Empath” is a new play by David Sauvage that is running at Theaterlab in Manhattan from November 29 to December 9, 2018. The show defies genres and focuses on a man who has a special superpower—the ability to feel the emotions of other people. Performed on a fine line between TED Talk and theater, the show also features live “emotional readings” with volunteers from the audiences.

David discussed his experiences creating and staging this show via an exclusive interview on November 13, 2018.

Theater, inspirations, and audiences

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you first get into theater and how did you learn about Theaterlab?

David Sauvage (DS): I got into theater in high school. When I graduated from college, all I wanted to be was a playwright. I had a couple of plays produced in LA. It has been a 15-year journey back to the theater. I found Theaterlab because I was looking for clean white space. And then Orietta Crispino, their amazing artistic director, and I bonded.

MM: What was the inspiration behind “Empath” and how did you blend genres to create it?

DS: For the last year, I’ve been doing performances where I do readings in front of audiences. This kept spurring the question, “What’s your story?” So, I hatched the idea of a play where I tell my story and then do readings as the climax.

MM: What was the production process for “Empath” like?

DS: It’s basically my director, Catie Davis, and me in a rehearsal room, talking everything out. The script was never written; it was just enacted over and over again and transcribed.

MM: What most excites you about “Empath” and what do you expect audiences to get from it?

DS: What most excites me is how new it feels. The play goes from conventional narrative arc to intuitive readings to a workshop all in 90 minutes.

It synthesizes all these different experiences into one. What I hope audiences get from it is to be inspired to follow their own gifts wherever they lead. Mine led to this crazy experience. Where do yours lead?

MM: Given that this play involves learning to have empathy, do you think it’s a particularly timely show?

DS: One of my discoveries is the idea that we don’t have any choice over our feelings.

Where choice comes in is what attitude we take toward our feelings. I recommend compassionate, non-judgmental awareness. When was the last time you saw that attitude reflected in our politics or our culture? And what would our culture look like if we adopted it?

Shows of emotion and the future

MM: What were some of the most interesting and surprising things you learned while assembling this show? How much research went into it?

DS: Well, my life was the research. Assembling the show, I’ve been learning that the play wants to exist, and Catie and I are trying to get out of the way of it. I’m endlessly surprised by that. Just learning to be humble before a Thing instead of kidding myself that I’m creating a Thing.

MM: You do live “emotion” readings with the audience, so how does that work? Do you pick people at random or do they have to volunteer? How exactly do you gauge their emotions?

DS: I’ll tell you how I do the readings – in the play itself! But I’m not gauging their emotions; I’m actually feeling them. I don’t pick at random. I ask for volunteers. But sometimes, I get a name in my head and just go with it. We’ll see!

MM: What other plays have you written and what topics do you hope to tackle in the future?

DS: My best play was called “Monologues from the Burning House,” about how we have to tell stories in order to move people because people can’t deal with the raw truth. I also wrote a play called “Cheyenne” about bisexuality in cowboy country.

In the future, I think I’d like to write about revolution.

MM: What are your biggest hopes for your future in theater and what’s coming up next for you?

DS: I’d love to go bigger with immersive theater, whether with this show or another. Next, on the horizon, I plan to do more work on the video. I see myself going into emotionally dicey situations and sorting them out using intuition. Kind of like a makeover show, only with empathy and emotional intelligence. May the right producer and network appear to make this happen.