What if an Actor Tried Really Hard to be You?

December 16, 2013
By Kevin Hartnett

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.


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