Centrifuge – smashing science into theater


What happens when an actor has to keep putting on a skull-cap, in order to look bald, over and over? Audiences howled, as his errant hairs poked out, and he began his lines imitating Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame. The fake-Jeff was just one character in a set of five science plays. Each play only 10 minutes long and all of them part of a festival known as Centrifuge.

In other plays, reluctant astronauts hunted down life on Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. Newlyweds obeyed the beeped warnings of Fitbits on their wrists predicting “argument” approaching, the way the silly robot of “Lost in space” kept saying “Aliens approaching.” A family hid in a bunker from the frightening reality of ordinary crowds of other people.

Besides a hilarious ribbing of both Bezos and space-exploration rival Elon Musk, a different dystopian play focused on overuse of the mood-enhancer ecstasy or  MDMA. Writer Wayt Gibbs holds a model of that molecule above.

Centrifuge is a week-long improvisation between volunteers of two tribes – theater and science. David Mills and his wife, Catherine Kettrick, lead this project. Full disclosure – I was one of the science writers in May 2017.

You can’t predict what will happen as the week unfolds. With close to 30 people involved, who have full-time other jobs, plenty of obstacles show up. Pets get sick, relatives call, jobs demand. Randomness drives the schedule, just as in a lab where randomness divides mice into controls or experimental subjects.

Monday: Five science writers and five playwrights are randomly assigned to each other, leave the room in minutes and spend time talking in dyads about some research the science writer has brought in.

Wednesday: Five playwrights turn in roughly six-page scripts of new plays inspired by that talk. Actors, who wait for their names to be pulled from hats, are assigned to the five plays. They begin reading the scripts out loud with a randomly assigned director. As I watched, four actors began turning names into people – adding back stories and motivation to small gestures.

Just to shorten this a bit, by Friday the five plays, including 5-minute introductions about science by each writer, debut to the public. A lot of logistics – sets, costumes, lighting, sound and pacing get expertly handled by the theater tribe.

My playwright was Jim Jewell, whose full-time day job is teaching college students composition. The play he created in 48 hours was amazingly complex with four characters from a family. It was less about the gut microbiome research I described to him Monday, and more deeply about how people resist ideas. How might people react to knowing their bodies are more microbial colonizers than “self?” See my earlier post for more about microbiome.

Unlike science, no measurements are taken after this week of mixing. We didn’t examine the audience to rate their hilarity. We didn’t measure the science writers or playwrights to give them a 2 or an 8 in “inspiration.”  But what might have changed in us?

I’m hoping Wayt, as well as Alan Boyle, Greg Scheiderer, and Elle O’Brien will tell me some of their musings on that question for a future post.





Theater of the polymers

How much science could our audience absorb from 10 experts with only 6 minutes each? That was the experiment in science communication that played out at the Neptune Theater, a run-down but beloved ex-movie-house near the University of Washington campus in Seattle.

More than 100 people showed up to hear “Short Takes on Plastic” in February as part of a partnership between the Burke Museum and Seattle Theater Group, related to the exhibit Plastics Unwrapped at the Burke. The experiment is about bringing research out into the community in new ways.

During the rapid-fire presentations – we heard about the project to build composting latrines out of water bottles (via melting) and then re-form them using 3D printers. “Think of it (printer) as a computer controlled hot glue gun,” said Matt Rogge, the ex-Peace Corp volunteer who dreamed up the bottles-into-latrines model that somehow reminds one of weapons-into-plowshares.

We heard about Agilyx, a Portland, OR, company that is turning 10 tons of plastic every day into oil. Yes, crude oil. (Plastic comes from oil in the first place, frequently.)

Kim Holmes, another Portland expert, explained that designing for the environment in the first place might reduce how much plastic we use and therefore how much we have to recycle or transform.

Other experts explained the pre-plastic lives of Victorians, and the sans-plastic life that a Burke staffer attempted for one month. “I carried a lot of glass jars around with me in my backpack,” explained Samantha Porter.

Chemical engineer AJ Boydston spends much of his research time trying to create “better” plastics that will biodegrade and will not persist in the environment for 450 years.

Ironically, for a communication experiment audience, it turns out that communication is a key ingredient in recycling. Jack Johnson said people on campus can’t seem to distinguish between the coffee-cup lids that are compostable and those that are recyclable. Johnson helped create a Garbology project on campus, where student volunteers sort and catalog campus garbage.

UW sends the mass equivalent of 667 elephants to the landfill every year. If the lid confusion were fixed, some of those metaphorical elephants could be saved. When an archive becomes available for Short Takes, we will post it here.