On the Edge: Where science and art meet

by Josh McTaggart

Science and theater are often seen as two entirely separate worlds, perched on opposing ends of a competing spectrum. But in a new production devised in collaboration between Harvard students and New York City-based theater company SIGHTLINE, the artistic and the scientific are colliding head on. The Edge of the Map, directed by Harvard alum and SIGHTLINE’s artistic director Calla Videt ‘09, plays April 12-14 in a pop-up space at Harvard’s Science Center. Inspired by real-life stories and up-to-date scientific discoveries, the play follows issues that arise from the ethics of modern genetics. Earlier this week, I spoke with some of the artistic and the scientific brains behind this experimental adventure.

The project has been more than two years in the making. After Harvard microbiologist and geneticist Jonathan Beckwith, a professor at Harvard Medical School, delivered a talk in Berlin at a production of Caryl Churchill’s cloning-inspired play A Number, heencountered a biology professor who was working with her students to create a play based on their studies. "But the actors didn’t have a science background," Beckwith explains, "On returning to Boston I immediately thought about how I could reconstruct the process here."

To help him establish a science class that also created a play, Beckwith recruited a graduate student, Ben Morris ‘08, to produce the project. Morris had worked with Beckwith in his lab and acted in Harvard productions as an undergraduate. "We started talking to local theaters and realized there would be a lot of logistical challenges," Morris says. "But both the Office for the Arts and I independently decided we should be in touch with Calla Videt."

Videt had become a figure for students who are passionate about both theater and the sciences. "When this project dropped into my lap, I was starting to think of ways I could mix the arts and education and science in a future career," explains the second producer, and actress in the play, Mariel Pettee ’14. "The whole project is a really serendipitous meeting of minds," she says.

But these minds had a big task ahead of them: bringing seemingly complicated scientific and ethical ideas to an audience who would likely have no prior experience with the topic.

However, the team believes the piece to be accessible and exciting for a wide-ranging audience. "Science is seen as this field we can respect but not actually engage with," Pettee explains, "But we want to highlight the misrepresentations of science and communicate science in a way that helps people understand," adds Beckwith. So what exactly can the audience expect when they step into the science center this weekend?

"The audience will hopefully have their eyes opened a little bit to the possibilities of inviting creativity into the field that many people stereotype as a very rigid and solid field," says Pettee.

[Caption: A scene from "The Edge of the Map." PHOTO: Chris Masterson]