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Artlab: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Artlab started as, and remains, a project very close to my heart. Since its genesis a couple of years ago, the premise behind it has been to bring together many things that I love and that are creative. Having run Fiddlehead Theatre Company for many years, the performing arts have always been at the center of my life. But I also have an appreciation and admiration for science since my father, Eugene Bell, was a pioneer scientist in the field of tissue engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston and the Marine Biological Laboratories (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA. He was the first to develop replacement skin grown out of one’s own cells in the 1980s. In fact, he is regarded as the father of tissue engineering. And it was at the MBL where this amazing scientific achievement was born.

However, not everyone knows about the MBL or about the research developing there. I thought, how do you bring science to more people? How do you make scientific advancement more visible? You do that through something more universal like art. Art tends to have the ability to reach more people. It’s more approachable. Audiences are more likely to engage with science through an event with artistic structure.

Therefore, Artlab was an opportunity to have freedom to combine different disciplines at once. Theater itself is a connector of different disciplines. And I believe that like science, the arts are also about innovation and about people. Last fall we hosted an exhibition at the MBL which displayed expressionist paintings that commented on environmental awareness. The year before we had actors reenacting historic scientists from the MBL who paralleled current scientists in the same areas of research. These events began in our first year with a contemporary dance performance based on the octopus, since the cephalopod is a prominent part of the neuroscience and camouflage research at the MBL, followed by a medley of Broadway tunes and a presentation by a scientist with his live octopus. All of this showcased the interconnectivity of art and science.

Rachel Carson, Still from Through the Lens of Time, 2018.

This year Artlab was expecting a busy spring and summer schedule when the COVID-19 pandemic took over. With the quarantine and the emergence of “social-distancing,” so many things stopped suddenly, both in the artistic and the scientific spheres. The MBL cancelled its spring and summer programs. We also had to put Artlab’s programming on hold. Then Broadway turned off its lights, an unprecedented event!

Everything was quiet. And I am not good at sitting still. I had to do something. After talking with friends in the industry and seeing what people were doing online during the quarantine, I developed the idea for what has now taken the shape of “The Show Must Go On...Show.” An online series showcasing performances from artists’ homes, creative projects from visual artists, and advice for our well-being from medical professionals and scientists who continue their forward-thinking research. It made sense for Artlab to take on a project like this. Artlab by definition is an artistic and scientific entity: an art studio and a lab. Taking this into consideration is how we developed the idea of a digital space that would feature both insight and entertainment. Something substantial but straightforward. A platform that would integrate art and theater with science and medicine. And even stress management. I want people to be uplifted, enlightened, and inspired!

A primary goal of this project was to reach as many people as possible and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do something that was not exclusively live streamed. As we shift to this new lifestyle of social-distancing, I also thought about who we might be losing in the process. I am aware that not everyone is tech savvy or has the chance to tune it at a specific time. So having a recorded episode enabled a wider audience to be reached at their own convenience.

I am very fortunate to have an amazing group of people working with me on this project. A first class team of passionate and caring individuals makes this a very fulfilling project. We all need something like this right now! It is important to me to involve people I care about. I have a lot of friends in the industry: managers, producers, writers, actors, theater enthusiasts. This show is my way of keeping the theater world going, even if in a small way. I want to contribute to the promotion of human interaction, storytelling, laughter, the magic of the octopus, personal care, etc. Everyone is saying this is the “new normal,” but perhaps it should be called “the right normal,” to emphasize the positive. Although over the past years tech development has been preparing us for a cultural shift, I doubt anyone thought it would be so sudden and radical.

A popular question at the moment is: what have you learned about yourself through all this? For me it hasn’t really been about what I have learned as much as how it has tested me. It takes effort to stay positive and not overwhelmed. There have been moments I’ve been discouraged or have felt lonely even when I am with someone I love because I am separated from the rest of the world. But yes, I have learned to function and cope in a different manner. To find satisfaction in alternative forms of communication and working. I’m trying hard to concentrate on gratitude as well.

I’ve also learned about the society we live in. I’m impressed by how people are rallying together and how resilient they are proving to be. I am proud to see how everyone is trying to adapt resources. People are putting themselves on the line, from hospitals to supermarkets. I have also realized how much collective responsibility we share as a society. We all need to take on that responsibility to help each other get through this very challenging time. We need to listen to the scientists who educate us on the facts and to the artists who inspire us.

“There’s no people like show people, they smile when they are low.” These are words to take to heart right now. Theater is not only my work but also a source of joy for me. One of the things I miss the most is going to a show. I never thought about fearing going to a theater. I also miss all those daily things that I didn’t give much thought to before. Going on a tranquil walk, meeting a friend for coffee or lunch, running to the grocery store. The “normal things” and the daily ease of living. There have been many challenging days. I remind myself not of what I’m missing, but on what I have: connecting with a loved one, cooking and sharing a meal, having time to watch and read all kinds of things, and of course, learning new ways to be creative. In my father’s words to my mother, inscribed in 1937 in a beautiful book of Van Gogh’s art: “Spring’s fruits grow out of fear.” Spring will come and we will get through this and stand strong.

A positive thought for the day: Hug your puppies.



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