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Princess of Asturias Award for the Arts 2023
Your Royal Highnesses,
Distinguished Members of the Princess of Asturias Award Foundation,
Esteemed Fellow Laureates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am so honored to be here this evening, to be included among these accomplished laureates, in this beautiful hall where if we listen, we may hear ECHO, the voices of many of our heroes of the twentieth and this our young century.
It’s hard for me to imagine I am here. Some part of me suspects that because I have pretended to be extraordinary people all my life, now I am being mistaken for one!
But I am truly grateful for this recognition of the art of acting, the work of my life- the essence of which remains mysterious even to me. What is it that actors do, really? The actor’s shape shifting, substance-less gift is what makes it hard to quantify, or measure. What is its worth to us? Its value?
I know for me, when I see a performance that speaks to me particularly, it can stay with me for days, sometimes decades. When I feel that other person’s pain, or joy, or I laugh at their foolishness, I feel as if I have discovered something true, I feel more alive, and I feel connected. Connected to what, exactly? To other people, to the experience of being someone else. What is the magic of this connection?
Empathy is the beating heart of the actors gift. It is the current that connects me and my actual pulse to that of a fictional character. I can make her heart race, or quiet it, as a scene requires- And my nervous system, sympathetically wired to hers, carries this current to you, sitting in the theatre, and to the woman sitting next to you, and to her friend as well.
We all feel as if it is happening to us at the same time. It is easier to be emotionally connected to the lives of people like us, of course. But I have always been pulled to understand that other, counter-intuitive instinct we have: to care about strangers, the imaginative ability we have to follow the stories of people outside our tribe as if they were our own.
In my own work, I have been criticized for going too far afield from my own “lived experience”, for veering too far away from my own ‘truth’ and identity. All the accents, you know?
But is it a stunt? To want to wrap my arms around the world? To want to wander off , to wonder, and try to see out of so many different colored eyes and experiences? Who am I, a nice middle class girl from New Jersey, to presume to wear the shoes of the first female Prime Minister of the UK? Or a Polish Holocaust survivor? Or the taste-making arbiter of the fashion world?
A great Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso said, “To imitate others is necessary. To imitate oneself is pathetic.”
And another great Spanish artist, Penelope Cruz said, “You cannot live your life looking at yourself from someone else’s point of view!”
So. I persevere in spite of the critics because I believe it is an actor’s job to trespass, to embody lives not like ours. Because the most important part of our job is to make each life accessible and felt to the audience, whether they are sitting in a small theatre in Málaga?, or watching via streaming media from all around the globe.
One rule actors are taught in drama school is that you must not judge the character you are playing. Judging makes you sit outside her experience. The bargain you make when you climb into her shoes is to see the world from inside her head . Let the audience judge. You make your best case on her behalf.
We are born with fellow-feeling, empathy, and a porous shared humanity. Babies will cry just on seeing the tears of another. But as we grow, we set about to tamp down those feelings, and suppress them the rest of our lives; supplant them in favor of self preservation or ideology, and to suspect and mistrust the motives of others. And so we arrive at this unhappy moment in history.
In college, I designed the costumes for a production of Lorca’s timeless play, “The House of Bernarda Alba”. In it, one of the sisters, Martirio cries out: “History repeats itself! I can see that everything is a terrible repetition!” Lorca wrote his impassioned play two months before his own murder, on the eve of yet another cataclysm. That he could see from so high above, had such distance on events so close to his own throat, is extraordinary. That he could express, through Martirio, a wisdom that would not save him, but serves as a warning to the future, is a gift to us. To act in such a play is to give the dead a voice the living can hear. It’s an actor’s privilege, and her duty.
The gift of empathy is something we all share. The mysterious ability to sit together, strangers in a darkened theatre, and feel the feelings of people that don’t look like us or sound like us, is one we all might do well to take outside with us into the daylight. Empathy may be a radical form of outreach and diplomacy useful in other theaters of endeavor as well. In our increasingly hostile, volatile world, I hope we might take to heart another rule every actor is taught, which is: it is all about listening.
Thank you for listening, and thank you from my heart for this great honor.
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