Students merge art and science in 'Emergence,' a theater performance exploring the origins of life

What is life, and how did it emerge on Earth?

That's a heavy question, but a group of ASU students will explore it — and perhaps find answers — next week during "Emergence," a promenade performance in downtown Phoenix that combines theatrical art with scientific research to investigate fundamental human questions.

The multimedia presentation is a collaboration between Catalyst Collective, a new student-created theater company, and the Emergence Lab in the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at ASU. Essentially, the theater artists have teamed up with scientists to study their recent work, and develop a performance that explores the results.

Phil Weaver-Stoesz, the creative director of Catalyst Collective and director of "Emergence," is a second-year graduate student in the Herberger Institute's directing program.

He said the piece was inspired by his realization that much of the science community's work isn't made accessible to a larger audience.

"It was started from this idea that around campus, in science labs, there's a lot of really cool, exciting research that just gets written up in dissertations that are read by almost nobody," he said. "I felt that that was a total tragedy. I'm a closet science nerd, and almost everything I read are science articles. ... The question became, 'How can performance help to create a broader impact for science research?'"

To answer that question, he contacted Sara Walker, assistant professor at the Beyond Center. With her invitation, the team of artists from the Catalyst Collective began weekly visits to the Beyond Center's labs and classrooms to shadow the scientists and learn about their work.

The artists were able to translate their findings into a performance through devising sessions, where they gathered together with their notes and observations to brainstorm creative ways they could explore how science can apply to the human experience.

What emerged is a 55-minute show about birth, death, sex, life and the beauty of questions.

The premise of the show is deceptively simple: What would you say to someone who's about to embark on this thing called life? What would you teach them?

Weaver-Stoesz likened it to a "tourist information session for people about to be born, to explain what life is going to be like."

He said what makes the performance unique is that it's based completely on interdisciplinary collaboration, and he added that the university setting is the ideal place to create that partnership.

"ASU is the perfect place to be doing this work, because it's already inherent in the culture here by mixing disciplines," Weaver-Stoesz said. "(In the future) what's going to become more and more imperative is people being able to speak across the lines we typically create between disciplines. In terms of some of the very difficult problems the human race is going to be facing, it's going to take a lot of different people all thinking about one problem. Usually that means creating a diverse group of people with the skills to speak each others' languages to solve these really big problems. It's not a science or a creativity problem — we all have to work together."

Some things can easily get lost in translation across the disciplines, which Weaver-Stoesz said takes a little extra work.

He said one of the hardest parts of the production has been working to translate the complex research and analysis of brilliant scientists into concepts everyone can understand — but it's been rewarding for both sides of the process.

"One of the big challenges is being brave enough to ask stupid questions," Weaver-Stoesz said. "Everyone really seems like they're way smarter than you, and you're sitting there, and you just have to be brave to step up and ask really naïve questions. It not only gives you something to learn, but it forces the researchers to explain something in a new way. You're actually benefitting everyone."

Often, that conversation can even affect parts of the show.

Ian Shelanskey is a second-year graduate student in interdisciplinary digital media and performance, a member of the Catalyst Collective and the media designer for "Emergence."

He said his process of understanding the scientists can sometimes lead to creative thinking that inspires the performance.

"For me, I get a lot of use out of analogy," Shelanskey said. "I'll listen to (the scientists) for a while, come up with an analogy, and then they can say it's similar or completely wrong. I get a lot of use out of analogy — it can also start to inspire things that go into the show, for instance."

Shelanskey's role in the production is to design and produce the show's multimedia elements. One of the walls in the performance space will be a full-media wall with two projectors, allowing them to incorporate graphic audio/visual elements into the physical setting of the show. That includes graphs, backgrounds, textures, words and moving illustrations.

Shelanskey said a lot of people underestimate the value of media design as it relates to theater in the 21st century.

"A lot of people will ask the question in a theatrical production meeting, 'Does this show need media?'" Shelanskey said. "That is a ridiculous question to ask for a theatrical work — of course they do! ... Especially in a world where phone screens are taking over our lives, where you can't get through a day without seeing a television or some kind of screen. Why wouldn't we have media design as an integral design component in any theatrical work?"

Innovation is a big part of the production and so is collaboration.

The ultimate goal of the Catalyst Collective is to "build bridges between artistic expression and scientific research," according to its website. The collective was formed through the 2015-16 Arts Venture Incubator as part of the Pave Program at ASU, which is designed to foster new student arts entrepreneurship opportunities. "Emergence" will be its first official performance.

For the actors, "Emergence" is an opportunity to develop skills they may not have utilized in other shows.

Vickie Hall is a second-year MFA student in performance. She's also a member of the Catalyst Collective and an actress in the upcoming production.

Hall said her goal with this production is to remove stereotypes surrounding art and science, and prove that the two disciplines can connect to touch the audience.

"I hope that by doing this performance, we can take the idea of thinking about art and science as sort of 'stereotypical' or 'scary' words, whatever judgments people have, and I hope we can make it more human," she said. "I hope audiences seeing performances like this can have a real connection with something they never thought they could connect to."

She said the best part of the connection is the chance to provide a solution to the world's problems through collaboration.

"There's something special about the way this process works for us, the way it can affect an audience," Hall said. "It allows us to give this new thing a chance. That type of willingness to understand is really beautiful, and I think it's something that could ultimately solve a lot of problems."

"Emergence" will run May 6-7 at The Unexpected Art Gallery on Polk Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets are $12 and can be purchased on the Catalyst Collective website.

Related links:

ASU Theatre and Shakespeare Club keeps theater alive with 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Lyric Opera Theatre's 'L'elisir d'amore' a classic opera with lighthearted romance


Reach the reporter at skylar.mason@asu.edu or follow @skylarmason42 on Twitter.

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