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Science Takes Center Stage in 'Thought Experiments'

Story by
Nancy Joseph
September 2015Perspectives Newsletter
Thought Experiments 2015 poster

Holly Arsenault loves a challenge. And writing a play about genetic engineering for Infinity Box Theatre Project was definitely a challenge. Arsenault, a UW Arts & Sciences alumna (BA, Drama, 2001), is one of four playwrights whose work will be presented by Infinity Box at its upcoming Thought Experiments festival, which explores what it means to be human in light of scientific advancements.

“We believe that the questions rising out of current developments in science and technology are so subtle and complex that the only way to ask them, let alone answer them, is in the form of stories,” says David Mills, Infinity Box’s artistic director.  “We use stories on stage as a way of exploring the humanity of science and its human consequences, to provoke a different kind of conversation.”

Infinity Box pairs each Thought Experiments playwright with a scientist to inspire ideas and share expertise. Arsenault was paired with Andrew M. Scharenberg, an attending physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and professor in the UW School of Medicine, whose research involves cutting-edge technology for cell engineering, with applications to inherited diseases and adoptive immunotherapy.

Hopefully the play will be a little bit fun, a little bit dark, and a little bit thinky.

“I think Andy’s work is completely fascinating,” says Arsenault. “It’s a little bit intimidating to write a piece of fiction about someone else’s body of work, especially when that work is so significant. I hope he doesn’t mind that I am conjuring kind of a dark potential future, but I think the moral questions are so interesting, and I think they are what will get people asking questions and wanting to know more about what is happening in gene editing now.”

Holly Arsenault

Playwright and A&S alumna Holly Arsenault.

Arsenault’s one-act play imagines a future in which gene editing for specific personality traits has become commonplace and consumer-focused, with fashion editors determining which traits will be fashionable in the coming season. As the editors grapple with the questionable morality of a new genetically modified trait presented by a designer, the potential dangers of gene technology are explored. “Hopefully the play will be a little bit fun, a little bit dark, and a little bit thinky,” says Arsenault.

Also representing the College in the festival is Jennifer Nemhauser, professor of biology, who studies how signaling networks can instruct cells to respond to environmental changes and how we might engineer these networks to improve crops. Nemhauser heard about the project from other participating scientists and was intrigued. “There are a lot of important questions in the area of synthetic biology that we need to be asking as a whole society—not limited to just a small group of scientists and politicians,” she says.

Professor Jenniffer Nemhauser

“I hope that the entire program of plays gets people to ask questions,” says Jennifer Nemhauser, UW professor of biology. Media credit: Matthew Offenbacher

Infinity Box paired Nemhauser with Olympia playwright Bryan Willis, who was as interested in Nemhauser’s life as a scientist as he was in the technical aspects of her work. “We spent a lot of time talking about my experiences being a woman in science,” says Nemhauser. “He really wanted to know the fine details of my life in the lab, my training, my interactions with my students.” 

Thought Experiments will run from October 15 - 19, with four one-act plays presented each day as staged readings. A scientist-led conversation with the audience will follow each performance.

“I hope that the entire program of plays gets people to ask questions,” says Nemhauser. “It is not okay to take yourself out of the conversation with the excuse that the science is too complicated. These plays will be an easy, entertaining way to dive in.”