Michelle Schroeder-Lowrey’s Empathy is Her Creative Superpower

By Matt Slaybaugh, executive director of Available Light Theatre

Michelle Schroeder-Lowrey is a founding member of Available Light Theatre. Born and raised in Columbus, Michelle began her acting career at what was then Columbus Junior Theatre (now CCT). She went on to study acting at The Ohio State University and has performed with CATCO, Red Herring, Actor’s Theatre and the BlueForms Theatre Group. Currently she is an educator and Positive Psychology practitioner, working with children at The Columbus Academy, teaching music, movement and drama.

Michelle will be the featured performer in Available Light’s production of Tiny Beautiful Things, opening Oct. 24 at the Riffe Center in downtown Columbus.

Matt: How did Tiny Beautiful Things first come to your attention?
Michelle: Eleni, Available Light’s Artistic Director, read the script over winter break and sent me a photo of her face, because she had been weeping. Because of who I follow on social media, I’d heard that Nia Vardalos had turned Cheryl Strayed’s book, Dear Sugar, into an Off-Broadway show. So was interested but I hadn’t yet read the play. The universe is so good to us if we pay attention.

Matt: So you had some familiarity with Cheryl Strayed’s work?
Michelle: I was more familiar with her because of her work with other people that I admire, like Glennon Doyle, Abby Wambach and Oprah Winfrey. They do these tours together where they talk about their life experiences. Because of the work I’ve been doing with Positive Psychology their names pop up a lot. And Cheryl Strayed has hopped into that world with her writing on resilience and radical empathy. But I didn’t know anything about her history of writing this anonymous advice column that became the book which eventually became the play that we’re doing.

Matt: Did you see yourself reflected in the play?
Michelle: For a lot of my life, I have been a de facto “Dear Abby.” I have always been interested in psychology, even if I didn’t know that’s what it was, and the idea of helping people. I have a strong empathic response to people, and I’m able to connect to how they’re feeling. In the play, Cheryl answers each one of the letters with honesty. Not brutal honesty, but loving honesty. And everyone can feel some sort of connection to the person who wrote that letter. The feelings attached to being stuck, or needing help navigating a relationship where things have changed – we’ve all felt those things.

Matt: It seems like she has a mission that’s similar to yours.
Michelle: For sure. I’ve been studying Positive Psychology for the past couple of years and I’ve come to understand that as human beings, we need to give ourselves permission to feel a full range of emotions. Being able to feel it and recognize it and move on allows us to have a healthy digestion of emotion and leads us to bounce back from adversity and have more success at feeling happiness throughout our lives. It’s been a big part of my life the last couple of years, and I’ve been teaching that to other adults and to kids as well.

Matt: How does this compare to your other roles that you’ve played?
Michelle: I think there’s some commonality in the roles that I’ve played over the years. If you look at Mel (from God’s Ear) and her striving to overcome devastation, and to use humor and emotion when she doesn’t even have the words, to press forward and connect with people.

Even Jane Bennet (in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice) with that hopeful optimism. Nothing works out but she keeps moving forward. She’s resilient, too. I look for that. Like Red Panda (in Paradise Park Zoo) — constantly moving forward, though she maybe needs a little help with anxiety and worry and sitting in the judger pit wanting to be loved.

Matt: And that brings us back to the play.
Michelle: Whether we mean to be or not, whether we like it or not, we’re all connected and we’re looking for the same things. We need acceptance, and that feeling of belonging. I really do feel that, we still all belong to each other. Cheryl strived to do it in her column, and Nia has strived to show that on stage. This show is a reminder that we are all connected.

Matt: Aside from Available Light, what’s the best thing about the Columbus art scene right now?
Michelle: Wow, that’s tough. It seems as though it just gets better and better all the time. Any night of the week you can find something to expand your understanding of art — at the CMoA or CCAD, various theater companies, the music scene, dance. It goes on and on. I’m proud to be a part of such a vibrant and diverse arts scene.

Michelle Schroeder-Lowrey stars in Tiny Beautiful Things, adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s book Dear Sugar by Nia Vardalos. It’s a play about reaching when you’re stuck, healing when you’re broken and taking on the questions which can never be answered. Performances begin Oct. 24 and run through Nov. 9 at Studio One, Riffe Center. Tickets and information available at avltheatre.com.

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