By Nina Richards
To Micah Kessel, assumption is the enemy of empathy. Empathy is the realization that each person has different, and equally valid, experiences and emotions that inform our every move. Which is why Kessel, Kelley Van Dilla, Adrienne Dent, and Annie Temmink have created an immersive experience to prompt empathic thinking and choice-making toward people of different gender identities.
It’s called “Walk in My Shoes Closet,” and it takes place inside a giant, sparkly shoe.
The group, which calls itself Playground of Empathy, combined their experiences in theater, set design, and cinematography to create the exhibit, which also draws on behavioral science.
Kessel is a design specialist, with a passion for immersive structures that prompt curiosity and nuanced feelings, and Van Dilla is a filmmaker who has done production work for HBO and various theater productions. Dent, a local materials artist, uses found and recycled objects to tell stories. They also worked with neuroscientists and behavioral psychologists from UVA and Northeastern to analyze and strengthen participants’ responses to the exhibition.
Before entering the 8 x 5 x 12-foot structure, participants answer a few questions about their own gender identity, don an optional ECG heart rhythm monitor, and select an identity they are curious about: options include trans man, trans woman, non-binary person, and pregnant woman. The team explains what each identity can mean, so no one feels that they don’t know enough to participate.
“We have a steep learning curve, some people have never even spoken to a trans person, but they want to learn,” Kessler says. “No one should leave thinking that gender has nothing to with them.”
Each of the identities is represented in the exhibition by a real person, who has been interviewed by the Playground of Empathy team about times of confidence, vulnerability, and defiance, and the items of clothing they associate with those experiences.
Exhibit participants are handed a garment bag with belongings of the person they’ve selected, and enter through the golden curtains on the face of the shoe. Inside, there’s a large mirror surrounded by twinkling lights. The voice of the person they have chosen plays overhead, speaking calmly as one would to a friend. The voice invites the participant to open the bag and try on the items inside, explaining the significance of each one: “This hat helped me to feel more like myself” or, “This chest binder let me be perceived the way I want to be.” It’s a way to begin to understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.
The founders hope the “Walk in My Shoes Closet” will be not only a fun experience, but one that will promote long-term pro-social behavior. We make kinder and more intentional choices when we stop seeing our perspectives as the only possibility. A parent could understand a child better, an employee his co-worker, or a doctor her patient. The exhibit helps participants inhabit the lives of others in new ways.
The current iteration is a prototype, and going forward, the group plans to launch new exhibitions that examine childhood, sadness, friendship, and racial bias. Each will aim to immerse you, move you, and invite you to see other people as they are, full of feelings and vibrant inner lives.
The Playground of Empathy exhibition “Walk in My Shoes Closet,” created and built by Micah Kessel, Annie Temmink, Kelley Van Dilla, and Adrienne Dent, will be open for exploration at Live Arts on July 26 and 27 as a bookend to the teen production of Rent.