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What if an actor tried really hard to be you?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  December 16, 2013 05:04 PM

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None of us will ever know what it’s like to be another person, which is what makes a new performance art project at Harvard so fun to consider. It’s called “Character Analysis,” and features actors who study ordinary people and go out into the world, behaving like the person they’re trying to become.

The project was conceived by performance artist David Levine, who’s currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Levine recruited six volunteers from the general public and paired each person with an actor (and in one case, with two actors). The subjects and their actor-partners met three times a week for three months in sessions modeled on psychotherapy interviews: The actors asked the questions, trying to get to know their subjects on a deep enough level to actually be able to go out and behave like them. In an article published last week on the Radcliffe Institute website, Levine says that his goal is to make each actor an "empathy machine."

It’s a tall order, of course, and any performance of this kind is bound to look pale next to the person it imitates. Still, the results are interesting.

Levine explained in the article that he deliberately avoided pairing actors based on appearance, in order to push the actors toward deeper forms of imitation. In one video, which you can watch below, two actors, a young man and a young woman, play Allen Crockett (a 40ish-year-old man who sets up lab experiments at Harvard). Together they answer questions about his life: Where do you live, are you married, what does your wife do? In another pairing, Lelaina Vogel, a Harvard undergraduate, studied to become Bruce Williams, a 42-year-old landscape architect. Her final “performance,” which has not taken place yet, will be to go out and sing karaoke with Williams’s friends, as if she were him.

Levine plans to edit footage from “Character Analysis” into a 40-minute documentary. Regardless of how successful the imitations are, or appear to be, the setup creates its own interesting dynamic—it’s fun to see what happens when two people know that each is paying such close attention to the other.

Correction 12/17: The initial version of this post described the two people in the video as Allen Crockett and an actress playing Allen Crockett. In fact, both people in the video are actors playing Allen Crockett.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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