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Project Empathy production explores depth of human connection

by | Sep 13, 2023 | Featured, Featured: Features

Cast members and directors of the 2022 Project Empathy production

Last year’s Project Empathy cast members brought their personal triumphs to the stage through each other’s performances.

According to an old adage, a person can never completely understand another until walking in their shoes.

Project Empathy takes that concept further, using theater as a vehicle for sharing personal experiences. Eight people from different walks of life have been immersing themselves in the life story of a person with whom they have been paired for three months. Participants have been sharing their most challenging life experiences with their partners, who then will perform them onstage at the Hopkinton Center for the Arts on Sept. 29-30.

Project Empathy was created in 2017 by Catherine Cote, a former HCA student who grew up in Hopkinton. At the time, she was studying abroad through a partnership with the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester and the University of Melbourne. She pursued psychology, Mandarin Chinese and education while dabbling in theater, a pursuit she has enjoyed since childhood.

“So much of my passions boil down to understanding humans and the ways in which we communicate and connect, especially through storytelling,” Cote shared. She now works full time in higher education marketing while running Project Empathy on the side.

“I was longing for deeper connection in a new place, and simultaneously, I was distressed over the intense division occurring in the U.S. following President [Donald] Trump’s inauguration,” she explained. “I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if there were a space for people to come with the intention of understanding each other. Having always found community in theater, my mind jumped to a performance setting: What if I created a space for people to tell each other’s stories?”

She directed the first performance in Melbourne later that year. Her desire to bring Project Empathy to a worldwide audience crystallized during the isolation of the pandemic.

“In today’s world, the things that divide us unfortunately get more airtime than the things that connect us,” she noted. “When the pandemic hit in 2020 and social and political divides grew even deeper, I knew it was the right time to found Project Empathy, LLC and create the Performance Package — a comprehensive kit containing everything needed to put on Project Empathy — to increase the project’s reach and impact.”

“Catherine came up with the idea that people would come and talk about their stories of transition — their light bulb moment when they made a significant transition in their lives,” explained Kelly Grill, the co-director of the 2022 and 2023 HCA productions. “Most of the time, the story would not be something apparent to someone just meeting them.”

Participants delve deeper into each other’s lives to prepare for translating them onstage, she added. Cast members perform empathy and writing exercises in addition to engaging in deep conversations.

Said Grill: “The work really comes in when I can tell your story as if it was mine.”

The challenge for the audience is to figure out who is telling the story of another cast member. After the show, people can question cast members about their experiences and what they learned during the process.

“The great thing is that the person telling the story probably doesn’t look like what you would assume they would,” Grill said. “This is another level of empathy and understanding, and you find yourself really captured by the story and the experience this person had. Watching that as a director was thrilling.”

Grill noted that participants in the inaugural performance last year included someone who was bullied because of his race, a transgender woman and two people with invisible disabilities.

“It was really a great breadth of people with really powerful stories,” she said. “The reaction of the audience was incredible. The overwhelming response was that there needs to be more of this.”

Cote described witnessing last year’s performance at the HCA as “a full-circle moment.”

“Last year’s cast captivated me in the way they showed up for each other,” she said. “When you see the performance, keep in mind the care that went into each person learning the ins and outs of their partner’s story so as to do it justice. Giving your story to a stranger to tell to an audience is scary, but they stepped up for each other. I’m incredibly proud of them.”

One of the participants last year was former Hopkinton Middle School assistant principal Chris Ocampo, now the assistant principal at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School. He was prompted to participate in an email and went through an interview process before being accepted.

“It was a good vehicle to see the world through other people’s eyes,” he said. “It’s hard putting yourself in another person’s shoes.”

Ocampo took on the struggle that his female partner encountered when her child was born with a rare disease. The chances of her daughter surviving were very slim.

“The moment that she learned that something was off, she kind of went into an out-of-body experience to essentially save her daughter’s life,” Ocampo said. “She stuck to her gut and her heart and pretty much told the doctors that something was wrong with her daughter.

“As a male, it’s hard for me to connect on that level, you know?” he continued. “It really helped me to have a much better appreciation for moms out there who are learning who their child is in the first few days of their world. It was very enlightening.”

Ocampo was able to meet the daughter, who was in middle school at the time, after the performance, which was powerful for him.

“It was an amazing experience to share not only the mom’s story but also the daughter’s story,” he said. “I hope that I did it justice and that they enjoyed it.”

He noted that everyone has an emotional connection to their personal stories, and it’s crucial to communicate to capture the essence of someone’s experience. Before sharing his story with his partner, he kept his feelings about the bullying he experienced “stowed away.”

“I talked about how I grew up as a person of color in a predominantly white neighborhood,” he said. He spoke about his parents’ struggles of trying to assimilate in America and the challenges he faced.

Said Ocampo: “No one else is experiencing the same world you are experiencing, based on your perspective.”

“Watching my partner tell my story was very vulnerable for me,” he shared. “It made it easier knowing that everyone was in the same boat. At first I felt like everyone was watching me, criticizing me and judging me. But seeing it performed in that way felt so welcoming and so brutally honest that I am sure the audience was challenged to put themselves in other people’s shoes as well.”

At the time, Ocampo was training to run in the Boston Marathon on behalf of the Hopkinton Freedom Team, a nonprofit that strives for inclusion in Hopkinton. He combined the activities by reflecting on his partner’s experiences while on his runs.

“I recorded myself reciting her story,” he explained. “And when I would go on a run, I would listen to it to see if I could remember it. Memorizing was one piece, but the other part was about understanding her emotions and what she was thinking at the time.”

Ocampo shared some advice for this year’s cohort.

“I would say to let go of your story,” he explained. “Give it to them and let them own it. Also, whoever is jumping into the roles should think about there being more commonalities than differences among people.”

As an educator, Ocampo envisions schools adapting this for their theater programs or using the icebreaker exercises to help students create bonds. He also sees it as a tool for businesses and clubs.

The hope, Grill said, is to spread the concept of Project Empathy to schools and corporate settings as well as theaters. Project Empathy to date has been performed eight times in locales as diverse as Melbourne, Australia; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; and Wilmington, North Carolina.

“The statement that we hear over and over again is that the world is divided,” Grill said. “Our little part of the world as well as the world at large is having a difficult time talking to one another. There’s a lot of anger, frustration and people not truly listening to each other and making assumptions.

“This is something that is very proactively telling people to pay attention, look at things a little differently, and dig a little deeper than a regular conversation with someone,” she pointed out. “It’s a gift that I would love to see blossom even further.”

“I actually don’t think we do enough of that in the world, listening and truly appreciating someone’s story,” Ocampo added. “I think that if we put more empathy into our day-to-day lives, the world would be in a better place.”

For more information, go to officialprojectempathy.com.

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