Of Locusts and Scientists


Von Manfred D. Laubichler and Gitta Honegger

06.01.2010 / Science Vol 327, New York

Of Locusts and Scientists THEATER Manfred D. Laubichler and Gitta Honegger Throughout history, the arrival of swarms of migratory locusts has brought famine, strife, and the dissolution of order. Even today, despite intensive worldwide monitoring under the auspices of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, locusts continue to wreak havoc by destroying thousands of acres of farmland in such places as Somalia, which are at the brink of starvation even without the devastating effects of locust swarms. It is thus highly surprising, to say the least, to fi nd roughly 10,000 African migratory locusts (Locusta migratoria) in a 60-m2 terrarium at the center of a theater production entitled simply Heuschrecken [Locusts].
The production could be seen at the Zürich Schauspielhaus’s new performance space Schiffbau this past fall, and this coming spring it will appear at the Hebbel am Ufer Theater in Berlin. Responsible for this unusual event is Stefan Kaegi, cofounder of the innovative and award-winning German-Swiss theater collective Rimini Protokoll. Kaegi and his partners Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel have developed a unique theatrical approach to both highlighting and interweaving diverse interests and objectives in exploring the “big questions” and a variety of contemporary issues and concerns. Casting “real” people –whom they call the “experts of everyday life”—rather than professional actors, the team draws from their protagonists’ diverse fields of specialization, expertise, and life experiences to illuminate a given topic from a variety of perspectives. They have based previous projects on a reexamination of Das Kapital in a global economy (Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Erster Band), the problems of identity and adoption (Welcome to You), physics at CERN and the quest for the Higgs particle (Physik), and the impending change in Cairo from live muezzins to recorded calls for prayer (Radio Muezzin).
In Heuschrecken, the plot unfolds following the standardized routine of a laboratory notebook that details observations and measurements related to the events in the terrarium (referred to as “the system”). An actress (Lara Körte) reads the entries from a detached position above the system and the audience. She fi rst accounts for time and place and some basic parameters (such as temperature, humidity, number of locusts, and number of audience members) before introducing the experts. These are Zakaria Farah, Somali-born and Swiss-trained professor emeritus of food chemistry at the ETH Zürich; Jörg Samietz, an expert in agricultural entomology and the ecology of locusts; Barbara Burtscher, a physics teacher and fi nancial adviser; the musician Bo Wiget; and the video artist Andi A. Müller.
For much of the performance, the terrarium is a closed system monitored by the observing experts from the outside. Occasionally, someone ventures inside (usually the entomologist and, toward the end of the two-hour production, the physicist in a space suit). The audience, seated on risers along two sides of the terrarium, watches the activities inside the system both directly and through video projections fed by several cameras directed by the experts placed at the short sides.
As the performance unfolds, the audience, guided by the experts, observes life and death inside the system —including mating, instances of cannibalism, and the striking speed with which freshly supplied green plants are devoured. In addition, the performance contains experiments that test various hypotheses, such as how changing the temperature in different parts of the system affects the location of locusts. There is also the unexpected, in the form of “locust music,” when induced movements lead insects to land on different sections of strings coupled with an amplifi er. For all of these experiments and observations, the experts provide explanations of locust biology and behavior.
But Heuschrecken is much more than a docudrama illustrating locust biology. Like all Rimini Protokoll productions, it creates its own laboratory setting by concurrently staging multiple interwoven narratives based on the life stories of the experts and their relations to the events inside the system. The main character in this production is Farah, who connects his childhood experiences with swarms of migratory locusts in Somalia and Kenya with his subsequent career as food chemist and agricultural expert in different parts of the developing world and the problems he encountered along the way. Burtscher—whose perspective as a physicist and financial adviser brings together concerns about resource management and commodity prices, complex dynamics, and, fi nally, the fragility of the global ecosystem and humanity’s precarious place in it— provides another thread. Entering the system in a space suit, she suggests simultaneously what the future of our planet might look like (the audience had previously been told how much more robust locusts are than humans) and what other worlds we might encounter at some future time may resemble (with free associations to both science and science fiction).
So what has all of this to do with theater? The theater is, by defi nition, a place for observation. Its stories are about sex, confl ict, and death. It is driven by curiosity leading to discovery. Its very setting is thus experimental, suggesting a common root of science and theater, which was recognized by Aristotle, elaborated by Renaissance artists and scholars, and largely forgotten in more recent times. The production of Heuschrecken brings back this deep connection between science and theater. Its main focus is on observation: The audience observes (along with the experts) the life of the locusts in the system. It also observes the experts observing nature and connecting their observations to their life stories. And lastly, the audience observes itself observing the multiple dimensions of the production. These multiple layers of observation and refl ection are at the core of both the scientific and theatrical experience.
This experience is simultaneously entertaining and insightful. The unfolding stories have all the elements of good drama. However, this theater production is not simply about science. It stages the drama of science, as the spectator is kept in suspense about events in nature and in the life of the experts and becomes a participant in a scientifi c and theatrical experiment. The science and theater each illuminate the other without sacrifi cing scientifi c accuracy or theatrical imagination. Heuschrecken thus differs remarkably from many recent attempts to bridge the gap between the “two cultures” of the sciences and the humanities and arts. Countless symposia have explored “the arts and science,” and the Sloan Foundation has spent considerable resources to bring “science” to the main stage. However, many of these efforts have been less about understanding science and more a sequence of clichés about the scientist as tragically mad genius (Proof), mischievous genius (QED), or misunderstood and neglected genius (Arcadia). By risking a different, experimental approach, Rimini Protokoll has succeeded in bringing science to life on stage.
The reviewers are in the School of Life Sciences (M.D.L.), the School of Theater and Film (G.H)., and the Center for Biology and Society, Arizona State University, Post Offi ce Box 87285–4501, Tempe, AZ 87285, USA. E-mail: Manfred. laubichler@asu.edu