Empathy Commission - in association with Kent County Council

The Empathy Roadshow by Sarah Woods

"A reflective piece. A unique opportunity to think about empathy and how we connect as humans. Wonderful."


Following a period of research around empathy, including interviewing the neuroscientist Christian Keysers, Sarah wrote a 30 minute one-woman interactive show, The Empathy Roadshow, which toured community groups in Canterbury and Swale in July 2013. Following each performance, she interviewed people gathering more stories and experiences along the way. Incorporating these interviews, Sarah created a longer version of the show, premiering it at The Marlowe Theatre Studio in September 2013. From her research Sarah identified a number of key themes around empathy - 'feeling someone else's pain', imitation and learning, and perspective taking (amongst others), and created a performance that juxtaposed a wider scientific narrative with personal, everyday stories.

Sarah has subsequently toured the show, performing it at Arts Admin's Toynbee Studios and at the Empathy and Compassion conference at the Southbank. We have also been lucky enough to host Sarah and Christian Keysers as part of our Living Rooms programme. You can watch some of the conversation they had here.

Sarah Woods and Richard Gott (filmmaker on the project) will be creating a film of The Empathy Roadshow in 2014 to act as a catalyst for further conversations around empathy.

'I just wanted to send a belated thank you for organising such a wonderful event on Saturday evening. I didn't really know what to expect, and after using all my willpower not to faint in the first section (stories of trampolines and belly button piercing are not for the squeamish) I relaxed into the evening, so much so that I was singing my heart out at the end. What a unique, moving and warm experience I have been thinking about it ever since. Only People United could have carried it off with such generosity of spirit! Thank you'.

Karen Eslea, Head of Learning, Turner Contemporary

Starlings flocking at Aberystwyth Pier (Image: Sarah Woods)Haircut (credit Richard Gott)The Empathy Roadshow Lemon advertMegasour  ER Sour 1 (Matt Wilson)Peter Firmin and Lucy S. (Matt Wilson)Peter Firmin / Lucy talking in circle (Matt Wilson)Sarah W. with Christian on screen (Matt Wilson)

The artist: Sarah Woods

Sarah is a playwright and campaigner, writing for theatre, radio and television. Sarah will ask through writing, performance, multimedia and science - what actually IS empathy?

Sarah Woods

Five questions revealing a little bit more about Sarah Woods

How would you describe your practice (in less than 15 words)?
I enjoy exploring key current issues through comedy, collaboration - and the latest thinking.

Why did you apply for the commission, and what made you choose empathy?
I applied for the commission because I respect the work of People United hugely - and very much wanted an opportunity to work with the organisation. My work has values at its core and I believe that understanding and tuning into our capacity for empathy enables us to be truly human.

What values do you think are important in your work?
My current work is around empathy, kindness and care, which I think enable us to connect and therefore access other values such as trust and equality. My introduction to values as things that could be named and explored came through the Co-operative Group, as a member of one of their local committees. These values, adopted by the worldwide co-operative movement, evolved from the ideals of the early co-operators of the 18th and 19th centuries and are embodied in the Statement of Co-operative Identity published by the International Co-operative Alliance. They are: Self-help - helping each other whilst helping yourself by working together for mutual benefit, Self-responsibility, Democracy - one member, one vote, Equality - equal rights and benefits, Equity - the right to fair and just treatment, and Solidarity. In addition are the ethical values of Honesty, Openness, Social responsibility and Caring for others. These values underpin all of my work and are, in my experience, transformatory in practice.

What's the most interesting place you've visited?
I often work closely with all sorts of people - from scientists, to campaigners, communities and fellow artists. Without doubt, the most interesting place I've ever visited is the inside of someone else's head.

What came first: the chicken or the egg?
We keep chickens on our smallholding, and in our case the chickens certainly came first. We got some ex-battery hens who arrived looking oven-ready, their combs drooping like comb-overs. Then we were given some more by a friend who didn't want them anymore, then some more by a couple who wanted to spend more time away in their campervan. And then we hatched some of our own.