Julie Gillis finds value in imagining what it would be like to be other people.
Each night, before the show, we warm up.
Actors, standing on the stage, walk in normal fashion. Pacing the stage in a circular motion, we wait for our director to tell us what to do. The director’s voice asks us to speed up, slow down, pause, freeze. “As you walk imagine you feel your body age, 10 years, 20 years, until you are a very elderly person.” And as we walk, we allow our minds and bodies to mold into what we can best imagine being elderly feels like. A hip would be stiff, ankles weak, perhaps. There might be a pain in our shoulder blade, and our gut paunches. We breathe differently, each of us, as we take in, slowly, the physicality and emotional state of an old person. The physical leads us to the emotional, and I see tiredness, reservation, keen stares, withdrawn faces.
The director commands us to come back to neutral, to ourselves but then to reverse the flow of time until we are young, and we do. We move blithely across the stage, some skipping, smiling, moving as our bodies want, following childish impulses. Emotional lability begins, some pouting and some chasing each other demanding attention.
It’s hypnotic this exercise, this time/space shift from our inner self to becoming another and then back to our selves. We shed our skins to become another, wearing characters like new flesh, and back again.
We explore a wide range in this warm up, from age to status/class and gender. Trading gender is often one of the hardest moments. All of us work hard to create a female to male transition honestly and honorably, and vice versa. It’s easy of course, to play those roles on the most shallow of levels, men swinging their hips with high effeminate voices and women walking with their hips thrust forward, embodying braggadocio.
But that’s not honest. That’s a shallow interpretation of what “man” or “woman” means. Actors portray people, feelings, themes and they use their bodies and minds to inhabit other bodies and minds, creating characters that are hopefully believable and real. To be sure, there are forms of theater that require farce and shallow applications of age or race or gender, but it’s not my preferred style of performing.
I enjoy the process of subsuming a bit of myself, in order to be someone else.
I know what it feels like to be me. I have been me for nigh on 43 years now and I’m very aware of my internal/external state. I do not, despite a very creative and prolific imagination, know exactly what it feels like to be a man. And in fact, I’d not know what it would be like to be another woman, frankly. Just because my best friend is a woman does not mean her physical and emotional experience are identical to mine.
Does her body feel internally different than mine? Are her periods worse, more painful? Does she cry more or less? Is her back sore from the shape of her breasts, which are bigger than mine? If she votes for a different political party, how does her mind feel about it? Her legs are longer and she is taller. She literally has a different view on the world than do I. Her ability to write or to work or walk will have a very different outcome in her body than in mine. I don’t know what it feels like to be her. Or to be the woman in my neighborhood who is parapelegic, or to be the woman I used to work with who was quite old and extremely wealthy.
How would I ever know what it would be like to wake up as a man?
Naturally, were I to wake up as a man, it’s easy to imagine the most basic experiences I’d opt for. I’d touch myself! I have a penis! I’d pee standing up!!!!! STRENGTH! I’m going to do a hundred push-ups!!!! Ha! I’m going to walk down the street and swagger with no shirt on!
Those are typical choices. And surely, if we woke up in our opposite gender, I’m sure most of us would start with the typical. But what happens after that? Really, there is so much more.
What does it feel like to walk down that street as man? I would have in past years imagined that men feel no fear, or think less about things like assault, when they walk home after a late night of drinking. But now, I’m not so sure what they feel. Their experience of walking might feel heavier and weightier, but also freer. It might feel far less so.
Same thing with any of the things men can do due to physical strength. That strength can be a burden on them as well as a boon. While I can imagine how amazing it would be to be able to open all the stuck jars without having to ask for help, I can also ponder how it might be annoying to be asked for help all the time.
I’ve had assumptions about fear and aggression and sexuality that I have no doubt would be completely destroyed by being in a man’s body. I’d learn all those things if I was able to live in a man’s skin.
It’s more than that though. If I woke up in a man’s body would it be my feminine interior experiencing the man’s exterior only? How long would that last? Would the interior experience be immediately changed because of the different skin I’d be in? Is there a division between the interior experience and the exterior form? How much so? What parts of me as a woman would linger as my body changed and shifted into male form?
Would I remember being female if I transitioned? What would I forget? I still remember what it felt like to be 9 or 13 or 17. But my body and mind are different now. How deep is skin deep? How long could we stay in each other’s skin and would we ever truly merge the mind?
These are questions. I have no answers. It’s often frustrating to have no answers. I do think that to think about what it might be like to wake up in the body of anyone other than yourself is to open up these questions about what makes you you.
Actors play with these questions. We portray other people as best we can because we all want to know the answers to these questions. We want to know what is like to be another, male or female. Rich or poor. Evil or self sacrificing. Class, race, gender, age, what does it mean to be someone else? Who are we?
I’ve asked lots of men about their experiences. I’m married to man and have male children.I have played men on stage. I’ve done levels of drag. But that’s still just a portrayal and as much work as I did to prepare, physically and intellectually, it was not the experience of “being” a man, only portraying one.
We cannot truly know what is like to be someone else because we are trapped in this one body, with our singular experience of being ourselves. We cannot know what the experience is of another. We can ask. And we can listen, but we can’t know. And I think that is something particularly heartbreaking about us as humans. But we can imagine. And we should because it matters.
It matters that though we are the same species, I am different than the woman next to me, or the man across the street. It matters because day after day, here and on other places on the web, and in real life I see people, men and women, old and young, black and white, gay and straight, asking to be seen and understood, frustrated beyond words that the understanding doesn’t come. People want and need to be seen, even if it causes conflict, even if it is hard.
It matters that despite the near impossibility of true empathic group mind understanding, we need to know that each of us are just as human as the next person. That they have feelings just as intense and experiences just as valuable as ours. When we do this we can be better equipped to shift our thinking to imagining being in someone else’s skin. In that way perhaps we can experience a shimmer of joining, of activating mirror neurons, seeing each other if only for the briefest of moments
We can imagine. And we should because it matters.
—Photo Max Wolfe/Flickr