The Empathy Experiment: revisited and rewritten in response to the pandemic
It was August 2019. I had just finished a three-week run of my solo spoken word show, The Empathy Experiment, at the PBH Free Fringe in Edinburgh. The show asked if empathy was facing extinction and whether mobile phones are to blame. I proposed declaring an International Day of No Mobile Devices and I used myself as the test subject for whether having a phone-free day had any impact on my empathy. I had a red flight case on stage with me, from which I pulled the equipment for my experiment. I’d created the show with Arts Council funding, had won Best Spoken Word Show at the Greater Manchester Fringe, had received multiple rave reviews and had capacity audiences throughout my run.
Fast forward to July 2020. Just over four months into the pandemic. I was preparing for my first ever experience on Zoom. The Bradford Literature Festival had speedily assembled an online programme and had asked if I could adapt The Empathy Experiment to be a live streamed performance. I had a very DIY set up - my laptop perched on a stack of board games. My curtains drawn and every lamp I owned brought to the sitting room for adequate light. Little did I know that this kind of set up would become familiar not just to me but to loads of poets who were trying to create performances from home to stream online.
Prior to lockdown, I’d had several tour dates for The Empathy Experiment lined up - around the north of England and two dates in France. These had all been cancelled. This live stream was a welcome creative challenge in the midst of so much chaos and anxiety. Challenge was the operative word. I had to suddenly learn how Zoom worked, and figure out what changes to make in order to stay true to the live version of the show and to also make it a meaningful experience for audiences.
I also had to figure out how my audience engagement was going to work. In the anthology, Spoken Word in the UK, edited by Lucy English and Jack McGowan, I wrote a chapter called, ‘I thought I was just coming to watch: Audience participation in spoken word performance.' In the chapter, I write about how I use carefully curated participatory engagement in my solo spoken word shows, as a way to offer hands-on activities for audiences, to invite critical engagement and reflection from audiences, and to challenge myself as a performer in order to be authentically present with the audience.
In the original version of The Empathy Experiment, I handed out envelopes to audiences and asked them to seal their phones inside for the duration of the show. I collected their phones and had them on stage with me. I also invited a member of the audience to come on stage and swap shoes with me. I asked them for a word to describe my shoes and for a word to describe the experience, and we sat in silence making eye contact for a few moments. These tactile activities provoked a lot of feedback from audiences, many saying they found it a very moving experience.
How, I wondered, could I adapt this for a livestream setting?
For the Zoom performance, I couldn’t hand out envelopes or collect phones. So I suggested that people watching put their phones away in a drawer or a bag or a sock for the show. However, I was mindful that some people may be using their phones to watch the show. I mentioned this - reassuring them that it was okay.
I knew a pal of mine had booked to see the Zoom show, so I messaged him ahead of the performance asking if he could be my shoe swap person. We couldn’t physically swap shoes - instead we each held a shoe up to the screen and shared words that way.
In her Northern Soul review of this performance, Emma Yates-Badley wrote:
“Despite never seeing the original ‘live’ show, I realise that a socially distant version might lose some of its poignancy. For example, there’s a moment when a (pre-approved) participant is unmuted and ‘shares’ shoes with Condo (which involves the pair holding their footwear up to the camera). It’s probably quite powerful in person but feels a little awkward via Zoom.”
Yates-Badely also wrote: “Shows such as The Empathy Experiment are an example of why we so desperately need to campaign for the survival of the arts. It’s through questioning, connection and shared stories that we make sense of the world and create empathy with others.” This was reassuring in that, despite a loss of live connection with a live audience in person, the themes of the show still seemed to resonate.
Furthermore, there were over 80 households that tuned into the show, some of whom watched from other countries and time zones. Prior to this, my largest live audience had been 50 people, so the Zoom platform meant I could reach more people across a wide geographic patch.
Fast forward to January 2021. At this time, I was starting to reschedule tour dates for The Empathy Experiment. I was also watching news unfold in America with the turmoil of the January 6th insurrection, and the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
The original version of the show has a poem called Mirror Mirror, which is an imagined conversation between former President Trump and his reflection. The poem had humour and pathos, attempting to evoke compassion from someone seemingly devoid of empathy. As I thought about new tour dates In the wake of the turmoil in America, that I began to realise a poem about Trump was (a) probably not what anyone wanted to hear and (b) something I no longer wanted to perform. Would I cut the poem? Rewrite the poem?
The more I reflected on this, the more it occurred to me that given the seismic shifts in the world, I may need to update more than just that one poem in my show. I also thought about how my own relationship with my mobile phone had seismically changed through the isolation and anxiety of the pandemic. How, I started to wonder, could the original show even work anymore?
I decided to try rewriting the script. As opposed to before, I didn’t have any funding nor did I have resources to pay collaborators. I had encouragement from some poetry pals, who helped me workshop the new text. If it didn’t work, I thought, and if I wasn’t happy with the new version, I would contact the venues and cancel the tour.
To be frank, when I sat down in February 2021 to begin the rewrite, I was really pissed off. I had a show that I knew really well, had worked hard on, and had seen it resonate with audiences. I felt incredibly resentful that I had to give it up; that the show didn’t work anymore because of the pandemic. I channelled my frustration into writing what became a meta-analysis of the original show. In the new version, which I call The Empathy Experiment 2.0, I acknowledge from the start that I had already done this experiment, that I may have gotten some things wrong in the original version, and that I wanted to figure out why it didn’t work any more. Inspired by Dylan Marron’s viral unboxing videos - in which he unpacks intangible ideologies like ‘ableism’ and ‘privilege’, I decided to ‘unbox’ my show on stage, opening up my red flight case and unpacking not only my props but also the assumptions and errors I had made.
Having a deadline helped this development process. I’d spotted a callout from the Saboteur Awards for content for their online festival. Director Charley Barnes kindly agreed to programme the rewritten show, which I performed on Zoom in May 2021.
It was time for another DIY set up for the Saboteur Awards Festival performance. My laptop once again perched on board game boxes and lamps helped to light the space in my sitting room. This time I wasn’t trying to recreate the live stage show for online streaming, but rather set myself up to work within the confines of a Zoom screen.
Of course, I also wanted participatory elements. Since the new version of the show was pushing back against my original claims about the perils of mobile use, I decided to embrace digital engagement. For example, as people entered the Zoom room, I posted a question in the Zoom chat asking people to type in words that start with the letter ‘p’. I wrote these on slips of paper and folded them into a cup. Early in the show I explain that since we are tired of hearing the word ‘pandemic’ I would draw out their p-word suggestions to use instead.
This script-in-hand workshop performance enabled me to test out my new material.
Recording the Zoom performance was an easy and affordable way for me to re-watch it and refine the work. I also created a captioned YouTube video from the recording, enabling me to share it with tour venues so they could see what the changes looked like.
I felt that the rewritten script held together as a show, but knew I had a job of work ahead of me to figure out how to stage it for a live audience.
As a side note, one benefit of mandatory mask-wearing (aside from the obvious precautionary health measures) was that I could work on memorising my lines in public places. This image is of me sitting on a train learning the script for the 2.0 version of the show, mumbling the lines quietly to myself with my face covered by my mask.
To date I have done three live performances of The Empathy Experiment 2.0 at the Theatre Deli in Sheffield, the Westwood Centre in Slaithwaite and The Old Courts in Wigan. My red case still sits on stage with me, along with a table and chair, a laptop connected to a projector and a projection screen.
Why were these things added to the staging of the live performance? The challenges of staging the online version for a live audience led to some exciting creative opportunities.
For example, I still use Zoom in the live version. I open the show speaking to my laptop camera with my Zoom stream simultaneously projected on a screen. After a few moments I switch my Zoom camera off but leave the projection of the Zoom screen running. I return to the Zoom camera twice more for sections of the show where speaking to the camera offers a more intimate and confessional tone. Admittedly, it is only me on the Zoom. My exploration didn’t quite extend to doing a simultaneous livestream broadcast. Artistically, this offers a bridge between months of online engagement to live performance.
This hybrid use of Zoom and in-person performance also has a strong practical purpose. Using Zoom allows me to enable the automated captioning feature, which runs through the course of the show. While the text is not always 100% accurate, it is an easy (and affordable) opportunity for accessibility and inclusion. It also requires me to keep my diction sharp!
My audience engagement is still included. I still use the ‘P’ word activity, and before the show starts I invite people to tweet their P-words to me, which I then write on slips of paper and use during the performance.
I also use a live digital survey called Mentimeter, which poses questions and allows people to use their mobile devices during the show to anonymously submit responses. Their responses are projected on screen as they come in, whilst I simultaneously perform a poem that responds to the audience's responses. This activity still holds to all of my aims for including audience participation in my shows: offering a tactile activity, inviting critical engagement and reflection, and challenging me as a performer. It also aligns with the new terrain I’m exploring in this show about seeking benevolent and compassionate uses for mobile technology. Plus it is a fun and innovative way to interact with the audience.
Looking ahead, I am mindful that The Empathy Experiment 2.0 may have a time-limited shelf life, much like the original version. Six months or a year from now, will people still want to join me on a poetic deep dive into how the pandemic messed things up for artists and audiences? Will the show be subsumed into a sea of other creative responses to the impact of Covid-19? Will I find myself considering a 3.0 version of the show? It is hard to say. But this experience - as unexpected and often frustrating as it has been - has offered valuable learning about how I might adapt my creative practice to ever-evolving performance landscapes.
This paper was presented at the Enduring Performance online conference on 12 February 2022. The conference was organised and hosted by Kelly Jordan, a Final Year PhD student at the University of Winchester.