Collaboration adds twist on Charles Darwin

Born 200 years ago, Charles Darwin still manages to generate controversy. For the fall of 2009 at Virginia Tech, creative scholarship expands those challenging Darwinian conversations.

   

Bob Leonard, professor of theatre arts and co-creative director, played the role of Charles Darwin. Bob Leonard, professor of theatre arts and co-creative director, played the role of Charles Darwin.

As Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection celebrates its 150th anniversary, Virginia Tech leads ongoing discussions on several levels.

Living Darwin, an original, interactive theatrical performance, made its debut earlier in 2009. Developed by the Theatre Workshop in Science, Technology, and Society (TWISTS), and the Department of Theatre and Cinema, Living Darwin explores Darwin’s theories and how they continue to impact contemporary understandings of  the natural and social world. Creative directors for Living Darwin are theatre professors Ann Kilkelly and Robert H. Leonard from the School of Performing Arts and Cinema in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and Carol Burch-Brown, professor in the School of Visual Arts in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

   

Saul Halfon, co-director of  TWISTS, is an associate professor in Science and Technology in Society. Saul Halfon, co-director of TWISTS, is an associate professor in Science and Technology in Society.

“Regardless of one’s understanding or belief in evolutionary theory, Living Darwin examines how personal identity and interactions with others are shaped by stories, concepts, and metaphors that are linked to evolutionary thought,” said Kilkelly. “Theater is an excellent venue to explore complex ideas about science and technology because it allows multiple perspectives to be experienced simultaneously as embodied ideas.”

TWISTS, a project in the Department of Science and Technology in Society (STS), is co-directed by Saul Halfon, an associate professor in Science and Technology in Society, and Jane Lehr, a Virginia Tech alumna now on faculty at California Polytechnic State University. “We bring together experts on the social and technical dimensions of science and technology with theater arts practitioners to develop original performance pieces,” Halfon said.

   

Carol Burch-Brown (left) and Ann Kilkelly rehearse “Hokie, Pokie Monkey Fun,” a song that was created about Charles Darwin in the 1800’s. Carol Burch-Brown (left) and Ann Kilkelly rehearse “Hokie, Pokie Monkey Fun,” a song that was created about Charles Darwin in the 1800’s.

The TWISTS collaboration uses performance to explore complex subjects. For example, Living Darwin “recognizes evolution as a politically charged issue in American culture because of evolution/creation debates,” Halfon said. “On the other hand, many of us are only vaguely aware of how significant evolutionary thought has been in shaping contemporary society, modern biology, and how we talk and think about each other and our communities. Living Darwin brings those issues more prominently into dialogue.”

Development of Living Darwin began in July 2008 with the first in a series of workshops that included biologists, ecologists, women’s studies scholars, historians, and professional vocal and movement specialists. During the course of this process, a large amount of expertise, many documents, taped conversations, scenes, images, and personal stories were generated into a script. Portions of the script were then discussed at a Blacksburg, Va., church, where congregation members were given an opportunity to respond to the narrative.

As TWISTS continues to grow, Halfon said its goal is to partner with schools and other organizations to tour its original performances throughout the region and to facilitate workshops for students, teachers, and community members. Workshops will seek to support explorations of the relationships between science, technology, and society; train participants in theatrical techniques that promote engagement and dialogue; and/or create new performance materials.

   

Celeste Miller, a professional movement artist from Atlanta, worked with the choreography and also played ''Darwin's Gesture.'' Celeste Miller, a professional movement artist from Atlanta, worked with the choreography and also played ''Darwin's Gesture.''

Co-author and director Burch-Brown created the visual landscape  for the piece from her own photographs and historical images from many sources. She is also the creator of Singing Darwin: A New Media Exhibition on the 150th Anniversary of the Publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species.

Singing Darwin is an original, new-media project that engages a network of artists, scientists, and scholars. The exhibition, which will be at the Armory Gallery from Nov. 4-25, features a three-dimensional installation with changing sound and imagery, natural objects, living coral, and fossil specimens from the paleontology collection of the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Starting on Nov. 23 at 7 p.m., Singing Darwin will culminate in a 24-hour performance piece on the anniversary date of Origin of Species that will be streamed on the Internet from the Armory Gallery.

“Deep observation and attentive listening are at the core of both the natural sciences and the arts,” said Burch-Brown. “Singing Darwin explores contemporary modes of observation and listening — within a framework of natural history inspired by the questions Darwin asked in his science and in his life.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Jean Elliott at (540) 231-5915.

Photo gallery: Cast scenes from ''Living Darwin''

    Cast scenes from ''Living Darwin''

Video: The making of "Living Darwin"

    Cast scenes from ''Living Darwin''

Theatre professors and creative directors for Living Darwin Ann Kilkelly and Robert H. Leonard discuss how the interactive play was developed.

Excerpt of music from ''Singing Darwin''

The music for Living Darwin was created by Theatre and Cinema MFA student Paul Schreiner, a graduate student in the Department of Theatre and Cinema. Schreiner worked collaboratively with his advisor, Ico Bukvic, and the production's creator Carol Burch-Brown.

Listen to an excerpt of computer-generated compositions used in Singing Darwin. “This particular tune marries computer science with music and generates notes based purely on mathematical ratios and forms found in nature all around us,” said Ico Bukvic, assistant professor in the Department of Music.

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