By Meghan Shaffer ‘20
Sometimes, you encounter something that reminds you just how human the people you encounter everyday are and of the beauty and rawness of that humanity. That is exactly the message put forth in “Project Empathy,” which was performed by six Holy Cross students for the first time this past Sunday. The six students—Brandon Brito ‘20, Trishala Manandhar ‘21, Ali Riddell ‘19, Will Walker ‘19, Alyssa White ‘18, and Caylie Whiteside ‘21—were paired with each other and entrusted to tell their partner’s story. The story could be about anything, as long as it was something personal and meaningful. And personal and meaningful they were.
“I developed Project Empathy during my semester abroad in Melbourne, Australia,” says senior Catherine Cote, who developed and directed the piece. “I was longing for meaningful connections with the people around me. I was meeting so many new people every day, and making a lot of small talk, but what I missed was the deep conversations I had with my close friends and family, who were at home in the U.S.”
The project was such a success in Australia that she decided to bring it back to Holy Cross for her senior year, knowing that it would be a different, more intimate experience hearing the stories of people she already knew. “The biggest difference this time around was that the people who auditioned were typically people I knew, some of which were close friends of mine. Hearing their stories was special in an entirely new way, because the first time I had been connecting with strangers, but this time I was connecting more deeply with the people I already knew.”
The beauty behind Project Empathy is the trust that the six storytellers put in each other and the ability to place oneself in the deepest emotions of another person. “I knew I had many stories to tell but I was drawn more to telling someone else’s,” says Brandon Brito, one of the actors. “I had to feel what they felt, lived what they lived, saw what they saw; I had to be in that situation. This wasn’t a monologue for a theatre class or a show; this was somebody else’s life I had the responsibility of sharing as authentically as possible.” The actors were eager to make connections and share their stories, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. “I knew I needed to tell the story that has haunted me the most. If I was devoting myself to this project, I wasn’t going to just give half of myself. This was my chance to be honest with myself and with my friends. It isn’t something I talk about often out of fear that those around me would judge me.”
The six actors did not shy away from sharing the deepest parts of their soul and the stories they were most afraid to tell. Topics spoken of included death, sexual assault, mental illness, and feeling inadequate. Allowing these stories to be told by someone else required enormous amounts of both trust and bravery. “The hardest part of the process was that these stories are, by nature, not easy ones to tell,” says Catherine. “I asked for the story of a moment that changed each actor’s life, and they delivered. I had to keep the actors’ and my own emotions in mind when casting, sharing, workshopping, and performing. There were definitely times I broke out the tissues during rehearsal, because asking people to open themselves up to one another is a difficult but necessary process. The beginning of the rehearsal process required the establishment of trust between each actor, and watching that trust grow was amazing.”
But establishing that trust proved itself in the long run, because Project Empathy was, in one word, breathtaking. Watching people confront you with their imperfection and insecurity is uncomfortable; it calls to mind the worst memories you have ever had, the saddest you have ever been, the most you have ever hurt. But it is a stark and necessary reminder that we all have the deepest, darkest parts of us hidden away somewhere. And most importantly, they do not define us. Pieces like Project Empathy remind us the importance of not only being kind to other but also kind to ourselves. Going through the darkness and coming out on the other side does not make you bad or broken; it makes you human, and I think that’s something we should all try to remember.
Editor’s note, 12/07/2020: Catherine Cote ’18 has recently launched Project Empathy as a small business. If you are interested in experiencing the power of Project Empathy for yourself, explore its website at https://www.officialprojectempathy.com/ to learn more about bringing the power of human connection to your community, theatre, or university.