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Science on stage
Atlanta playwrights explore the human microbiome in Emory's '4:48'
Emory University | July 9, 2018

Exploring what it means to be human

Four Atlanta playwrights + 48 hours = four new plays at the forefront of art and science.

That’s the premise of Theater Emory’s “ 4:48,” a frenetic yet focused showcase of new works inspired by the human microbiome that will be performed July 14 at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.

The annual speed-writing challenge always yields compelling results, as talented local playwrights come together at Emory to quickly produce plays based on common source material.

But this year, for the first time, the Playwriting Center of Theater Emory is teaming up with the Emory Center for the Study of Human Health for “4:48” — an innovative, interdisciplinary collaboration that promises to push the boundaries of both fields.

“Theater offers an exciting communication mechanism to convey cutting edge-research findings to a wide audience, while simultaneously encouraging curiosity and imagination,” says Amanda Freeman, instructor in the Center for the Study of Human Health.  

The collaborators hope that this project will introduce the human microbiome — the trillions of microorganisms that live in us and on us — to a whole new audience, providing a spotlight for research that is being done right here on campus.

“I have found very few venues where new science and new art can emerge from a single exercise, so ‘4:48’ is special,” says David Lynn, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Chemistry and Biology, one of several Emory science faculty offering support as resources for the writers.

Inspired by Paula Vogel’s playwriting Bake-Off process, “4:48” asks playwrights Margaret Baldwin, Rachel DuBose, Natasha Patel and Steve Yockey to each write a new play in 48 hours, all using the human microbiome as inspiration.

Before the clock starts ticking, playwrights will research the topic, including reading science journalist Ed Yong’s masterwork “I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life.”

“Scientists, like most people, work in a bubble,” notes Lary Walker, research professor in the Department of Neurology in Emory’s School of Medicine, another Emory scientist serving as a resource for“4:48.” “For our discoveries to have full impact, they need to reach the general public with clarity and force.

“Our fondness for jargon and our professional insularity can make this difficult,” he continues. “I’ll be curious to see how the playwrights interpret Ed Yong’s fine overview of the microbiome as a vital realm of nature.”

At the end of the two days, the writers emerge with four newly formed plays that are then rehearsed with a cast of professional actors and presented in a marathon of free readings.

“There’s something magical about writing a play in two days,” says Edith Freni, “4:48” producer and former Emory University Playwriting Fellow. “The experience forces playwrights to confront a lot of fears they have around process.”

Patel, whose recent play “Widowwood” was a semifinalist at the Bay Area Playwright's Festival, embraces the opportunity to test her limits as a writer, through both time and the unusual subject matter.

“A beginning, middle, and end. We don't simply write until the clock stops. We have to create a complete, coherent narrative in 48 hours,” she says. “That's the ultimate challenge — and one that requires a coffee reserve.”

And learning about the microbiome has her reaching for more than just coffee.

“How much of our bodies, its shape, size and functions, are attributed to our own actions or formulated by microbes that control our actions?” Patel asks. “I've begun a daily yogurt regimen, just in case.”

Sometimes called a “forgotten organ,” the human microbiome is a dynamic collection of bacteria, fungi and viruses that is shaped by our actions and our environment, including the people around us.

“Current microbiome research is exciting because it is starting to reveal the much broader influence of our personal microorganisms on normal processes throughout the body,” Walker explains.

“If specific microorganisms can be shown to regulate such things as metabolism and brain function, they could become safe and effective treatments for such maladies as metabolic disorder, depression and many more,” he notes.

Asks Lynn, “What could be cooler than knowing that we live on a planet that contains millions of times more microorganisms than there are stars in the known universe, and that at a genetic potential level, humans have been estimated to be 99 percent bacterial and only one percent human?”

For playwright Margaret Baldwin, a faculty member in Kennesaw State University’s Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, delving into the human microbiome reveals a hidden universe of possibility.

“Starting to read ‘I Contain Multitudes’ is shifting my perspective of what it means to be human and an individual,” she explains. “It is both scary and strangely liberating to acknowledge that, as Yong says, ‘Every one of us is a zoo… A multi-species collective. An entire world.’

“What does this say about the reality of the mind? What bacteria are driving our dreams?”

These are the types of questions Lynn, as a scientist and professor, hopes community members who come in contact with “4:48” will begin to ask — questions that challenge us to allow our understanding of ourselves to evolve alongside scientific advancement.

“Our scientific and technological advances nowoccur at a blistering pace,” he says. “How can we put these advances, the growing understanding of our world, into the stories that are so important to our lives?

“It takes art and science to help us tell those stories. Our survival is at stake.”

Theater Lab of Emory’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts
Readings of the work developed during “4:48” begin at 4 p.m. on Saturday, July 14, in the Theater Lab of Emory’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. All readings are free and open to the public. For an updated schedule of readings and play titles, visit the Theater Emory website.

This project was developed and is produced by the Playwriting Center of Theater Emory, with initial funding from the Breaking Ground Project. “4:48” is being produced in partnership with Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health.

About this story: Writing by Emma Yarbrough. Photos by Kay Hinton. 3D illustrations of Enterobacteriaceae and Streptococcus bacteria via ThinkStock.


Archived News

  • John_Gentile

    Dr. John Gentile, Professor of Performance Studies in Kennesaw State’s Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, will receive the National Communication Association’s Lilla A. Heston Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Interpretation and Performance Studies. NCA will present Gentile with the award during its 103rd annual convention in Dallas, Texas this November.

    The Heston award, which recognizes excellence in published research and creative scholarship, comes on the basis of Gentile’s essay, “Shape-Shifter in the Green: Performing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (published in Storytelling, Self, Society: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Storytelling Studies). “Shape-Shifter in the Green…” builds on Gentile’s three decades of scholarship in arguing an inextricable link between the seemingly disparate tasks of performance and scholarship. To hear Gentile explain it, his goal is to illuminate the work of what he calls, the ‘scholar-artist,’ thereby, “show[ing] the work in scholarship that inevitably takes place behind the scenes in preparing a performance of a canonical text like Sir Gawain.”

    Gentile has always been attracted to what he refers to as, “masterworks,” those canonical texts that are ultimately handed down and rediscovered across the distance of centuries. As a result, much of his work as a scholar and artist has centered on the concept of adapting and staging canonical works like Sir Gawain, Moby-Dick, and The Scarlet Letter for contemporary audiences. “I often wonder about the future of great works,” Gentile explains. “If they are not embedded in our education experience, when will people come upon them? And so I almost have a quest to ‘salvage’ works from a sense of loss, whereby a work of true power and significance is reduced— to contemporary students— to only a title they may have heard of.” According to Gentile, it is this task of cultural curation that ultimately necessitates a link between scholarship and performance. “Assuming the artist creating the adaptation of a major literary text for the stage has done his or her work in analysis and in research,” the professor explains, “and brings to it an effective vision, and makes it vital in the theatrical experience, then that performance can lead audiences back to the original text itself -- as readers, and that to me is the real benefit of doing the work I do.”

    Given Gentile’s track record of both penning and staging engaging performances of famous texts, and his impeccable ability to articulate the theory behind this process in his work, it’s no surprise that Emerson College’s John Dennis Anderson called him, “the preeminent exemplar… of the scholar artist [in the field of performance studies]” in a nomination letter for the 2017 Lilla A. Heston Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Interpretation and Performance Studies.

    Gentile’s celebrated scholarship and artistry will be on display on November 11, at the Jung Society of Atlanta’s, “The Green Knight and Other Stories of Magic and Transformation: A Storytelling Program with Music.”

    By Keaton Lamle

  • Broadway World
    February 9, 2017
    BWW Feature: PETER AND THE STARCATCHER

    At one point or another, we have all experienced the magic of Peter Pan and the legacy that J.M. Barrie created over 100 years ago. Whether you have seen the films, read the novels or seen the Broadway musical “Finding Neverland,” we have all wanted a little bit of Tinkerbell’s fairy dust. Tuesday, I got to experience the story of how a boy who did not want to grow up became Peter Pan in PETER AND THE STARCATCHER. The production was executed by the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies of Kennesaw State University under the direction of Professor Karen Robinson. With the audience’s imagination being a critical prop, this show is perfect for Robinson’s unique theatrical vision as you are reminded what it is truly like to use your imagination.

    PETER tells the story of an orphan being held captive aboard a ship called the Neverland, and a starcatcher with a top secret mission. Together, along with the help of some lost boys, they tell the prequel to the story that we all know and love. It is a different side of the classic tale that still makes you never want to never grow up.

    The cast, comprised of students from the university, was led by CameRon Walker as the orphaned boy named Peter, Alyssa Egelhoff as Molly the starcatcher and Tad Cameron as the comedic role of Black Stache (aka Captain Hook). The rest of the cast includes Joseph Ndoum, Truman Griffin, Carson Seabolt, Sully Brown, Amy Reynolds, Meg Harkins, Caleb Silvers, ChristIan Smith, Steven Taylor and Laura Reboulet. The musical talents of Alexander Crosett and Brooks Payne were additionally on stage. Every person in the show clearly had so much fun sharing this story and it translated wonderfully.

    The scenic design by guest artist Jeffrey Zwartjes was exceptional. The black box hosting the show, lined with ladders, planks and the likes of a pirate’s ship, has never looked better. The costuming, done by Jamie Bullins, was just as satisfying. You just cannot go wrong with mermaid outfits made out of Chinese take-out boxes.

    Kennesaw State University has a theatrical season comprised of plays, musicals and festivals that faculty, staff and guest artists (all of which are industry professionals) facilitate. PETER AND THE STARCATCHER is running through February 12 in their Onyx Theater.

    By Justin Cole Adams

  • March 3, 2017
    Three Sisters Image

    Hayden Rowe, playing Andrey, practices the piano during rehearsal. Photo credit: Cory Hancock

    The Theatre and Performance Studies department will bring turn-of-the-century Russia to the Stillwell Theater March 16.

    Written by Anton Chekhov in 1901, Three Sisters was originally performed in Russian. It has been translated into modern American English, and the actors do not use dialects, though the setting is the same as the original play. Kennesaw State University’s production is directed by Artistic Director and Department Chair Rick Lombardo.

    “I think of Three Sisters as one of the great plays of modern drama,” Lombardo said. “It’s really an examination of how life happens and how life can divert us from the things that we think are most important.”

    Lombardo said that the timeless themes in the show feel particularly poignant in our society today, given the social and political unrest we are currently experiencing.

    By Chandler Smith, KSU Sentinel

    Three Sisters News Image 2

    The “Three Sisters” cast poses in their costumes as they prepare for opening night. Photo credit: Cory Hancock

    “This play is set in a time with this huge upheaval, and people don’t quite know what’s about to happen,” Lombardo said. “Core values are being questioned. As we’ve been working on the play, we’ve been thinking, ‘This feels like now!’”

    The cast of 14 theatre and performance studies majors ranges from freshmen to graduating seniors. As the freshmen prepare to perform at KSU for the first time, several seniors must say goodbye to the Stillwell stage after many years.

    Three Sisters will be senior Danny Crowe’s 13th and final performance at KSU. Crowe plays the role of Vershinin.

    “This character kind of embodies what it’s like to find a home and have to leave it,” Crowe said. “So this performance is sort of my love letter to the department and the family that I have found here. It’s been an incredible time.”

    “Three Sisters” runs in the Stillwell Theater March 16-26, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

  • Margaret Baldwin Wins Teaching AwardMargaret Baldwin, senior lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, wins the Felton Jenkins Jr. Hall of Fame 2016 Regents’ Teaching Excellence Award for Regional and State Universities.  The University System of Georgia Board of Regents review committee was impressed with Baldwin’s innovative approach to teaching, and wrote, “You stood out to the committee because you use theater to promote global learning and multicultural teaching, you grasp and apply the concept of assessing learning outcomes to promote success of students, and you serve as a mentor to both faculty and students at Kennesaw State University.” She was unanimously chosen as the award winner by the committee. We talked with Margaret about her award:

    Q. What does this award mean to you?
    A. I am honored and thrilled to receive this award and to see this testament to the power of theatre, and the arts in general, as vehicles for engaged learning. In the arts, we teach skills essential to prepare all students for successful work and civic life beyond college. We employ teaching practices seen as essential to prepare students for successful work and civic life beyond college: hands-on learning, collaboration, critical thinking, communication, global perspectives and community engagement.

    Q. What advice would you give to educators?
    A. Students learn by doing, so the big question is “how do you make the classroom a site for engaged learning?” The basic tools of theatre are really great for teaching and learning. We can take a written text––something hard for students to access––and by doing exercises that get the students up on their feet and into their bodies, they can learn those plays and and embody those concepts in ways that help them learn more deeply.  It’s a basic tenant of performance studies that I didn’t know about until I came to KSU; it is embodied learning.

    Q. Would you like to recognize any mentors?
    A. When I was at graduate school at University of Iowa, Erik Ehn, Anne Bogart, and Naomi Iizuka definitely inspired and influenced me. Karen Robinson has been a great mentor and collaborator at KSU. We work together to discover the connection between theatre and global learning, and those intersections where the theatre becomes the seed for conversation, dialogue, and mutual exchange that’s meaningful and cross-cultural. That investigation is something that we’ve done together over the last ten years, and it’s changed and expanded my vision of what theatre can and should do. We always ask, “How do you take it beyond the theatre? How do you take it into the world?” 

  • Rebecca Makus An Artistic Vision News ImageGrass is an interactive art installation that uses technology to give viewers a unique experience with art. “The entire show is called “Ipomoea,” which is a type of night blooming flower. It’s the idea that something exists between places… It ties into this idea of taking man-made materials and urban environments and transforming them into a place that feels like nature, that embodies that sense of liveness and growth,” said Rebecca Makus, professor in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies.

    Rebecca Makus An Artistic Vision News Image Along with her collaborators, Elly Jessop Nattinger and Peter Torpey, they will eventually develop five modules: Grass, Stone, Tree, Water, and Soul. Nattinger works as a Google-experience engineer and Torpey as a media-experience artist.
    Since then, Makus has applied for numerous grants and worked on a weekly basis with Nattinger in San Francisco, and Torpey in Boston, making the most of a long-distance collaboration. Along with this work, Makus juggled the joy of having a baby.
    “Being pregnant last fall and summer while I was doing all of this was pretty insane. We had a three-week workshop last July for Grass, when my two collaborators came into town… [But] everyone finds their pattern.” Desiring to push their artistic boundaries, Makus and her collaborators brought in KSU’s Department of Dance Chair, Ivan Pulinkala, and Co-Artistic Director of 7 Stages Theatre, Michael Haverty.

    “We brought in two local artists to come and play inside of Grass: Michael Haverty and Ivan Pulinkala. They came in and played in their art form. Michael had some puppets for a piece that he’s working on and just played around [in Grass].”
    When Grass premiered to the public, it was a part of Creative Loafing’s “Best Of Atlanta” series. Around 5,000 people attended the event, and the T. Lang Dance Company performed inside the installation.
    Next in this creative endeavor is the development of the second and third modules of Ipomoea: Stone and Tree. Stone, a collaboration with KSU students, will be finalized in May while Tree begins development soon after. Water and Soul will be completed by Spring 2017.

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