Saturday 13 July 2019

Review: The Empathy Experiment (Rose Condo, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 10th July 2019
Studio, King’s Arms, Salford

As you’ve probably twigged from my recent series of blog posts, the 2019 Greater Manchester Fringe runs throughout July. I’m reviewing a selection of shows from this year’s festival programme for this blog and for North Manchester FM, and the next show on my list is The Empathy Experiment in the Studio at the King’s Arms in Salford on Wednesday 10th July. You can hear the radio version of this review on Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf, but here’s the blog version…

The Empathy Experiment is a one-woman show written and directed by Rose Condo (with dramaturgy by Dominic Berry) about our relationship with our smartphones and mobile devices. Told through poetry and spoken word performance, The Empathy Experiment is constructed around a simple conceit: Condo has decided to give up using her smartphone for a full 24 hours in order to see if this increases her empathy levels. Now, in the final hour of the experiment, she is ready to share her findings with the audience.

The show is presented as a sort-of lecture, signalled by Condo donning a white lab coat and using title cards to announce the stages of her investigation. I say ‘sort-of lecture’, though, as the style and tone of presentation are somewhat at odds with the ‘science part’ of the content. While Condo provides some research to back up her assertions about empathy and compassion – quoting from both studies and more populist books – there is an intimacy and urgency to Condo’s delivery that makes the show feel more like a conversation with, rather than an address to, the audience.

The show combines some – surely widely relatable! – poetry about everyday smartphone addiction, including an absorbing and descriptive piece about accidentally falling into a scrolling binge late at night, with chatty musings on the nature of empathy and the way we relate to other people. Both the poetry and the running monologue are eloquent, lightly comedic and engaging throughout, though there is a bit of bite to some of the commentary on the declining quality of human interaction. Nevertheless, there is no direct target to Condo’s light-touch ire. Instead, she creates a sense of complicity through the relatability of her words: we all do this, so we’re all to blame.

The Empathy Experiment works on two levels. On the one hand, the audience are presented with some thought-provoking facts and studies about the ostensible decline in empathy, and the connection this may have to smartphone use, and with responses to an anonymous survey Condo conducted beforehand. Some of this is not really surprising, but it serves the purpose of encouraging reflection and reassessment of certain aspects of the modern world that we have come (in a few short years) to take for granted. (And a poetic piece about Facebook really underlines the speed at which these changes have occurred.) It’s the sort of factual presentation that doesn’t so much teach you something new, but rather reminds you of something you’d forgotten you already knew – like, for instance, the fact that very few people primarily use their smartphone as a phone.

However, on the other hand – and more powerfully – the show works to create an actual empathetic response from its audience through its delivery style. I found that, although I was thinking a lot while watching The Empathy Experiment, I was feeling something too.

Condo states up-front that she is a ‘friendly’ person (noting that this is because she’s Canadian), and ‘friendliness’ is a vibe that undoubtedly permeates The Empathy Experiment. In the small space of the King’s Arms Studio, the audience feels very close to Condo – and to one another. She is seated on the stage area when the audience arrives, apparently patiently waiting for them and preparing herself for the performance. When the show proper begins, she makes expert use of silence and stillness at key moments, and frequently makes direct and smiling eye contact with audience members. This style creates a warmth and familiarity that encourages a strong feeling of connection between performer and audience.

Part way through the show, Condo brings someone onto the stage with (though this isn’t really an audience participation show) for a mini-experiment based on the metaphor of ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’. Slowing the pace right down, this exchange has an incredible softness and gentleness to it, which I found really rather moving.

I don’t know if it was the research on empathy that Condo presented, or the effect of the show’s style and delivery, or just a heightening of innate compassionate responses, but I did feel a strong emotional response to some parts of the show. In particular, there’s a point towards the end when Condo reveals the outcome of her experiment, but also a realization about some of its implications, and I genuinely – just for a minute – felt the pain she was describing.

Of course, the fact that I had this feeling is all credit to the careful and deliberate pacing of the show’s script, as well as Condo’s sensitive and expressive performance. The Empathy Experiment is a very well-crafted show, and it’s really quite clever in the way it elicits an emotional response from its audience.

Overall, The Empathy Experiment is a charming, thought-provoking and clever production, which draws on Condo’s skills as a poet and spoken word performer to create a very enjoyable hour of entertainment. I will admit, I did turn my phone back on when the show finished, but I’ll also admit it was nice to briefly be without it.

The Empathy Experiment had a short (and sold out) run at the Greater Manchester Fringe, but it will be on at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. If you get chance to check out the show in Edinburgh, it’s a definite recommendation from me.

The Empathy Experiment was on at The King’s Arms on the 10th and 11th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe, and it will be performed in August at The Banshee Labyrinth, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. To see the full programme for this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe, visit the festival website.

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