Science plays to art in staging of ‘Yoshimi’


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■ ‘The Art in Science — The Science in Art’ was a partnership of the Playhouse, The Salk Institute, Sanford- Burnham Medical Research Institute, The Scripps Research Institute, and UCSD Medical Center.

■ Panel moderator was Daniel Einhorn, medical director, Scripps Whittier Diabetes Institute.

■ The conversation was filmed for viewing at

By Lynne Friedmann

This month the La Jolla Playhouse presents the world premiere of the musical “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.” It also heralds one of the most technically complex and challenging productions in the Playhouse’s history, featuring dancers in glowing LED costumes, extensive multimedia projections, and a 14-foot robot puppet. Add to this, consultation with biotech and medical experts in order to craft the story about a woman in a love triangle facing a life-threatening illness.

This intersection of technology and creativity prompted the Playhouse to invite the public to take part in a conversation with scientists and theater artists about “The Art in Science — The Science in Art.” The discussion took place Nov. 11 at the Mandell Weiss Forum. Attendance was standing room only.

“I think we’ve always had a relationship with technology and science in the theater,” said panelist Des McAnuff, the musical’s co- writer and director.

Dating back to the Ancient Greeks, he said, the style and materials used in outdoor amphitheaters (some seating upwards of 6,000 people) were chosen based on knowledge at the time about amplifying sound. In the era of Shakespeare, theater moved indoors opening new creative avenues for lighting and special effects. And, in this intimate setting, playwriting itself began to change incorporating more psychology into story lines.

Harkening back to his arrival at the Play- house in 1982, McAnuff recalled the first adoption of computerized boards in produc- tions, but that was undertaken only as a cost-saving measure to squeeze additional life out of antiquated 1950s-era technology.

“Since then, the theater has transformed tremendously,” he said. “It’s a whole new world, and it comes directly from science.”

In many ways the theatrical world rhymes with the scientific world, according Christo- pher Ashley, artistic director of the Playhouse.

“What we do is experimentation,” Ashley said. “We’re engaged in an iterative process figuring out what the art wants to be, and daring to fail in order to reconsider, rework, re-engineer, rewrite, restage.”

Added Gerald Joyce, professor at The Scripps Research Institute whose laboratory recently described the first example (outside of biology) of a self-replicating molecule capable of evolving. “(In science) we are more risk adverse than we used to be. But you need to deal with failure,” Joyce said. “I like to say to my students the best

experiment is one that has a 50:50 chance of succeeding because you get the most information that way.”

Art as an illustration of reality has long fascinated humans, with some of the earliest studies of vision made by artists such as Leonardo daVinci, who wrote extensively about visual perception.

“There’s an obvious relationship between understanding the visual system and the appreciation and creation of art,” said neuroscientist Tom Albright, director of the Vision Center Laboratory, at The Salk Institute.

Just as a theatrical experience can broaden the mind, new methods in research and medicine work to change the thought process, expand frontiers, and alter what is considered possible.

Once upon a time, a prevailing attitude was the “bigger the scar and the better the surgeon,” according to Santiago Horgan, director of Minimally Invasive Surgery, UCSD School of Medicine. Horgan is the foremost expert in Natural Orifice Translumenal Endoscopic Surgery, a procedure in which surgical instruments are passed through a natural orifice, such as the mouth, to reach the desired organ. That means no scars.

In reference to the importance of speeches and conference presentations to a researcher’s career, Christopher Ashley opined, “Scientists are performers.” This evoked nods of agreement from panelists.

“As scientists, our work doesn’t exist until we present it to peers and see how they react,” said Pamela Itkin-Ansari, of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, whose research is focused on cancer and other diseases of the pancreas.

Another point of convergence between the arts and sciences is a sense of collaboration, according to McAnuff. “We share information, we share our thoughts, we support each other,” he said. “Also, we require imagination and the ability to dream.”