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Theatre Brings New Perspective to Global Health Issues

Posted by Bruce Whitacre

“We have a euphoria inhibitor in Stage 2 trials,” explained the drug company executive to the bio-tech venture capitalist.


I paused. I told him that we in theatre seek euphoria wherever we can find it. He laughed and explained that euphoria inhibitors help keep strong pain medication from becoming addictive. The venture capitalist leaned in to hear more and I went to the buffet for another sandwich.


I was attending the Long Wharf Theatre’s 2013 Global Health and the Arts symposium, “Obesity and its Public Health Consequences.”


Driven by the combination of Yale Medical School and other Yale University researchers, the proximity to the Boston research corridor, the Tri-state pharmaceutical industry, and the catalytic qualities of Long Wharf trustee David Scheer, the conference capitalizes on Long Wharf’s unique location in New Haven, CT.


The idea came from David’s desire to do more for Long Wharf Theatre. It played to his strengths, and as I’ll explain later, those of Long Wharf as well.


In past years, the conference has focused on cancer, addiction, mental health, and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a serious medical conference that is convened in and uses theatre to enliven and engage researchers and businesspeople alike. 


Stephen J. Linell, a scientist with The Jackson Laboratory said, “The synergy that comes from combining arts and various perspectives on the impact of illness and disease helps put into context the work scientists are performing. It also inspires creative thought about ways to approach the problem.”


Global Health and the Arts demonstrates how crucial a theatre can be in addressing complex technical and social issues, especially when they intertwine.


As Long Wharf Director of Development Eileen Condon Wiseman, a key player in the convening said, “What we hear from the participants is how enlightening the experience is, and how different it is from traditional medical conferences. They find the theatrical presentations so illuminating and powerful because they breathe life and humanity into the scientific and academic conversations.”


Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein plays a critical part in integrating theatre into the day-long conference, which concludes with a performance of a topical play on a Long Wharf stage. His keynotes are highly regarded by participants in encouraging out of the box thinking on their part; and for theatre people, they underscore the potential of our medium to engage our audience at every level. (Editor’s Note: Read Edelstein’s remarks here.)


Throughout the day, scientists, researchers, and bio-tech executives repeatedly referred to Gordon’s remarks and the theatrical interludes which included performances of brief scenes that highlight the social ramifications of the topic of the day.


The challenges in the theatre world in addressing obesity underscore one of the most unsettling public health issues of the day: the continuing social acceptability of prejudice against the obese despite mounting evidence that industrial and scientific causes underlie this rapidly growing disease.


The complexity of this problem, and its scale—two-thirds of the American public is overweight or obese—require a multi-dimensional approach to the solution. Topics covered included public engagement strategies, developments in cellular and molecular science, industry trends and challenges, the regulatory outlook, and assessments of the pace of innovation and how it can be improved and financed.


The day concluded with January Joiner, a world premiere horror comedy by Laura Jacqmin, directed by Long Wharf associate artistic director Eric Ting.


“New Haven is becoming a quintessential 21st century, with an economy anchored in higher education, the life sciences, and the arts,” explained Long Wharf Managing Director Joshua Borenstein. “Our Global Health and the Arts event allows Long Wharf to demonstrate the benefit when all three sectors intersect to explore a critical issue. The diversity of perspectives elevates the level of discourse, and the day is a memorable and exciting one for everyone who participates.”


What first brought this to my attention was its success as a sponsorship vehicle. Companies pay to be here, and it is a real shot in the arm for the theatre. But attending it in person, it demonstrates so much more: that theatre can do more than explore our challenges as a society, it can actively engage in finding solutions. And the more complex the problem, the more suitable is theatre as a venue for the work of fixing it because theatre is itself so multi-dimensional.


Now that is my definition of euphoria.


*This article was orginally posted on ArtsBlog.

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