Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Casting Director Mark Bennett's "Thoughts on Compassion"

The prominent casting director Mark Bennett, whose recent credits include Kathryn Bigelow's stunning Hurt Locker, and Niki Caro's upcoming The Vintner's Luck, was kind enough to share his thoughts on compassion with us. I've known Mark for years, and have always found him to be smart and passionate, but I wasn't prepared for what he had to say about compassion. His thoughts truly echo my own, and it's no surprise that his work is of such consistently stunning quality given the genuine depth of his compassion. Thanks, too, to Monique Gabriela Curnen (full disclosure, an Authentic client) who Mark talks about in the piece.
Mark Bennett

Recently, an actress ca
me in to read for me for a film that I was casting. She was one of the many in LA who are talented but are still struggling - and it was a big role. She was visibly nervous, and said so.

"Why?" I said. "We're all in this together."

She looked at me like I was speaking another language.

And in a way, I probably was. The movie business is rough, and we're told so often that it's a bloodsport that we start to believe it. I see it happen to actors: the first time I meet them, they're usually happy to be there, excited to be able to practice their craft. A few
years later, some of the ones who haven't yet "made it" (and who are concerned with that sort of thing) start to feel jaded and bitter. They resent the process; they have a lot to say about other actors, always negative; they're bitchy in the waiting room and mean to the assistants. They are angry - and you can feel it in their work. They resent having been denied every role they've ever auditioned for, even the bad ones, mainly because they thought that that part could have led to a better part, which eventually would have led them…where? At what point would they have finally been happy?

When actors ask for advice on plotting their careers, the question I usually ask them is not, Whose career do you want?, but rather, whose life do you want? Will it really make you happy to get in that magazine? To make that much more money? No one lies on their death bed wishing that they had made more money.

I've been as guilty of this as anyone. For years, I chased imaginary carrots in front of my nose, trying to push to the head of the pack, and resenting those ahead of me. The problem with life is that there is always someone ahead of you - someone with more money, or more influence. Stubborn as I am, it took me years to learn this. I had bought the lie that society tries to sell us, that the world is defined by lack, and that the more that other people get, the less there will be for you.

Meanwhile, my life got incredibly small. I felt lonely a lot. In the words of Billy Wilder, "If you don't go to other people's funerals, they won't go to yours."

Now, I am a logical person; I am a big fan of whatever works. And I've come to discover that, more than anything, schadenfreude (rooting for other people to fail) is bad not just because it's bad for your karma but because it doesn't work. I see it with actors at auditions. The actors who book the jobs are the ones who are open, interested, who are happy to be there. It's the bitter or resentful ones that stink up the room, that get the bad reputations. Who wants to hire an actor who has a chip on their shoulder, who is ful
l of resentment? Ironically, it's that same grim resolution to succeed that keeps them from succeeding.

We all come into this world innocent, full of hope. As long as babies' basic needs are met, they are happy. That's why young children are such good actors - they have come not to impress or to achieve, but to play. Then that innocence gets drilled out of us and we spend years trying to get it back; as Sainte-Beuve said, "There exists in most men a poet who died young, whom the man survived." But we still all have the desire to tap into our innate creativity, to experience that moment of transcendence in which we are
most creative, and most generous. William Blake called this mysterious power the Imagination, and he said it was God.

So if you accept that we all start from that same place of innocence, then it is impossible not to feel compassion for others - and eventually, for yourself. Now, whenever I hear about a movie star throwing a tantrum on set, or a director dressing down some poor p.a., I think, Wow. They must be one frightened little child, to feel like they have to fight so hard to prove their own importance. And then I say a little prayer for them.

Now when I say a "prayer", I'm not referring to working within any
organized religion or belief system. By prayer, I mean just good wishes, a happy little thought. Whenever actors are anxious about an audition, I tell them, "Say a little prayer, first for yourself and then for everybody else in the room - even the other actors. You'll feel generous and less resentful, and then your work will get better." And it does. I see it all the time.

I like to refer to my friend Monique Curnen. I first met Monique years ago, when she was an actress just starting out in New York. What always distinguished Monique, even more than her talent, was her generosity. She always showed up happy to be there, and eager to be of service. Because
of this, people rooted for her, and she steadily built up her resume. Two years ago, I was delighted to receive a call from Monique, in which she told me she had to cancel our plans because she'd booked a role in a film.

The film? The Dark Knight.

Right after that, she booked a lead on a TV show, and has been working steadily ever since. Throughout it all, she has remained a really nice person, even since moving to LA (which is no mean feat).

She's going to have a very long career.

Like I said, I am a logical person: I practice compassion because it works. Simple as that.
Do you hear that, actors? Mark casts major movies, and he's telling you that compassion works. Not just in theory--in real, live practice!

Wow, Mark. Thanks so much. I'm sitting here trying to think of something to add, and I can't think of anything.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Paul Slovic on why we don't take action, and how actors, writer, and directors wield enormous power to change that

I just posted on the recent Nicholas Kristof column, "Would You Let This Girl Drown?" where Kristof references Paul Slovic's work, specifically his paper "If I look at the mass I will never act": Psychic numbing and genocide. Today I dug further and read Slovic's paper. The gist of the whole thing can be explained from this excerpt of his abstract:
"Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are 'one of many' in a much greater problem. Why does this occur? The answer to this question will help us answer a related question that is the topic of this paper: Why, over the past century, have good people repeatedly ignored mass murder and genocide?"
Slovic goes on to describe affect, "the positive and negative feelings that combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgements, decisions, and actions." Affect is simply the "sense (not necessarily conscious) that something is good or bad." It's automatic, and it's fast. And even though we're faced with facts that might lead us in another direction, we mostly make our decisions via "intuitive, automatic, natural, non-verbal, narrative, and experiential" means. That sometimes leads to us making choices that, in the clear light of day, don't seem to make sense. He describes studies that show consistently, that donors are more likely to make a donation that helps a single child, rather than donations that might help many children.

I'm not going to get into great detail about Slovic's work, but it's a great paper and I urge you to take a look for yourself. What's clear from the paper, though, is that our emotional, automatic responses to situations are what drive many of our decisions. In fact, we're likely to use logic and facts (our "analytic" system) simply to support the conclusions we've already made through our "experiental" system.

So what does that have to do with compassion and acting, writing, and directing?

You guessed it––plenty!

While Slovic points out that simple statistics, no matter how enormous, ultimately do not inspire people to take action, "images often strike us more powerfully, more deeply than numbers... we quickly grow numb to the facts and the math." "When it comes to eliciting compassion, the identified individual victim, with a face and a name, has no peer," Slovic says, and he points out many examples thereof including Baby Jessica, who fell into a well in the late 1980's; her rescue was the subject of massive media attention and her rescue caused nationwide celebration.

And this is where we intersect with acting, with writing, with directing. It's tough to convince billions of people to make their decisions in a different way; much of what we do is automatic. Slovic references Barbara Kingsolver, who wrote:
"The power of fiction is to create empathy. It lifts you away from your chair and stuffs you gently down inside someone else's point of view... A newspaper could tell you that one hundred people, say, in an airplane, or in Israel, or in Iraq, have died today. And you can think to yourself, 'How very sad,' then turn the page and see how the Wildcats fared. But a novel could take just one of those hundred lives and show you exactly how it felt to be that person rising from bed in the morning, watching the desert light on the tile of her doorway and on the curve of her daughter's cheek. You could taste that person's breakfast, and love her family, and sort through her worries as your own, and know that a death in that household will be the end of the only life that someone will ever have. As important as yours. As important as mine."
Slovic claims that relying on experiential systems, by using "powerful affective imagery such as that associated with Katrina and the South Asian tsunami" is hopeless. He points out that relying on this method creates the possibility of sensationalism, and requires consistent and powerful action on the part of the media. Slovic advocates clear attention to the facts, to compel governments to take action––in this case, against genocide.

But he himself points out how difficult it is to get anyone to pay attention to facts, to numbers. It is exactly these mechanisms, imagery, narrative, personalization, that artists must wield. And by doing so mindfully, their power is enormous!

By creating real characters, human stories that audiences identify with, we become compelled to take action on their behalf. Save the Children has known this for a long time: we're more likely to sponsor a real child with a real face, than to give money to a general fund for the well-being of children, even though the benefit might be greater.

I often say that in my work as a manager, I'm working my clients to create the world that I want to live in. So many artists want to make an impact with their work, and one surefire way to do it is to create real human beings that audiences automatically feel compassion for. This doesn't mean artists can only work on "issues," films about world tragedies, plays about human suffering. But it does mean that each time a story is told, there's an opportunity to create a space where an audience identifies with another human being's suffering, and is compelled to take action on it.

This might be on the scale of genocide, or it might be on the scale of family dynamics and relationships, or anywhere in between. Reading a paper about the American Dream, man's fear of failure and dreams of success, and family dysfunction doesn't inspire us to look inward. Watching a production of Death of a Salesman might. Hearing facts about addiction and how it can destroy a family is sad, but to watch Long Day's Journey into Night makes us look at our own families with compassion. To hear about 800,000 deaths in Rwanda is horrifying, but to watch Hotel Rwanda hits us in the gut, and inspires us to take action. To hear about millions of deaths in the Holocaust is gut-wrenching, but to read The Diary of Anne Frank, or to watch Schindler's List, or to learn any human Holocaust story through a human narrative makes us want to keep it from happening again. *

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Kristof, Nobbs, Blank, and Jensen and the ability of the arts to cultivate compassion - “The more who die, the less we care.”

Ever since I read Nicholas Kristof's column in The New York Times last week, I've been trying to figure out how to draw a connection between what he describes––how we're more likely to help a single individual in need, than to help many in need––and the potential of work in the arts. Here's Kristof:
"...as the saying goes, that one death is a tragedy, a million a statistic. More depressing, appeals to our rationality actually seem to impede empathy.
For example, in one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokia’s plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help."
Kristof quotes behavioral scientist Paul Slovic in saying "the more who die, the less we care." People are able to ignore a statistic, but it's hard to not stop and help a single, suffering child.

Kristof's piece reminded me of the unique ability that the arts have, to create an immediate and compassionate human connection to an audience and why that was possible and necessary. We're in a fog, most of the time, thinking about ourselves, and the arts provide immediate connection and understanding that shakes us out of our fog––whether we like it or not.

Listen to Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank talk about why they create documentary theater:
"All of that work that work that we do together I think is really grounded in asking audiences to empathize with people who they might not normally empathize with... the central mechanism of narrative, all narrative, film, novels, theater, etc. etc., is empathy, and I think with theater, that manifests in the most immediate way because everybody is literally in a room together. There's no screen, there's no wall, there's no page, there's no filter of the audience's imagination. Everybody is actually having a shared experience."

Keith Nobbs, too, talked about theater's unique mechanism, something that's created by being in the same room as someone else, and how that forces you to feel compassion for them:
“Someone described the difference of theater and film as watching someone go through something and being in the same room with someone who's going through something.... if someone is crying in front of you, and you're in the same room, and you're breathing the same air, you have to, as a human being, take that in and exist in that space with them and be there for them. You have to show up.”

Jessica and Erik must've noticed this, too, when they first conceived of creating The Exonerated. The project arose after they attended a conference on the death penalty, and heard stories about a group of guys in Illinois who'd had confessions tortured out of them by a particular police commander. They described how at the conference, they saw a documentary on some of the cases, and heard information that was disturbing, but "kind of on an intellectual level." The audience was presented information dispassionately, in a detached, journalistic way.

The key moment for Erik and Jessica came when the conference organizers presented, via cell-phone held up to a microphone, one of the men whose confession had been tortured from him and who remained in prison. "Within about 45 seconds to a minute, everybody in the audience was weeping.... all he was essentially saying was 'I want to go home' and who can't relate to that?"

Suddenly, a concept - "men who'd had false confessions tortured from them" - became a real live person. And he wasn't even in the room, he was miles away, connected by cell phone. But the fact that there was a real human being telling his story on the other end of that line forced every single person in that audience to notice, and to be personally, and passionately moved.

So the key for any artist is to create these moments of connection in anything they do, whether on stage or film, or in any other medium. The arts give us an opportunity to be the opposite of preoccupied: we're able to be present, and fully experience a moment that would otherwise slip by, unnoticed. They give us an immediate and undeniable connection another human being.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and get a little Buddhist on you. Shock! Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book For a Future to Be Possible, talks about Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva who is often called the "universal manifestation of compassion." In this section, Thay is talking about the Fourth Mindfulness Training, which starts with the words "Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of suffering."

Thay says:

"The meaning of the word Avalokitesvara is 'the one who looks deeply into the world and hears the cries of the world.'; This voice relieves our suffering and suppressed feelings, because it is the voice of someone who understands us deeply -- our anguish, despair, and fear. When we feel understood, we suffer much less."
This is what Keith, Erik, and Jessica describe above. By being in a seat, in a theater, faced with a real live person on stage, we're setting the stage for deep listening. This deep listening allows us to understand another's anguish, despair, and fear, and in turn, it allows us to see that others understand our own anguish, despair, and fear. "When we feel understood, we suffer much less."

So how does this all connect to Kristof's point about our ability to ignore the suffering of millions, while we can't help but want to help a single, suffering individual? It's simply that compassionate work actually creates a real, suffering individual in the space before us, whether on stage, on film, or in any medium. We are hardwired to feel compassion, as I described in the recent Daniel Goleman post. So when that real human being is created before us, we can't help but feel compassion; since, as Jessica said above, "the central mechanism of narrative, all narrative, film, novels, theater, etc. etc., is empathy," we enter any space where a story is being told ready to empathize and to feel compassion for another living being.

This works in two ways:

1. When we feel compassion for another, we want to help that person and relieve his or her suffering. So the arts, then, create a world where we are all driven to help others, to relieve their suffering.

2. When we see a character or story created from a place of compassion, we feel understood, because we know, deeply, that the human beings depicted are no different from us in the most fundamental ways. We feel heard. This is the voice of Avalokitesvara, which "relieves our suffering and suppressed feelings, because it is the voice of someone who understands us deeply -- our anguish, despair, and fear. When we feel understood, we suffer much less."

It's possible, then, that through the arts, the suffering of many, for example, "wrongfully convicted death row inmates," becomes present to us as the suffering of a single human being. We then want to help that real human being, and that compels us to want to help others in the same situation.

In addition, when we experience that other human being as wanting the very same things as ourselves - for example, "I just want to go home," we feel understood, because we know that this human being shares anguish, despair, and fear that we have felt ourselves.

So the Kristof piece truly highlights what we're talking about here. A focus on compassion in the arts is necessary, and could even be a matter of life and death. If you, as an artist, want to connect to your audience, choose compassion. If you work with artists, and want them to connect to their audiences, guide them towards compassion. If you, as an artist, or as someone involved in entertainment or media in any way, want to make an impact on others, to relieve their suffering, choose compassion. *

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen on an artist's responsibility - "What's the cost to the world when the artist chooses not to be compassionate?"

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, the brilliant minds behind the documentary play The Exonerated, were kind enough to talk with me recently and share their point-of-view on compassion, how it's important to them, how it's pervasive in their work, and why an artist has a responsibility to take it on. The Exonerated was drawn from a series of interviews Erik and Jessica did in 2000 with exonerated death row inmates. It premiered in New York City in 2002, was directed by Bob Balaban, and its cast included Richard Dreyfus and Jill Clayburgh. It was later turned into a film starring Danny Glover, Aidan Quinn, Brian Dennehy, Delroy Lindo, and Susan Sarandon.

I'm especially impressed and grateful that they took the time to talk to me now, since they're preparing a new show, Aftermath, drawn from interviews they did with Iraqis who fled after the American invasion in 2003.

One of the topics that kept coming up in our long interview was an artist's responsibility to be compassionate. Surely Jessica and Erik's work is closer than most to that topic; after all, subjects of The Exonerated were former death row inmates, people who spent time in prison, people we might ordinarily dismiss. Jessica and Erik, however, saw them as human beings; as the Dalai Lama says, "Whether people are beautiful and friendly or unattractive and disruptive, ultimately they are human beings, just like oneself. Like oneself, they want happiness and do not want suffering. Furthermore, their right to overcome suffering and be happy is equal to one's own."

Jessica and Erik's play specifically and deliberately used these inmates' very own words to turn them from "enemies" into human beings right before our eyes. But compassion is at the core of Erik and Jessica's work, it's not just a by-product. Listen to Jessica talk about the art of storytelling:

“Storytelling is based in empathy.... it has this incredible potential to... expand our ideas about who we are and who might be like us in the world. It has incredible potential to make us all more compassionate or give us greater access to our own compassion and empathy... because storytelling can do that, absolutely as a storyteller I have a responsibility to absolutely make the most of that potentiality with my work all of the time. Otherwise, I've been given this incredible gift, and I'm not doing anything to serve others.”
Jessica's not just making this up; stories allow us to understand something directly, rather than intellectually. Facts are important, but stories hit us in the gut, and we remember what we've learned. In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel H. Pink paraphrases E. M. Forster's famous observation:
"A fact is 'The queen died and the king died.' A story is 'The queen died and the king died of a broken heart.'"
Pink says that facts are widely available in the current Information Age, and because they're so widely available, each one becomes less valuable. "What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact."

This gives storytellers a unique responsibility, because they have a unique ability to communicate with emotional impact.

Erik and Jessica go on to discuss why an artist must choose to be compassionate, and what the cost is when they're not working from a place of compassion:
“What's the cost to the world when the artist chooses not to be compassionate? It's an enormous missed opportunity... art is the thing, storytelling is the thing that we have as human beings that keeps us connected to each other, that enables us to empathize with others who we don't know personally and to walk in somebody else's shoes. That's what stories are for. That's why human beings evolved the ability to tell stories and to listen to stories, it's in order to identify with each other.”
But why bother? What's so valuable about being connected to other people? Very simply, it's in our self-interest to be interested in the well-being of others, to understand that we are profoundly and inextricably connected to others. Zen teacher Brad Warner said in our recent conversation:
"Interdependence is the reason you're compassionate. You recognize the interdependence and interconnectedness of things. You suffer if you're not compassionate. We think it's kind of arbitrary or 'it's a good thing' to be compassionate, but it's also an intelligent thing to be compassionate. It's the smartest move you can make, to act in a compassionate way. We normally think we want to get what we can for ourselves, and screw the other guy, and that's seen to be a way to make yourself richer or more powerful, and it works to a limited extent, but I don't think it works ultimately. The reason it's intelligent to act with compassion, because that's ultimately how you are going to feel better. So there's tremendous incentive to act that way. It's not just something you're doing for somebody else, it's something you're doing for yourself."
As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says in his book, How to Be Happy, the very essence of obtaining happiness for oneself is to seek happiness for everyone:
"Pacifying your own problems and obtaining peace for yourself alone is not sufficient. That is, to be honest, a very small purpose for living your life. A much more worthy purpose, a purpose that leads to much more happiness for both you and all beings, is to cherish all other beings––all beings everywhere who are suffering and want happiness––the same way that you cherish yourself. This is what brings real happiness and satisfaction."
And as Jessica and Erik echo:
“I really think that our happiness as human beings comes from our sense of connection with others.”
And they make it clear that potential impact is huge!
“All of the things that we can look at the world and say are problems... come out of lack of empathy and lack of compassion.”
For example, Thich Nhat Hanh says in his book, The World We Have:
"If we continue to live as we have been living, consuming without a thought of the future, destroying our forests and emitting dangerous amounts of carbon dioxide, then devastating climate change is inevitable. Much of our ecosystem will be destroyed. Sea levels will rise and coastal cities will be inundated, forcing hundreds of millions of refugees from their homes, creating wars and outbreaks of infectious disease.

We need a kind of collective awakening. There are among us men and women who are awakened, but it's not enough; most people are still sleeping. We have constructed a system we can't control.... We have created a society in which the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, and which we are so caught up in our own immediate problems that we cannot afford to be aware of what is going on with the rest of the human family or our planet Earth. In my mind I see a group of chickens in a cage disputing over a few seeds of grain, unaware that in a few hours they will all be killed."
Whoa. Thanks, Debbie Downer. But what Thay is saying, and Erik and Jessica are saying, is that we each have an opportunity and a responsibility to take action. Erik and Jessica point out that storytellers––actors, writers, directors––have a unique responsibility because of their unique ability and power.

And it would be easy to dismiss this power, because we often can't see its direct result, say, the way a doctor sees a patient survive because of his or her actions, or a teacher sees a child learn to read. But that's no excuse, as Jessica tells us:
“There are a lot of people I know in theater who go around having existential crises all the time about whether art can really ever effect social change or ever really make a difference, and sometimes that kind of existential crisis... can be a trap that allows people to not just dive in and say 'you know what, I'm never really gonna know if this is gonna make a difference.' I think at some point, we have to take a leap and say 'I'm not gonna know that, and do it anyway.'"
As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says,
"When we feel compassion for a person or an animal––any being at all––we wish that being to be free from suffering. When our compassion is strong, we don't simply wish for this but actually do something about it. We ourselves take responsibility for freeing that being from suffering.

In this way, each of us is completely responsible for pacifying all the sufferings of all beings and for bringing them happiness. It is completely in our hands. Each of us has this universal responsibility."
So get to it! Take it on! We each have this responsibility to take on compassion in our lives and careers, and it will give us the greatest happiness possible. And if we don't take it on, the cost is staggering.

You can take it on whether you're an actor, a writer, a director, an agent, a manager, a producer, or really no matter what you do in your life, whether in a creative field or not. As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says,
"Regardless of the nature of your job, as you prepare to do it think to yourself: 'I'm going to offer my services to others because I wish to pacify all their suffering and bring them happiness.'"
Thanks so much to Erik & Jessica for their time–and look for additional videos from our interview in the near future. And make sure to go see Aftermath when it opens! *