As news spread of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, donations of both money and bottled water poured in. Teams deployed throughout the city to install filters in high-risk homes to prevent further lead poisoning. For outsiders, it’s difficult to imagine based on news stories how this crisis affects and continues to shape this community.

Flint isn’t the first city in America to suffer as the result of contaminated water, and it certainly won’t be the last. Water contamination also isn’t the only social issue facing the country or the world. The critical piece is making people aware of these issues and action they could potentially take to become more involved. Research supports that empathy is a motivator to altruistic action. Although narrative stories have been used to create empathy, transmedia storytelling is an untapped resource for creating empathy for the purpose of raising social awareness.

A vast amount of research and theorizing has been done around the concept of empathy, but the particular area of interest for this project is the research that supports the link between empathy and altruistic motivation (Toi & Batson, 1982). Narratives, both fiction and nonfiction, are used to create empathy among readers by creating relatable characters and the use of certain narrator perspectives (Keen, 2006). Narratives that employ transmedia storytelling to engage participants and drive them to a greater understanding of an issue have been deployed using the Transmedia Activism framework (Srivastava, 2013). However, these projects rarely have a live performance element.

The experience I’m proposing would focus on an interactive live performance created through ethnographic research in the Flint community. This physical event would be supported by a website and other digital elements to provide a way for the audience to further engage with the narrative beyond the one-time live event.

I’m proposing this transmedia experience to encourage participants to empathize with the residents of Flint and what daily life is like as they face these continuing challenges related to the contamination of their water and its effects on their community. The experience would be created using ethnographic research conducted in Flint, along with secondary research about the community and water issues. Tools of design thinking will be used to converge this research and develop a storyworld, where all of the elements of the experience will live. To measure the effect of the experience, I will use formative and summative assessments and analytics on the physical and digital aspects of the project.

After the completion of the project, practitioners may be able to better understand how live performance can contribute to a transmedia experience and its effectiveness in creating empathy to raise awareness in an audience.

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