Empathy School and Love Story

Photo by Paula Court

Photo by Paula Court

Something very childish in me is always tickled when the audience is invited to sit on the stage, for the especially privileged proximity it promises to the storytelling that is about to transpire, as was the case in Abrons Arts Center’s presentation of Aaron Landsman’s Empathy School & Love Story, which ran April 20 – May 1, 2016. (We were later relegated to our traditional audience seats in the house for Love Story, but by that point I was already charmed.) These plays are seemingly unrelated stories of two grown men’s troubled, interior lives. However, presented in tandem, it is hard not to draw parallels.

Both pieces made excellent use of projections, by Brent Green in Empathy School and Janet Wong in Love Story, transforming our perception of the theatrical playing space. In Empathy School, for example, which was originally performed on a moving bus at night, we are taken along for the ride with performer Jim Findlay through projections of dark, rural streets, interspersed with Green’s creative cartoon animations. Wong’s projections were more subtle: a blue flame flickers in a segment of exposed brick, negative images of the crowd on a subway platform hover in a small oval, or a thin, brush-stroke of a line traces the path of Harts’ character’s many steps through New York City streets.

The most breathtaking projection in Love Story was when the stage fell into complete darkness and we were looking out the front of a subway car, traveling through an underground tunnel. Similar to a rock concert or planetarium show, the signal lights drifted across the stage and then spilled out into the audience, across our laps and hairlines. Visual moments such as these magnificently underscored the heartfelt personal stories both Findlay and Harts told.

Other production elements that united and distinguished these tales included the microphone play and soundtrack elements. In Empathy School, Findlay narrates most of the score using a handheld microphone, and chooses the moments where he drops the mic to the side to use his own, unamplified voice. Harts uses the same technique in Love Story. It would be easy to imagine both stories being told over the radio, with Findlay and Harts’ warm, rich voices, although we would miss the live musical trio that accompanied Empathy School and Findlay’s interactions with them. We would also miss the delightful, daring moments of audience participation required in Empathy School, such as being instructed to hold hands with a stranger and then just sitting there in silence for a whole minute.

Findlay’s character is rambling and seemingly tangential in his storytelling, but as the story progresses, the abstract pieces tie themselves together. Some lines seemed to call out the Lower East Side audience directly, such as “I have operated gas pumps. Personally. For other people. I have pumped gas for a living. How about that? So I’ve earned my ironic jacket. I’m authentically wearing this ironic jacket, but I’m talking about it. So that’s a problem. Self-reflection? Is not supposed to be authentic. Authenticity is: shit houses, shit jobs, stubble, curlers, denim, cars, ash. You don’t want to live there. Here. You just want the cap.” And as quickly as we have had a chance to explore that knot of identity, we are onto the next one.

Other lines felt more universal, no matter whether your audience was truly on a bus to Memphis or sitting in a Manhattan theater, such as, “There’s a density of experience in being alone that is almost irreconcilable. Almost impenetrable. Some people call it a void but I find it totally not void-y. It’s. Unavoidable.” Findlay conveyed this density, this loneliness, while inviting us into his inner sanctum, ultimately sharing a dark secret from his character’s past.

The more I heard, the more I thought about theater as an act of transmission of memories. Although the explosion of narratives, perspectives, and themes of contemporary storytelling has come a long way from the sanctified, ritualized stories of the Ancient Greeks, the entrusting act is the same, asking the audience to sympathize with whatever story is spilled onstage. In the case of Harts’ character, who was based off of “a news report from 2006, and on two high-functioning autistic men I [Landsman] grew up with,” we meet a harmless, generally happy-go-lucky wanderer, who spends his life observing the city without acting in it. He follows people’s relationships as if they were members of his own family, or characters in his favorite television show.

Harts’ storytelling is peppered with pairs of words from his “oxymoron archive,” as he describes it. These oxymorons seem to slip out subconsciously, unbidden, punctuating his linear thoughts. He, too, speaks directly to his captive Lower East Side audience in passages like, “It’s winter. November. Everyone is rushing around and trying to be thankful. One of the best ways I know to collect myself is to go into the subway at rush hour, and stand still in the middle of all the hurrying. Cat nap. I’d go to Union Square a lot because there is always music in that station. Most of it is drummers beating plastic tubs, nasal folksingers doing songs everyone knows, or thinks they know, or wishes they didn’t.”

By living vicariously through others’ experiences, Harts’ character discovers some personal growth of his own. He recounts, “I wanted someone to talk to after that, which was a new sensation. I wanted a day off from who I was, the way other people take weekends in the country and play games with balls.” For the most part, he continues his anonymous lifestyle, despite having unlocked this unprecedented emotional aspect of his personality. Yet we, his audience, now find it harder to let go of the stories we’ve added to our own collections. (Memory bank.)

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