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A Laramie native is spreading civil dialogue through music and theater

A woman plays the piano in black dress, highlighted by stage lightts
Cordelia Zars
Laramie native Cordelia Zars wrote and performed the musical "Man Up" that seeks to stimulate conversation around the issue of sexual harassment and gender violence.

A new theater project in Boulder, Colorado hopes to get communities to reach a consensus over divisive subjects through the power of music and the spoken word. "The Empathy Theatre Project" is the brainchild of Laramie native Cordelia Zars. Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards starts by asking Zars how the idea came about.

Cordelia Zars: One of my best friends, Max Middleton, and I went to college together, and I've always been a musician, and he was always into theater. And we started directing and acting in theater together in college, and we just really clicked and loved it. And he and I sort of had a unique style of putting theater together that we loved. And so, after college, we both moved to Colorado, and we wanted to keep working together. And so we were really inspired to start kind of a bigger, longer-term artistic vision together that had a mission of bringing people together in this country who are divided.

We were both around our senior year in college during the 2016 election, and then during the following 2017 #metoo movement. And I think that really inspired our first show that we collaborated on together that I wrote and that Max directed here in Colorado, which is called "Man Up: A Musical." And that musical is inspired by the events of the #metoo movement, and just taking a closer look at the root causes of gender violence in this country. And from there, we created a whole musical about that, and then presented it, first in 2019, and then we're about to remount it this year.

Melodie Edwards: So I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the fact that you grew up in Laramie, and just how being from Wyoming, how has that ended up being part of what it is that you're doing with this project and in your path?

CZ: Yeah, that's a great question. I think it plays a huge part. Because, like you said, I grew up in Laramie and then I went to boarding schools part of high school and college on the East Coast. And that was a huge culture shock for me, coming from Laramie. And I think I just saw how many different cultures are embodied in the United States. And so it hurts me personally, just coming from Wyoming, and then also, just feeling like I was kind of bridging different cultures my whole life. And I know in my heart that people are, by and large, the same at the core, like, we want the same things, we crave the same kind of love and attention and care. And we want good things for each other, we just have been steeped in different cultures. And so it's a shame that we're not listening more to each other and that we've kind of grown into these echo chambers that've siphoned us into different pools of thought. And then we judge people or even hate people before we've even heard their story.

And so that's where I think I have bloomed in the middle of that division, and said, 'Okay, let's create something where we have a product that we're making, that is just stories. Like, we're not trying to influence anyone's belief, we're not trying to change anyone's mind. We're just gonna bring stories from multiple perspectives to the table so that people that don't normally have the chance to hear another perspective do have that chance in a really beautiful and non-confrontational way, like through music and dance and the spoken word.'That kind of disarms people's defensiveness and I think is a really, really good way of opening people's hearts and minds.

ME: Yeah, and I wonder what you have noticed in terms of the reaction of your audiences, what kind of dialogues have you seen that are stimulated by the project that you've undertaken?

CZ: The first musical that I wrote and that we produced a couple of years ago now called "Man Up," was a conversation about masculinity in this country. And it was remarkably impactful on people beyond what I imagined it would be. A lot of people were really moved also because it's a story that's incredibly empathetic with the plight of boys and men in this country. Which I think, as a woman, it's very easy to get angry at men about the various forms of oppression that we're still privy to. But I think that I wanted to understand what was behind a culture of masculinity that was driving an acceptance of violence and an acceptance of oppression of women still. I found, through a lot of research and interviews, that there's a lot of bullying that happens in middle school and in high school that I didn't even realize, as a girl. And so that's what the musical is portraying. It's portraying a young boy's struggle to kind of overcome these pressures of masculinity to shut down who he is, to shut down his own expression. And this happens a lot, especially in the West. I think just because we have that cowboy mentality of, like, 'Just buck up and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.' And in many cases that can provide valuable service but in other ways, it doesn't. It encourages emotional repression that then comes out in anger and violence.

And so a lot of people watching the show for the first time hadn't actually considered what they had been through. They hadn't told anybody. Especially a lot of older men came up to me after the show who saw it. And I didn't even know them. They were just random people's dads or grandparents. And they came up to me after the show in tears, and were like, 'I've never told anybody this. But this happened to me in middle school. Like, I faced that same kind of bullying, and I didn't know how to handle it.' It was this outpouring of, like, 'Oh, wow, we really haven't had this conversation as a country.'

ME: And I saw that you also have been developing and branching out as well. I saw something about the "One Voice" series. Can you talk about what that is, and how you're hoping it will start to foster empathy as well?

CZ: So basically, how it works is that we are going to be working on these big topics in our feature shows, in our musicals and plays. And those include things like gender identity, political identity, land and water conflicts, climate change, all these things that are quite divisive in America. And then we're going to follow those topics in our monologue series. These are not going to be fictional stories; they're going to be real stories told by people who write monologues from their own experience. And it's going to be a great way for us to engage the community and kind of get that talkback. We'll present our feature show and then people are always like, 'Oh, that happened to me or I have an idea about this.' And then it's a perfect opportunity for them to be able to write in a personal essay, work with our team to edit it, and then perform it for an audience.

You can get tickets, hear their new podcast and get involved at empathytheaterproject.org.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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