WHAT makes us feel for another person? After extensive research and development, The Paper Birds answer this question in the verbatim theatre piece Feel Me, whose world premiere tour visits Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre on February 27 and 28.
Billed as “an interrogation of empathy that actively measures each audience’s engagement with the theme during the show”, Feel Me uses a mixture of live performance, film, projection, dance and interactive elements to explore the different lenses through which we are told, and connect to, stories.
Worlds unfold from backpacks and tents are constructed and dismantled again, each scene and location being temporary, like a transient teenager in search of safety, acceptance and a new place to call home.
Company co-founder and co-director Jemma McDonnell says: “The idea for Feel Me started in 2015 when I saw a picture of a three-year-old boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach.
“It was a picture I couldn’t get out of my mind; there was something in that horrifying viral image that kept making me return to the concept of empathy and what it means to feel for another. Jump forward five years, and sat in lockdown with my own small children to take care of, I decided to revisit this idea.”
Feel Me “seeks real world impact and action”, achieving it with help from modern technology. As active participants within the show, audience members are gently and anonymously asked to share how they feel about the story they are witnessing at different moments using their phones, and to consider who they connect with, who they feel empathy for, and why.
The data gathered will be measured using innovative software accessed by the audience in a series of collaborative “check-in” moments, with results creatively shared live as part of the performance.
Working with academics from Essex University, the Malden company – the Paper Birds migrated south from Leeds in 2022 – uses mobile phones to measure the impact Feel Me has had on audiences and their immediate empathy levels as well as post-show.
Jemma says: “In 2021, we devised a multi-artform digital project for 14 to 25-year-olds, The School Of Hope, during which we worked with nine partner organisations in five countries over three continents to really begin to interrogate who we care for and who we don’t, and why that might be.
“Working with numerous cohorts of young artists and creatives on this subject matter in digital and hybrid formats over the lengthy research and development period that followed, our initial findings made us feel compelled and excited to explore within the show not only the stories we hear, but the way we often receive these stories via tech, most commonly our phones.”
The Paper Birds saw an opportunity to create an interactive element that allowed audiences to share how they felt about the story that was unfolding in front of them. “This interactive element has proved to be a massive challenge, but one, as a new NPO (National Portfolio Organisation) and company wholly committed to giving,” says Jemma.
“I am really proud of what we have made, as empathy is about connection and Feel Me allows hundreds of audience members to have a voice, to see and hear how their community around them is also feeling, and most importantly to connect.”
Known for their devised work with and for young people, The Paper Birds put together a creative team of emerging artists aged under 30 to work on Feel Me, including assistant director Shanice Sewell, designer Imogen Melhuish, sound and music designer Fraser Owen and cast members Lil McGibbon, Daz Scott and Kiren Virdee.
The company has worked with five youth creative councils: steering groups made up of young people aged 13 to 25 years, some with a lived experience of forced displacement. They have been invited to share their thoughts and opinions on the show as it went through the devising process and rehearsals.
Feel Me was made in partnership with Theatre Centre and is a co-production with the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, supported by Padepokan Seni Bagong Kussudiardja, Indonesia, and The Point, Eastleigh, Hampshire.
The Paper Birds in Feel Me, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, February 27, 7.30pm, and February 28, 1.30pm. Box office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com.
The Paper Birds: the back story
ESSEX theatre company with a social and political agenda, specialising in devised verbatim theatre pieces. Relocated company home from Leeds to Malden in 2022.
“We’re artists, investigators, entrepreneurs, educators. We pride ourselves on taking complex, multi-faceted subjects and making them accessible. We have an artistic programme and a creative learning programme and nurture both equally,” say co-directors Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Perry.