Under the skin and into the head; Bjork, Tom Waits, John Ruskin and empathy. / by Joe Townsend

Here’s some thoughts on empathy and understanding in performance, collaboration and life.

Andrew Stuck will be introducing a CoLab project based on creative walks. He conceives and organizes a series of strolls around town. These are not tourist walks, but ambles that require people to question and to interact with the environment, your companions and yourself. For  CoLab he will introduce and inspire a creative walk - the actual content and theme will be down to the students taking part.

One of Andrews walks is built on the premise that you have to observe the surroundings and interact with people through the eyes of John Ruskin, the genius 19th century art critic, philanthropist and thinker. He lived near Herne Hill and has a strong connection with South East London.

Many performers such as Tom Waits and Bjork have both said that they like to take on the personae of other people when they perform.

In theatre, the Stanislawski school of method acting is all about getting right under the skin of the character that you are playing to bring truth to the performance. I find it interesting that sometimes fantastic performances in music are not so much about portraying a truth but presenting a fantasy, or a construct of some kind.

 Bjork - Here in Dancer in The Dark (2001)– Lars Von Triers’ masterpiece, she sings singing I’ve seen it all.)


 Tom Waits – here with Iggy Pop in the Jim Jarmoosh film, Coffee and Cigarettes. Not singing but totally “in character”.


Glen Gould in several of his many characters.


Descartes came up with the cogito ergo sum “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am” in the Enlightenment when people were concerned with existence and what consciousness was really about, so it’s not surprising that a favourite game in certain social circles was Mendelssohn’s Berlin. It was simple, people got together to take on the role of a famous characters from history and act out that persona for the duration of a soiree. In his book “The Craftsman”, Richard Sennett describes an example of Socrates meeting up with Bach. What could that game look like today?

As performers we all put on a costume, I certainly sometimes channel different people when I play, depending on the gig – there is an amazing Romanian violinist called Iosef Ghermant who I think of before playing.

Acting as somebody else is all very well but I often wonder what would it be like to put ourselves in the shoes of a friend or somebody you don’t get on with. What could we learn? How could we know how to behave or act?

Marshall Rosenberg in his movement for non-violent communication believes that any conflict can be resolved once you can understand their needs.

“The people are empathically connected to what each is feeling and needing—-they do not blame themselves or let judgments implying wrongness obscure this connection to each other”  Rosenberg.

 Ask the right questions and then listen to what it is like to be that person. Understand their needs, then try to experience their viewpoint, in your shoes through their eyes and behavior.

 How does this affect us when working in groups in an interdisciplinary way? Do we just jam and see what happens? Do we ask questions, or tell? How do we listen? What do we say?

And does understanding others help is to find truth in our performance or find a persona. Should we be ultimately searching for a “truth” in ourselves as performers?

 I personally think it’s all up for grabs and there are obviously no hard and fast ways to understand each other.