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Connection through chaos: Brown School students in Schenectady tackle topic of empathy

THE DAILY GAZETTE By Adam Shinder | January 29, 2021

The process starts with a conversation, a series of questions..

What is the nature of empathy?

Do we live in an empathetic society — and why, or why not?

How are you feeling right now?

That was the jumping-off point for the high school students at Brown School as they embarked on “The Empathy Project: Connection Through Chaos,” a virtual live production put on in collaboration with The Outer Loop non-profit theater company that will give the students a chance to connect their personal stories with whatever creative outlets they choose.

For 11th-grader Owen Morley, that translated into creating a time-lapse drawing with a voice-over that reflects on his experience growing up as an adopted child from Russia. For his classmate, Kabir Pabla, it became the inspiration for the poster of the event, an image juxtaposing protests in India seeking justice for the country’s Sikh minority with the riots at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.

For other students, outlets included music, dance, acting, filmmaking — even video games.

“It was basically our own choice,” Pabla said. “Whatever project we wanted to make, it was our choice. We could go crazy.”

Sunday at 5 p.m., the students’ work will be broadcast, bringing an answer to the other question that The Outer Loop’s founder and artistic director, Michael Herman, and its managing director, Niskayuna native Rachael Yoder, ask at the beginning of the process.

“The question that we always ask at the beginning of this is, ‘Can we, through theater, inspire empathy and reconnect to our shared humanity?’” Herman said. “At the beginning, everyone’s not really sure what the answer is or if we can do it, but at the end when you see the show and we have discussions afterward, everyone’s always like, ‘Absolutely we can, and we did.’”

The Outer Loop, an innovative arts-for-action group, has been around for 11 years. Like all of their colleagues in the arts community, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic forced the organization to reexamine how it would operate and provide a venue for theatrical expression in an era where presenting live, in-person theater became impossible.

Going virtual provided the format.

Making empathy the subject?

That only seemed natural.

“We felt compelled to give people a space to talk about and connect with each other at a time when we were all feeling a little disconnected,” Herman said.

The Outer Loop produced two volumes of The Empathy Project on their own, and as the project developed, Herman, Yoder and their cohorts realized the format could translate perfectly for high schools and colleges where the pandemic had robbed students of many of their creative outlets.

So, The Outer Loop created an Empathy Project kit to work with schools. That just left the matter of finding the perfect first collaborator

Yoder has known Brown’s head of school, Patti Vitale, “basically my whole life,” and that relationship — plus Brown’s approach to education that puts empathy and mindfulness at the center of its mission — made the independent school on Corlaer Avenue, which only introduced its current high school program in 2017, an ideal match.

“We reached out to Brown first,” Yoder said, “because they’re so forward-thinking in the way they handle education. We thought it would just be the perfect fit, and it has been. The students have really taken to the project in a way that’s pretty phenomenal.”

For Vitale, the project was the right solution to a riddle that’d been rattling around in her head for months: What was something that could be done to help unify the student body at a time where added distance has become second nature?

“Given all that was going on,” Vitale said, “empathy was a necessity.”

Putting The Empathy Project together began with a series of discussions, allowing the students the freedom to share their own stories and find an avenue with which to express them.

“The creativity that emerges from being able to tell either your own story, or the story of someone that you care about, or a voice you feel is being underrepresented, what comes out of that has just been incredible to watch,” Yoder said. “Some of these pieces and some of the creative skillset is just astounding."

“Many of the students have said that they wouldn’t have been pushed to create right now, if it weren’t for this project. It’s a nice way where we’re not grading you, you don’t have to do it, but you have a structure to create and get something done in this time.”

That environment fostered maximum creative freedom.

“They really left it up to the student to kind of generate their own ideas,” Brown School English teacher Matt Cioffi said, “and develop their own formatting and medium with which they wanted to communicate that idea.”

It was a process the students found much more revealing than they’d initially anticipated.

“Making the project really made me think about my past, and what I didn’t realize growing up,” Morley said. “I don’t know if it reminded me, but it let me know what was really going on.”

“It gave me a better perspective on other peoples’ lives, and what affected them and what happened in their lives prior to me meeting them,” Pabla said, “because this is my first year here.”

Sunday night, it’ll all come together.

Herman and Yoder are thrilled with the presentation the Brown School community put together, and are even happier to have let the students tap into their creativity and now see the products of their labor.

“When those first few conversations are happening, sometimes with younger writers and artists and students, it’s a little tough to get them to believe that they have the ability to do this, so there’s a little bit of a struggle early on,” Herman said. “When you get to the point where we’re at today, where we’re looking at everyone’s final piece and getting it ready for Sunday, it’s so incredibly rewarding.”

Tickets and donation info for Sunday’s event is available a The suggested donation is $10 per person, and all donations will go to support the Schenectady Community Action Program.

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