The Empathy Flower.
by Ron Campbell.
It started on a Taco Tuesday. In the middle of a pandemic. On a Wednesday.
An old friend had suggested we reconnect with some old high school buddies on a Zoom Meeting over beers and homemade tacos, each of us sheltering in place in different parts of the country.
I’m sure this kind of reunion has played out with thousands of estranged friends and relatives since the shut downs started. A sweet and surprising dividend of our new reality.
I should say I’m an actor. We all are. All four of us. The acting bug had bitten each of us hard in high school thanks to a particularly charismatic teacher in “Drama Class” and it had never let go. We’d all been in the acting world ever since. More or less successfully. Let’s say we made our living at it. At something we would all probably do for free. Ours were lives well lived. A couple of us had had small parts in some big movies, we’d all done a lot of theatre and I had been a clown for Cirque du Soleil.
Until a few months ago. When suddenly standing up in front of the footlights and a living, breathing, hopefully laughing crowd turned into something akin to standing in front of a firing squad. When our job hazard went from dying on stage to actually dying.
So there we were, hunched in front of the laptops eating tacos and slipping back into those long forgotten patterns. You know, those rhythms that resurface when you reconnect with old buddies, those grooves you carved together in your formative years when your experiences were, well, forming you. The conversation is sprinkled with laughs and the familiar barbs that old friends accept from each other. Old girlfriends, old cars, old stories suddenly remembered and relived.
And old shows. For actors, who are chronologically challenged anyway, time is measured in shows. I had to testify in a court of law on a rent control case one time and had to tell the judge:
“Sorry, your honor. It was sometime after Cyrano de Bergerac and sometime before Richard the Third. Not sure what year.”
As a long time Shakespearean actor there were decades that went by when the only way I knew it was was Summer was that the stage I was performing on was outdoors.
So I was surprised, when one of the guys reminded me that, eons ago, he and I had done Waiting for Godot, playing the hapless clowns Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s existential masterpiece. We’d received some glowing reviews that we couldn’t remember and one bad one that we could. In it the critic had said we were having way too much fun. And we probably were. We were no doubt too young for the roles then but looking into our monitors now we saw that time had had its way with our faces and we were all now looking positively Beckettian in our shelter-in-place beards.
“We should do that show again.” somebody said.
“Yeah, right. Where? In order for us to do our thing people have to congregate in a room together, breath the same air and watch us do it. When’s that gonna happen?” I sighed.
“Here. We could do it on Zoom. Waiting for Godot on Zoom.”
There were chuckles.
“Zooming for Godot.”
And suddenly four lightbulbs, in four different cities, in front of four different laptops, over four different plates of tacos, went off.
“I’ll play Didi.”
“I’ll play Gogo”
“I got Pozzo.”
“That leaves Lucky. You got something, Jeffrey?”
“I think I can put something together.”
“That’s it. We’re doing it”
“Zooming for Godot!”
And we started rehearsing. Nightly. Thousands of miles apart. Closets were raided for costumes. Spouses enlisted to help stage manage. Youtube scoured for technical advice. A month went by. Two. We began recording. Using the play as a jumping off point, we jumped. Improvised. Sharpened our adlibs for the next late night session. Directed each other. Cracked each other up. Said things that would have been fighting words if there wasn’t so much water under our collective bridges.
For some of us it was a chance to pivot, to get a handle on the new technology, to play. For others it was an unexpected return to performance in the midst of a plague. For me it was therapy. Getting into costume, getting that jolt of adrenaline you get when the red light on your webcam pops on and the jury of your peers goes into session was an absolute balm to the daily angst factory the world had become and I was grateful for it.
One night we were working on the section where my character Vladimir asks Pozzo, a kind of puffed up malevolent ringleader, what Lucky, his bedraggled slave, has in the heavy suitcases he’s forced to carry across Beckett’s wasteland landscape. In our version, it went like this:
“What’s in the bags he carries?”
Pozzo takes a moment, leans in to the camera and says:
Now I remember vividly, back when we were performing the show for a live audience many years ago- how this line hit me. Just like a ton of bricks. Or sand, as it were. The weight of every meaningless granule. The audacity of Pozzo’s cruelty. The depth of Beckett’s metaphor.
And though it has been a hundred thousand years since I was performing that show it was that jolt of empathy that I keep going back to. That kind of deep empathy is a physical thing. It has weight. And form. It was like one of those time lapse films of flowers opening up. And when Pozzo said “Sand” and when the reality of that sunk in to Vladimir it sunk in to me too. Like this strangely beautiful, impossibly heavy flower blossoming right in the center of my throat.
Eight shows a week. Twice on Sundays.
Empathy is a muscle. You have to work it out once in awhile or it will atrophy. As an actor empathy is kind of built in to the job description. Your job is to step into someone else’s skin and feel what they feel. And when it’s done well the audience gets to come along for the ride and experience it right there with you. I’ve heard theatre referred to as an “empathy gym”. A space where an audience can allow themselves to see themselves in others. The Greeks called it the Teatron or “place of seeing”.
And the actors are simply vessels. There to so completely empathize with their characters that they become them. And in so doing serve simply as ushers guiding audiences towards understandings of something that, before coming to the theatre, they may have considered completely “other” and beyond the reach of their, well, empathy.
I remember another unfathomable duration of time ago- don’t ask me how long- perhaps it’s a defense mechanism but like so many actors I am truly terrible with time- I was in a production of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. I was playing a small part, Gratiano. The role has very few lines but has the dubious distinction of being the one who spits on Shylock in the trial scene. The Shylock in this production was played beautifully by Alan Mandell who happened to have played Lucky in a seminal production of Waiting for Godot directed by Beckett himself.
As an opening night gift I gave Alan an antique one pound weight as a kind of homage to the “pound of flesh” Shylock wishes to exact from his enemy Antonio. I thought it would make a nice memento and a handsome paperweight. The moment Alan felt it in his hand, the weight of it, he broke into tears. I believe that so complete was not only his empathy for his own character but also for that of his enemy that the simple one pound weight triggered a sudden blossoming of another kind of empathy flower in Alan’s heart.
I felt so bad at the time making an old man cry though he did thank me profusely. And it didn’t help that I had to spit on him in every performance.
Eight shows a week, twice on Sundays.
A few millennia passed. I’m in another production of The Merchant of Venice. And this time I’m playing Shylock. And I remember vividly the fellow playing Gratiano always seemed to be drinking milk or pounding down cottage cheese in the dressing room before the show. No doubt attempting to improve the viscosity of his saliva.
In this production he actually had two staged expectorations in my direction. The first was in the town square scene where he got to “void his rheum upon my Jewish gabardine” and launch a loogie at me and in so doing launch me in to one of the greatest speeches ever written on human empathy.
I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
And I got to say it. Eight nights a week. Twice on Sundays.
And as an actor, a vessel, it felt like I, as Shylock, was teaching. Awakening the empathy flower that waits in the audience’s heart. Coaxing it open. Letting it bloom.
Fast forward a few lifetimes. I’m hunched over the computer in the middle of the night in the middle of a pandemic trying to do Waiting for Godot with some old buddies on Zoom.
There’s no theatre, no audience, no “place of seeing” besides a three by five inch square on an illuminated screen. There’s not even any spitting. In fact no one knows when we’ll be able to spit or cry or hug or laugh with our fellow actors again in the same room or on the same stage. With a living, breathing audience to watch it. Our limitations seem limitless. But as Beckett says: “I can’t go on. I must go on”.
I look not into my fellow actor’s eyes, but into the red light of my webcam.
“What’s in the bags he carries?”
And the empathy flower blooms.
Ron Campbell is an actor and florist who lives in California.
For more on Ron Campbell go here: https://linktr.ee/SoarFeat
For more on Zooming for Godot go here: www.sixfoottheatre.com