Darwin Arts Projects at Virginia Tech

The year 2009 was Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his revolutionary book, On the Origin of Species. Throughout 2009 several ROOTS artists collaborated with Virginia Tech faculty, students, and regional community members to explore Darwin’s life work and the still-controversial impact of evolutionary science on our understanding of life, on public education, and social policy.  The project culminated in October and November with an original theatre piece entitled “Living Darwin” and a new media exhibition/performance art event called “Singing Darwin.”

Artists involved with the Darwin projects at Virginia Tech included Carol Burch-Brown, Ann Kilkelly, Bob Leonard, Elise Witt, Celeste Miller, and Normando Ismay as well as a roster of faculty artists in visual arts, music, and digital media at Virginia Tech.  Many ROOTS artists participated in Darwin-related short recording sessions and readings.  The Darwin arts projects connected with other interdisciplinary initiatives at Virginia Tech on Darwin, including a national conference, a special course, radio spots, and a series of guest speakers.

ROOTS member Carol Burch-Brown’s leadership and long time love of natural history generated the intensive research and artistic collaboration beginning in 2007 that culminated in “Singing Darwin” and “Living Darwin.”  Her original concept was to use the text of Origin of Species as a framework for improvisation, with a 24-hour event, “Singing Darwin,” as part of a gallery installation on November 24, the date Origin was published.  The project grew in 2008 when the Theater Workshops in Science and Technology Studies (TWISTS) at Virginia Tech decided to make Darwin the focus of an original theater piece, “Living Darwin,” as well.  TWISTS focuses on the relevance of science issues to contemporary experience using theatre as a framework.

Ann Kilkelly, Carol Burch Brown, Bob Leonard, and guest artist Celeste Miller worked collaboratively with TWISTS to create “Living Darwin” as a full-length theatrical piece. The play was based on materials gathered in interactive community-based performance workshops sponsored by TWISTS starting in 2008, focusing on “Darwinism,” or the uses and application of Darwin’s ideas and societal assumptions about them. The developmental workshops for “Living Darwin” included artists, scholars, scientists, and members of the community.  The TWISTS workshop model integrates techniques from devised and community theater (Leonard and Kilkelly; Rohd); Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed techniques (Boal; Schutzman and Cohen-Cruz); the movement and text work of Ann Kilkelly and Celeste Miller; and is tied to the educational philosophy of Paolo Freire (1970).

“Living Darwin” was performed in the Studio Theater at Virginia Tech in October 2009. Bob Leonard was cast as Darwin and Celeste Miller performed as Darwin’s “Gesture,” in an evocative movement-based counterpoint to Darwin’s character.  Students comprised the rest of the twelve-member cast.  Dance and choreography was by Kilkelly and Celeste Miller.  Projections were designed by Carol Burch-Brown and MFA candidate Paul Shreiner (collaboratively with Burch-Brown) developed the music.  The play incorporated texts from Origin, explored Darwin’s gradual development of the concept of natural selection and other key evolutionary concepts, juxtaposing personal stories and contemporary controversies about evolution with historical developments. The well-attended free performances invited community members into conversation before each show and offered an hour of lively dialogue afterward.

“Singing Darwin” was exhibited at Armory Gallery at Virginia Tech in November 2009. The exhibition contained thousands of fragments from Origin integrated with video projections; drawings; biological, geological and paleontology specimens.  Normando Ismay and Virginia Tech artists Dane Webster, and Simone Paterson created animation sequences. The installation included a live saltwater coral aquarium with fish and other animals. One wall was large-scale versions of drawings from Darwin’s sketches, drawn by Whitney Waller. Steve Harrison created a piece composed of the text of Origin and a paleontology cross-section.  Original electro-acoustic music and recordings by Paul Schreiner, Carol Burch-Brown, and Ico Bukvic comprised the ongoing sound-scape.

The groundwork for the vocal dimension of “Singing Darwin” was laid months before through a series of lively recorded improv workshops with visiting artist Elise Witt and members of the community, students and faculty in March 2009.

From 7 pm Nov. 23 - 7 pm Nov. 24 the entire text of Origin was read/sung in the gallery with improvisational sound, movement, and other events.  Elise Witt and Virginia Schenck (Atlanta) provided music and leadership for vocal improvisation.  Celeste Miller and Ann Kilkelly did dance and movement.  Alton Dooley, the Curator of Paleontology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History brought the 5 foot long skull of a 14 million year old extinct whale to the gallery, described its history and recorded a series of anatomical measurements of it. One entire chapter of Origin was read in Dutch by a physicist at Virginia Tech, accompanied by dance and vocal improv.  Another section was read in German by a child from the community.  In the middle of the night improvised abstract music by Eric Standley and Robert Beaton accompanied the reading.  For several hours shortly after dawn Kate Long and Carol Burch-Brown improvised the text in a vocal style reminiscent of Appalachian lining-out of song texts. The event was webcast by Todd Stafford, who also provided a great deal of excellent reading in the middle of the night.

Throughout the event gallery visitors came and went, participating in what became a kind of choral reading of the text and providing additional music. Toward the end of the event a large group of people gathered to read aloud the last and most famous chapter of the Origin.

The Darwin arts projects were supported by the School of Visual Arts, the Department of Theatre and Cinema, and the Darwin Celebration Committee at Virginia Tech and by a presenters grant from Alternate ROOTS. Visit the following websites:
www.carolburchbrown.com and http://www.sova.vt.edu/singingdarwin.html.

[Final two pictures from Living Darwin contributed by Paul Schreiner.]