In 2017, Hopkinton High graduate Catherine Cote was in her Junior year at College of the Holy Cross. She had elected to study abroad for a semester, and chose an exchange at the University of Melbourne, more than ten thousand miles to the south.
She didn’t know anyone when she arrived and was looking for connection and a community to join. At the same time, she was watching US politics from afar, and she noticed a curious lack of empathy in the people she saw on TV and read about in the news. Good people were feeling very divided and the discourse seemed to be growing more toxic each day, she felt.
“I started thinking, on the one hand, I want a deeper connection with the people around me on this new continent I don’t know anyone on. But there also has to be a way to facilitate a space where people can speak freely to each other with the goal of understanding, not trying to convince the other person that they’re wrong,” explained Cote.
Cote, who had been involved with theater from a young age, conceived of a performance-based project in which strangers are paired up and tasked with telling each other’s true personal stories. These stories are life-changing moments: a time when they were in transition, or something that’s really personal to who they are and who they became. They are partnered with someone whose story is entirely different from theirs. They spend 6-8 weeks learning and memorizing the other person’s story, and at the end, they put on a performance where they tell their partner’s story in the first person. The performers are not actors; they’re just regular, everyday people.
Cote put out a casting call to the University of Melbourne’s theater email list. Twelve responded and she met them over coffee and pitched her idea, selecting 6 for her first performance. As the director, she led the group through several weeks of empathy exercises and techniques to ensure they understood the feelings and details of the moments in their partner’s story.
The first performance was at a potluck open mic night in Melbourne. The troop showed up and presented to an unsuspecting audience. The organizers of the event had left small pieces of paper and markers scattered throughout the room so the audience could react to the performances. One person wrote “The first story made me realize I should try to have a relationship with my Dad”. Cote knew she was on to something.
Encouraged, in 2018 Cote returned to Holy Cross and presented the show there. She organized it again in 2019 and by 2020 Project Empathy was running on its own, with the same playbook but different actors and directors. Sensing the momentum behind her endeavor, Cote created a website and a “kit” for directors and organizers to produce Project Empathy shows in their own communities. Since then it has been presented in several theaters, on college campuses, and at places of worship.
This Friday and Saturday Project Empathy premiers at the Hopkinton Center for the Arts. Immediately following the show will be a talkback and Q&A with Cote, the performers and directors.
“My goal is to get Project Empathy in as many communities as possible,” said Cote. “It’s critical that we learn the skills that bridge understanding, promote tolerance and listen actively. My hope is that our show drives positive change and strengthens our communities.”