Embodied understandings

Bodily Empathy 

In past blogs, I’ve written about writing and empathy, and the creative task of empathising with people we may consider ‘bad’ and behaviours that seem abhorrent. This week, I’m going to explore how empathy might be engaged through physicality and embodiment. 

In order to research how performance might be able to transmit knowledge in relation to our cases, we have tried out some practical improvisatory exercises during our meetings. During the week where we researched ‘Tarot’ in relation to our cases, Will, Anna and I used the cards to play an improvisatory game. (Will describes this in a previous blog.)

During the exercise, Anna was cast in the role of a greengrocer’s wife, attempting to uncover who was responsible for breaking crockery in a cupboard. (This was a real case in Paris, 1877 – a married couple of greengrocers believed their cupboard was bewitched.) I was cast as Madame Flora – a dewitcher from the 1960s-70s in the Bocage region of France, whose practice is described in Jeanne Favret-Saada’s ethnographic book The Anti-Witch. During the improvisation, Will was responsible for observing what happened, and making notes on what he heard us say. 

So the question is, what did I learn from this theatrical improvisation as Madame Flora – from the actual physical embodiment of her – that I can then use to help my creative writing? 

We used the Lenormand tarot deck, as these were the cards Madame Flora also used.

Description: Macintosh HD:Users:Poppy:Desktop:IMG_4816.jpg

Physically, it was extremely useful to realise the large amount of space that a full Tarot reading requires (certainly with this deck). The cards barely fitted on to the table in the office, and I was stretching considerably to pick them up and read them. Something else that I had not considered before is that the card size of the Lenormand deck is much bigger than normal playing cards, which makes them more awkward to pick up with ease, and to shuffle. It was actually quite hard to read this full deck of tarot sat down – it was a physical work out! 

This exercise revealed to me the proxemics that might have been at work during a tarot reading, and therefore I could empathise more easily with how Madame Flora may have behaved. For example, in a scene I later wrote that featured Madame Flora, I could now include the line: “You like the cards? Yes, I need a large table to fit them all on to. That’s why I use my dining table, it’s the biggest in the house.” 

Description: Macintosh HD:Users:Poppy:Desktop:IMG_0200.jpeg
The cards required a lot of space.

My colleague, Anna, explained to me how the experience of improvising as the grocer’s wife enabled her to empathise with the inner life of the grocer’s wife: “instead of looking at the grocer’s wife from a distance, I felt like I was constructing her story from the inside out”. What interests me about this comment is Anna’s shift from regarding a character/case externally – as an outside eye trying to peek in – to speaking from an (imagined) interior perspective. Anna’s empathy shifted from that of an onlooker grasping for understanding, to that of a grocer’s wife actively shaping new understandings. 

When I picked up the cards as ‘Madame Flora’, I found it was easy to use the picture and meaning of the cards to offer suggestions to the ‘grocer’s wife’ and the back-and-forth dialogue this generated flowed very quickly. (For example, I would not have deduced that the objects in the broken cupboard were ‘the priest’s fault’, had Anna’s responses not led me there.) Similarly central to Anna’s understanding of the grocer’s wife and her story was the collaboration between herself, myself and the images suggested by the cards: “it was a three-way interaction between my imagining of the grocer’s wife, what the tarot reader/Poppy was suggesting and the images I saw on the cards. It felt like we were actively shaping the story of one possibility, and that with each card that was turned or not turned we created a different possibility”. Here, Anna highlights what has been so central to our project: the act of collaboration in offering us all new imaginative possibilities. 

All these embodied understandings gained through playing Madame Flora and the grocer’s wife did one key thing: they increased our embodied empathy with the people we are researching and writing about. The improvisation opened up new ways through which to understand these people. 

In Will’s blog he highlights how this empathetic understanding even affected him as an onlooker to the performance: “it has encouraged me to think in much greater depth about how the grocers themselves might have thought about what happened, if they had consulted a fortune-teller like Madame Flora”. 

I have always been an advocate of improvisation as a rehearsal and writing technique, although in the past I have worked with actors who I observe, rather than taking part in the improvisation myself as an actor. However, actually placing myself in a role was illuminating in how much it affectively taught me about the character, which I can now add to my writing. Following this improvisation I felt much more confident writing a scene which featured Madame Flora – her voice flowed confidently on to the page. 

I’m not a proficient actor (as Anna and Will can attest!), but I’ll certainly consider using improvisation as a creative writing technique more often in the future, in order to gain new insights into characters – especially in terms of their physicality and spatial relations with others. After all, isn’t writing just improvising anyway, only inside one’s head, and then on to the page…? Life, too. Isn’t that just one long improvisation?

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