It’s finally Friday night. Somehow, you’ve already completed your work that’s due Monday, and you’re planning to join friends for the opening night of the theater production, “Hearing Voices: Identity and Politics.”
You arrive and notice there’s no stage, no curtain, nothing to suggest a traditional theater environment. This production is rumored to be different, although you don’t understand quite how or why. But you’re intrigued and eager to see what’s next.
Although you don’t know it yet, you’re about to watch — actually, participate in — a site-specific theater production, a form of immersive theater. Site-specific theater uses real-world environments and actively engages the audience in the performance. Locations can range from ballrooms and retail shops to warehouses and restaurants or, in this case, a campus residential facility.
With the audience assembled, the “Hearing Voices” director, Sophia Tufariello, offers a greeting and brief background on the production. Tufariello is a 2023 graduate with a major in theater arts and a minor in women’s, gender and sexuality studies. She performed in “Hearing Voices: Self-Loathing, Self-Love” as a first-year student at Emory’s Oxford College and describes her participation as a “life-changing experience.”
After several years of production at Oxford College, “Hearing Voices” debuted at the Atlanta campus this spring.
“The focus of that ‘Hearing Voices’ production was telling the stories of people who struggle with mental health,” Tufariello says of her Oxford experience. “My participation got me to finally recognize my own declining mental health, specifically my relapse into depression and disordered eating. It gave me the strength to open up to my castmates and finally reach out for help. Now, many members of that cast are among my closest friends.”
Fostering empathy through performance
Audience participants often have similar profound experiences, Tufariello notes.
After a “Hearing Voices” performance and audience discussion this spring, one student said she felt as if the scenario about sexuality could have been based on her personal struggle. As a queer woman entering a relationship with another woman for the first time, she felt really “seen” by “The Birth of Venus,” which discussed a queer woman’s body insecurities and exploration of her own sexuality — topics that are often taboo but very important to many students.
That’s the point, according to Tufariello. “Hearing Voices” creates space for people to share their stories and hold conversations about race, gender, sexuality, mental health, identity, politics and other difficult topics.
“Our site-specific production is a radical, intersectional theatrical form that fosters empathy and connection among all people involved, from the writers and actors to the audience,” she says. “At the same time, the performances highlight stories that are often ignored.”
Creating conversations around challenging topics
Following Tufariello’s greeting, the audience is divided into three cohorts of eight to 10 people. A tour guide leads each cohort to an apartment in the residential center to watch one of four performance scenarios. Each lasts five to seven minutes.
When the scenario ends, each cohort discusses the performance as they move to another location. The groups rotate until they have seen and discussed all four scenarios. Then, the entire audience reconvenes — joined by the director, actors and tour guides — for a collective conversation about each performance, facilitated by a member of the Emory Conversation Project, a Barkley Forum initiative.
Each scenario focuses on an issue that challenges many people, and is particularly poignant for young people.
- “The Birth of Venus” centers on the Roman goddess associated with love, beauty and sex. In this scenario, Venus dialogues with a young woman (Cecily) who is struggling with her sexuality and how she will know when she is ready to have sex. Later, Venus exits and Cecily’s significant other (Grace) enters. Written anonymously and performed by Ashani Sharma and Skylar Peterson, “Venus” explores what we really mean when we say, “I am ready to have sex” and how we can love each other, even when loving is terrifying.
- “Written By” places the sole character in a room, surrounded by the audience. Words on the walls read: race, sex, gender, religion, family and nationality. The character struggles to define themself with only those words. Frustrated and angry, they explore the limitations of labels and what assumptions society makes about others based on the identities they hold. The scenario was written by Dean Criser and performed by Jessie Betancourt.
- “A Restless Search for Definition” explores the ways in which the term “neurodivergent” can poorly represent the lived experiences of those with mental challenges such as autism and ADHD, among others. The character introduces the audience to the labels of “neurodivergent” and “neurotypical” and some of the challenges neurodivergent people face in communicating with those who are neurotypical. The scenario was written by Cadence Nabors and performed by Ash Aiken.
- “Socks and Songbirds” was written and performed by Dean Criser. A man finds himself at rock bottom — again. The character introduces the audience to the hidden world inside a mental health institution and the story reflects on the societal stigma around mental health challenges and mental health institutions.
Reaching the audience
Audience engagement with “Hearing Voices” has lived up to the hopes of the show’s creators, and has produced dialogue and connection to help build community and nurture a sense of belonging. After the show, one student commented that he had no idea how many people around him are coping with identity challenges like his.
Willa Barnett, who graduated in May with a major in theater arts, served as artistic director for Dooley’s Players and the “Hearing Voices” production. She was a member of the Emory Conversation Project for four years and facilitated the audience discussion on opening night.
“‘Hearing Voices’ serves the Dooley’s Players’ mission of empowering young artists to create work that matters to their lives and their issues. To see so many student participants moved and inspired by this piece speaks to the power, conversation and community that student art can create,” Barnett says. “I know Dooley’s Players will be producing ‘Hearing Voices’ again in the fall, and I cannot wait to see all the new ways that theater makers can engage in this budding tradition.”
Lydia Smith, assistant director of campus engagement for Barkley Forum, leads the Emory Conversation Project.
“We have a great partnership with ‘Hearing Voices.’ Their goal is to encourage interpersonal dialogue among students, which aligns very well with the Emory Conversation Project’s commitment,” Smith says. “As our project website explains, we believe change begins with conversations — face-to-face encounters that encourage us to pause and rethink our own perspectives while contemplating the differences and similarities between ourselves and others.”
Tufariello adds, “And that’s what ‘Hearing Voices’ is all about – coming together and sharing our stories and finding connections with people we might never have known otherwise.”
All photos by Erin Laurens.
If you are interested in …
Seeing a performance: Visit the Theater at Emory website for more information.
Getting involved with Dooley Players: Visit the Theater at Emory website.
Getting involved with Emory Conversation Project: Contact Lydia Smith (email@example.com).