What I’ve Learned from Turning People’s Hopes and Fears into Private Immersive Performances

My art is an exercise in paying close attention, and it’s taught me the importance of empathy in writing and life

When I tell people about what I do, they usually don’t believe that something like it exists in the world. I’ll say something along the lines of, “I’m the Assistant Director of a company called Odyssey Works that studies the life of one individual at a time in order to create bespoke, immersive experiences for that participant that last days, weeks, sometimes even months.” It’s an elevator pitch, an attempt to distill my complex and unusual job into a digestible soundbite for quick comprehension, but instead it usually just opens up more curiosity and confusion. The next series of questions are a quick staccato and I always wish that I had an hour to elaborate. Who does this? Where do Odysseys occur? How do you pick the person you study? Is it like the Michael Douglas movie The Game? How much does it cost? People always want to know how much it costs.

I try not to be too rote when I respond. I’ve been at this for six years with my collaborator, Abraham Burickson, who co-founded Odyssey Works with Matthew Purdon in 2001, and it’s important to me to engage sincerely with questions like these — no matter how many times I hear them. But the short version of my reply usually contains the same few elements: We are a collaborative team of dozens of artists in just as many disciplines who work together for at least three months to study our participant. The way we select our participant depends largely on how we are funded, through grants or private commissions. Grants allow us to open a call for applications in a certain city and give the experience to someone as a gift. Commissions are a lot more flexible; we’ll go just about anywhere and study just about anyone. It is, in fact, like that Michael Douglas movie, only not quite so much adrenaline.

It is, in fact, like that Michael Douglas movie ‘The Game,’ only not quite so much adrenaline.

The longer answer, or at least the more interesting answer, is that Odyssey Works is an exercise in empathy — in the magic of paying sustained, intimate attention to another person. And what I’ve learned from six years of paying this kind of attention is that empathy is transformative — not only for the kind of bespoke performances we make, but for all writing, and indeed, all human work.

When we study our participant before planning an Odyssey, we take many approaches. The first is a questionnaire that takes hours to complete; the finished document is usually about 10–15 pages long. It covers everything from biographical information to aesthetic tastes and ideological perspectives on the world. Next, we conduct phone interviews with the friends, family, children, parents, coworkers, lovers of the participant, after which we go on retreat to spend a week as a team thinking deeply about our subject. We drink their favorite beverages, watch their most beloved films, listen to the albums they get nostalgic over, and even try to dream about them. The goal in this process is to fall in love with them. Yes, they are a stranger to us, but when someone is that vulnerable with us and we have the energy to give them our undivided attention, it is surprisingly easy to become enamored.

In good writing, we often talk about detail. Sensory detail. Vivid detail. Specific detail. It might sound obvious, and yet details are why we fall in love with a person. Details are the things that make them singular humans rather than shells that act merely as tropes, or even worse, clichés. As we hold this person at the center of attention, we begin to see the world through their eyes, with their subjectivity. This, of course, is empathy, true empathy, which fosters intimacy. Intimacy makes us human, brings us closer to those who have led such different lives than our own experiences have provided. During our retreat, we ask ourselves, What do we wish for this person?

Maybe the answer is for them to inhabit their body more. Or to unleash themselves from the perspective that they are a victim. Once we have answered this question, we begin to approach a structure that will be in service of this focus. Abraham and I are both trained writers, and we map out a narrative using the very real parts of the participant’s life to tell the story. One man, Carl, was fascinated with maps, so for him we used this love of visual layers of information as a way to propel him through his Odyssey, gathering information and making his own maps out of them. Another participant, Rick, was in the middle of a great transition in his life, and so we cast the net of narrative laced with threads about home and relied on Homer’s epic, our namesake, blended in with traces of Moby Dick. We all have a life story, a frame or lens that we use to link what might otherwise be an arbitrary string of events together. Overlaying narrative into the work is what gives each hour, each minute, meaning, significance, weight.

A diagram by Danielle Baskin and Abraham Burickson mapping the arc of experience for Rick’s odyssey “When I Left the House t Was Still Dark”

The performances transform lives, both those of our team members and our participants. Almost across the board, our participants change jobs, move to new cities, break up with their partner, or get married after experiencing an Odyssey. Their way of seeing the world is altered. Funny thing, when you realize you are in a weekend-long performance that revolves around you, everything is ripe with potential. Our participant’s’ attention and presence shift during and after Odyssey. The woman next to you on the subway could be a plant; does the fact that she’s knitting mean something? Hitting a red light suddenly feels significant, rather than merely annoying. Could the fact that your roommate left this book open on the counter be foreshadowing what is to come? Does the fact that the restaurant is serving your mother’s favorite dish as the special tonight say something about motherhood itself? There’s a difference between seeing potential in the world around you and feeling watched. It’s pronoia, or the belief that the world is conspiring to do good things for you, as opposed to paranoia.

There’s a certain inefficiency to devoting so much time and labor towards one person, and in the last two years we’ve been making it our goal to invite others into this practice of attentiveness, intimacy, and vulnerability. In 2016, Abraham and I published a book with the hopes that others might take some of our methods into their own hands, and we started leading workshops that introduce people to our process and applications to their own work. Our classes mirror Odyssey Works’ research phase. In the first half of our workshops, people conduct one-on-one interviews that are designed to open them up to incredibly intimate conversation with a partner very quickly, just the same way our questionnaire does. In the second half, they design an experience tailored to their partner. Not all of our students are interested in creating immersive experiences as an end goal; they’re writers, designers, advertisers, educators. But each and every one of us has had to plan a date, a birthday party, a baby shower at some point, and these are the origins of experience design. And all of them walk away seeing new ways they can employ empathy in their lives. Like preparing an Odyssey, the workshop requires them to pay deep, sustained, intimate attention to someone, and that experience is the goal.

Whether you work in the corporate sector, are an abstract painter, are someone who designs apps, or works a marine biologist, empathy is the key to creating truly meaningful relationships, lives, artwork, school work, and work-work. Empathy isn’t just what will make your novel feel real, rather than flat. Empathy will guide you to design an app that isn’t so addictive. Empathy is what will make a doctor better understand how one symptom in one limb might be connected to the larger narrative of what’s going on in someone’s life. Empathy will make you see the world and your fellow humans differently.

Almost across the board, our participants change jobs, move to new cities, break up with their partner, or get married after experiencing an Odyssey.

I’m teaching poetry to undergraduate students at UCSD right now and have been thinking a lot about what it means to teach something that is as hard to pin down. Poetry’s ineffability shares quite a bit with the complexity of Odyssey Works’ practice. On the first day of class I asked my students what they think poetry is, and challenged them to think of something they had seen in the world that was poetic. They gave mind-blowing answers — that poetry is “protest and praise,” that it is “transcendence” — and described moments of synchronicity in their life that constituted lived poetics. When I thought about their answers, I realized that spending class periods teaching them about rhyme schemes, or what a tercet is, would not help them write good poetry. They can after all, use Google to learn about the technical aspects of writing and many of them are STEM students. What would guide them to write moving poems was having time to slow down, to observe the world closely, to attune to the world and their senses, to be curious. Since then, each class period I have been guiding then to practice their skills of presence and attention, to tap into the obsessions that make them human. I taught them the word “numinous,” and we discussed the ways in which poetry approaches the spiritual realm. We have looked at confessional and epistolary poems as a lens to think about urgency and prayer. As Mary Ruefle reminds us, “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.”

A beautiful moment that Carl encountered on a walk through Central Park. (Photo: Ayden LeRoux)

Poetry, it turns out, is about getting to the quick of what it means to be human. There is a reason that it’s part of the “Humanities.”

A few weeks ago, as I led our Empathy and Experience Design workshop, I was struck that if you ask what kind of toilet paper someone uses, inquire how they fell in love with their partner, or dig into what made them cry most recently, whatever the answer is, people come alive. That curiosity invites blossoming. Every question is an acknowledgement that we are full of depth and complexity that is deeper than what we do and where we are from. I couldn’t help but think that fundamentally the aim of my poetry class was the same as what we do in Odyssey Workshops. Both offer time to learn how to connect with a complete stranger on the page or in person, to look closer at the world and feel seen. Everything comes back to inviting more vulnerability, intimacy, empathy, attentiveness, and curiosity. To be as human as we possibly can.

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