watched a whole bloody play about it; how much more detail do you really want?  Wise up, as my friend Carly would say.

(I’m not really cross, by the way.  I know I sound it, but I’ve actually got a very nice day planned, so I’m pretty chipper.  Sorry for ranting.)

I love it when people see elements of themselves in my plays, because it means that I’ve managed to write characters who are sympathetic (and more importantly, empathetic).  But that’s about having a good experience as an audience member and relating to the piece, not trying to look behind the curtain and undermine the story.

Playwrights get very annoyed when people try to detect people they know (or themselves) in their work, because it implies that we don’t have the imagination to come up with our own characters.  Sure, we take inspiration from our real lives and the people in it, but we’re not writing Made in Chelsea here.  Give us a break.   If you switch your brain off to stop worrying about whether your friend’s play is about you or someone you know, you’ll probably enjoy it more.

By the way, I know that in my blogs and articles I talk directly about my friends and family all the time.  I’ve named Carly in this one, for example.  Oh look at that, I did it again.  (Hi Carly!)  But this is real life, not a story I made up.  I don’t have to use my imagination to tell you about annoying my vegetarian friend on an Underground train.  (Sorry – read this blog if that reference baffled you.)

Have an amazing day.  Go to that slightly posh place near the office for lunch; you deserve a mid-week treat.