November 22, 2010

'Re-Generation' transforms science into art

"Re-Generation" opening scene: The swirl of media and inner struggles. Credit: Aubrey Graham

Tina, a college student, isn’t registered to vote and doesn’t follow the news. She could be labeled as apathetic—but is she?

Tina is one of 14 characters in “Re-Generation,” a play based on Debra Vidali’s anthropological research with young adults. In “Re-Generation,” Tina’s complex emotions emerge as she struggles with her own busy schedule, the droning of the 24-hour news cycle and her guilt at not being politically engaged.

The turmoil of other characters—such as hip-hop artist Shockwave, the young mother Alicia, community activist Liz—manifests as the play explores political stances, adult responsibilities and the media. Ken Hornbeck, who has a long-standing connection with Emory as director of the Issues Troupe, directed the performance.

A theatrical work was not the anticipated outcome when Vidali, associate professor of anthropology, began her research in 2006. With the support of Emory’s University Research Council and SIRE (Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory) grants, Vidali investigated political consciousness among young adults. She interviewed a cross-section of 90 adults, ages 18-25, in the Atlanta area.

From her research, Vidali was struck at how deeply young people think about media and politics. And while many of them were experiencing similar feelings of stress, confusion, and even hope, they weren’t voicing these emotions to each other.

Vidali published her research in academic publications, but dreamed of disseminating these viewpoints outside academia. She recognized a need for “representing these micro-struggles in bold relief, to get conversations started, and to better equip young people to be productive, responsible and engaged citizens.”

Play funding support

In 2009, she saw a Center for Creativity & Arts (CCA) poster announcing grants for artistic experimentation. The question on the poster, “Have you ever wanted to turn your research into art?” became the genesis of the play. Vidali understood the impact of performance — how it might bring these documented voices to life and generate dialogue.

Receiving CCA funding, Vidali hired former anthropology student Amreen Ukani ’07C. In this collaboration, Vidali mapped out the architecture, characters and themes of the play while Ukani helped provide realistic dialogue. Together they rendered the research data into dramatic characters.

Support from the Playwriting Center of Theater Emory funded a staged reading in April, while a second CCA grant supported an August reading, led by Hornbeck. With these workshop experiences, as well as the audience, actor and director feedback, the work was honed for a full theatrical production.

Knowing the full-length play would require the time and talents of a director, as well as actors, Vidali sought additional funding. She received support from The Halle Institute for Global Learning, Center for Ethics, Campus Progress, Generation Response, Slow Food Emory, Theater at Emory, as well as the CCA.

Research lives on stage

On Nov. 13-15 at the Theater Lab in the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, Vidali’s dream became reality as “Re-Generation” was performed. The voices of her research subjects came alive with passionate debates and charged language.  Staging and props were minimal. A projected screen often dramatized the scene, like when a humorous text conversation runs in the background while characters watch the 2008 election results.

After the performance, the student group Generation Response moderated a discussion with the audience, director and actors. During one discussion, some of the “real” research participants came forward, describing their reactions as they watched actors repeat their own words.

Transformative power of art

Since the production, Vidali has heard how her play has helped audience members better understand and articulate their own complex feelings about politics and the media. Through hard work, grant funding and the collaboration with various Emory organizations, Vidali’s research has become transformative. Perhaps “Re-Generation” represents the mission of higher education: to generate discussions, insights and help young people define the meaning of democracy.

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Related Information

  • CCA project grants

    The Emory College Center for Creativity & Arts stimulates artistic production and discourse through its grant program support of creative projects. Grants are awarded twice annually for projects that have the potential to engage a wide audience.

    The deadline to apply for 2011 summer CCA project grants is March 25, 2011.

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