February 13, 2021
Press, Projects

One evening last month, two recent college grads — one from a conservative Christian college, the other from a more ecumenical liberal arts university — got together online with a group of their peers. Young people from polar ends of the political spectrum were being given an unusual assignment: perform monologues as each other, using your opposite’s recorded words.

“Why do you go and storm the U.S. Capitol, or damage property or do any of those violent acts? You do it because you believe your voice is not heard,” recited Nicole Albanese, a self-described liberal who graduated from Georgetown University in May. The words were those of Daniel Cochrane, a politically conservative alumnus of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., who, in turn, delivered two minutes of remarks by Albanese.

“It’s such a big country, its identity has definitely shifted and changed,” Cochrane said, as Albanese watched. “So, I think some people don’t really have as clear, like, an idea of how it has changed.”

All evening, pairs from the two schools stepped into the roles of their partners — an exercise to get people with opposing views to listen to one another, using the tools of performance. The brainchild of Derek Goldman, chairman of the Georgetown Department of Performing Arts, the program is called “In Your Shoes.” It is one facet of a unique Georgetown effort, the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics — a blended unit of drama and diplomacy that seems especially well-suited for a nation divided against itself.

“All of this work is what I’ve been calling ‘witness across difference,’ ” said Goldman, who created the Lab in 2012 with Cynthia P. Schneider, a former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands who is now a professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. “Which is a way of saying that there is a particular power that performance has, to allow us to listen deeply, bear witness and ultimately empathize with each other.”

Empathy, or rather the lack of it, has been a subject at the top of the American rhetorical menu over the past four years: It may even be argued that President Biden’s election reflects voters’ desire for a compassionate leader with a talent for listening. Empathy, too, seems in some manner to be at the heart of many of the Lab’s interdisciplinary initiatives: to engage friends or strangers in dialogue through art and artistic practice — whether at the level of everyday discourse or between nations in forms of cultural diplomacy.

“Each of us from our own perspective has gone full-steam ahead with our real belief in the power of the arts broadly, and in particular live performance, to be a transformative experience,” Schneider said of her collaboration with Goldman. “And that live performance has the capacity to engage people around political issues in a very profound way. And really in a way nothing else can.”

The Lab is project-oriented, rather than a classroom-based venture, co-sponsored by the theater program and the School of Foreign Service. “We’ve been around for 100 years, and we were designed to be about cultural competency and empathy,” observed Joel Hellman, dean of the School of Foreign Service. He added that it makes sense for his program to be part of the Lab, because “we’re constantly trying to open minds.”

Goldman and Schneider’s aspirations for the Lab have propelled it onto diverse paths. One of the Lab’s long-term projects has been a play about the late Jan Karski, hero of the Polish resistance during World War II and later a Georgetown professor. An early version of “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” starring David Strathairn and written by Goldman and former student Clark Young, was performed at the opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw in 2015. The play has been made into a movie with Strathairn and will be shown at film festivals later this year.

Over the past several years, too, the Lab has been grappling with an ugly Georgetown legacy: the university’s history of owning and selling enslaved people. “Here I Am,” a digital performance piece that will premiere in April, is the story of Mélisande Short-Colomb, a New Orleans woman and a descendant of two of the 314 enslaved people who in 1838 were sold by the Maryland Jesuits to raise money for the university. Short-Colomb, 67 — who four years ago became a Georgetown student after learning about her ancestors — performs the piece she created with actress-playwright ­Nikkole Salter.

It was while taking one of Goldman’s theater classes that “Here I Am” was conceived. “The class was not a performance-based class, but a memory-based class where we wrote about memories,” Short-Colomb recalled in a Zoom interview. After she wrote about her own experiences, “at the end of the semester, Derek said, ‘I think you have something.’ ” After a broader play about the group of enslaved people, who became known as the GU272, fell through, Short-Colomb said, she and Lab officials went to the university administration and got approval for her project.

One of the through lines with projects as different as “Remember This” and “Here I Am” is the notion of witnessing, and the moral authority that arises from personal testimony. “What I have found over the years doing this is that people respond to it with a visceral, gut reaction,” Strathairn said of the Karski show. “It’s more of an empathic feeling that can nurture a different way of thinking — especially in a theater, when you have 300 people of all different ideologies, sharing an empathic moment.”

“In Your Shoes” goes deep into sharing, too. It’s a collaboration between the Lab and Georgetown’s Democracy and Governance program, sparked in 2018 by program director Daniel Brumberg’s interest in students exploring political polarization. As the concept for the “In Your Shoes” meetups took shape, Brumberg contacted Cory Grewell, a professor of literature and drama club adviser at Patrick Henry, a 40-minute drive from Georgetown. Its homepage notes that the college “exists to glorify God by challenging the unacceptable status quo in higher education.”

Grewell said he immediately recognized the value in Goldman’s methodology: what Brumberg describes academically as “facilitated dialogue.” The students may not be walking a mile in one another’s shoes, but they take several major strides in them.

“It’s not simply bringing people from different ideological camps to talk,” Grewell said. “You really have to imagine what makes this other person tick, their fears, their desires.”

And as Brumberg suggested, a little showbiz in academia can’t hurt: “I guess Derek would say there’s an actor in all of us.”

For the Lab’s “In Your Shoes” Zoom session last month, participants from earlier gatherings reunited, and were given a general “prompt” for their discussions. “We said, ‘Focus the conversation on your experience around January 6 and since then, and what they surfaced for you,’ ” Goldman recalled. Before the coronavirus pandemic imposed restrictions on physical contact, the Patrick Henry and Georgetown students gathered in person, and over the course of the program, they interacted with different partners.

“It’s separate from finding common ground, or ‘Let’s see what we can agree on’ type of rhetoric,” said Ijeoma Njaka, a Brown University graduate who works part time as the Lab’s inclusive pedagogy specialist. “There are students on both campuses who were interested in this project because they thought they were living in a bubble.”

One of the goals of “In Your Shoes” is to encourage participants to capture not only the words of the other person, but also some of their mannerisms — a gentle acknowledgment of how completely they are being observed and heard. “To my delight, the approach was not about diminishing differences, it’s about encouraging differences,” said Cochrane, who graduated from Patrick Henry in 2019 with a degree in political theory and now works on legal and policy issues in the D.C. area.

“It’s not simply bringing people from different ideological camps to talk,” Grewell said. “You really have to imagine what makes this other person tick, their fears, their desires.”

And as Brumberg suggested, a little showbiz in academia can’t hurt: “I guess Derek would say there’s an actor in all of us.”

For the Lab’s “In Your Shoes” Zoom session last month, participants from earlier gatherings reunited, and were given a general “prompt” for their discussions. “We said, ‘Focus the conversation on your experience around January 6 and since then, and what they surfaced for you,’ ” Goldman recalled. Before the coronavirus pandemic imposed restrictions on physical contact, the Patrick Henry and Georgetown students gathered in person, and over the course of the program, they interacted with different partners.

“It’s separate from finding common ground, or ‘Let’s see what we can agree on’ type of rhetoric,” said Ijeoma Njaka, a Brown University graduate who works part time as the Lab’s inclusive pedagogy specialist. “There are students on both campuses who were interested in this project because they thought they were living in a bubble.”

Cochrane said he was concerned that the exchanges might devolve into arguments about then-President Donald Trump. The comradely spirit engendered by the exercise short-circuited any animus. “We were discussing matters that were very controversial — there’s an obvious recognition that we disagree — but never with any animosity,” he said.

Albanese, whose Georgetown degree is in American studies and theater, had “some walls up” at the start of “In Your Shoes” in her junior year. “It took me a while to get vulnerable with people from the other school,” she said, adding that asking one another questions about family and loneliness broke down those walls. “Just meeting actual people who identify as conservative and who are my age adds so much nuance to understanding what they actually think.”

The possibilities for “In Your Shoes” seem auspicious. Goldman said he has supervised versions of the program at international theater conferences — and has been queried about using the technique in marriage therapy.

As for Cochrane and Albanese, the Lab opened their eyes. “The remarkable thing about performing as Daniel was how my body clicked right into it — this physical release,” Albanese said.

Her performance, in fact, earned raves from the most interested member of the audience. “She did a fantastic job,” Cochrane said. “What it shows is that she truly did listen.”

Global Lab on Zoom

Warning: Use of undefined constant php - assumed 'php' (this will throw an Error in a future version of PHP) in /home/futuresg/redhouse.georgetown.edu/wp-content/themes/red_house/comments.php on line 1