Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, theatre artists watched as venues they loved and found community in went dark. Alone. According to Making Caring Common's study in October 2021, people aged 18-25 reported high levels of loneliness. Both my peers and I struggled in this isolation.
For my senior capstone at The Theatre School at DePaul University, I wanted to offer a joy-filled experience for two people to reunite, engage in art, and leave with a more empathetic understanding of each other. It's a tremendous claim to say that this project changed the world, but I firmly believe that those who encounter(ed) Empathy Labs leave with a renewed sense of empathy.
Empathy Labs was born out of a simple question: Can we create a mechanism that primes people to be more empathetic communicators in a post-pandemic world? I believe we have.
The catharsis sought after in Empathy Labs differs from that of traditional theatre; we do not wish to create spectacle or narrative "wow!". Rather, we aimed to curate a gentle reintroduction to being with another person and evoke interpersonal intimacy through three exercises of communication. This experience can be recreated on a small budget with only two actors necessary. In fact, we encourage you to recreate it, and share it with others! And tell us so we can share on social media!
Welcome to Empathy Labs. I hope you enjoy your visit.
Dylan Cohen, Artistic Director
Empathy Labs Synopsis
Martians seek to derive the formula for empathy through studying a population they know to exhibit traits of interpersonal connection: humans.
The makings of Empathy Labs, March 2020-May 2021, coincided with my getting back into video games; our world was so uncertain and scary at that time, so I found comfort in other, fantastic ones. My original concept for Empathy Labs was "a doctor's office in space," but, let's be honest, the doctor's office isn't particularly joyful. I wanted to find the middle ground between the clinical nature of an experiment, and the happiness of the other-worldly exploration I experienced in video games.
With the dramaturgical assistance of Becca Galkin, we landed on the expression "Empathetic Jungle Gym." It's fun, it implies that compassion is a muscle that needs exercising, and it's not as intimidating; In order to evoke self-disclosure, openness needs to be gradual and consistently affirmed.
Here is a visual and audio reference for what I first imagined Empathy Labs to look/feel like.
I do not own these visuals/songs.