Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Improvising Trilobite Eyes: InterPlaying with Evolutionary Concepts at the Atlanta Science Festival

TRILOBITES GONE MAD! Improvising trilobites in an InterPlay "Walk Stop Run," participants make eye contact before going into a "lean" or making contact with another trilobite. This photo was taken at the end of the activity after participants had been invited to create a "Trilobite Party." (photo by Ruth Schowalter)
Written by Ruth Schowalter, certified InterPlay leader and InterPlay Art and Soul Creativity Coach

“Trilobite Eyes” was a comment one participant left on Facebook beneath the group photo of the InterPlay workshop my scientist husband and I facilitated on Sunday, March 20 for the 2016 Atlanta Science Festival. After all, we had done the activity, “Walk Stop Run,” adding “the lean” using “Trilobite Eyes,” to ask another person’s permission through eye contact before engaging in some physical contact to support each others' weight, and then using eye contact again before disengaging from one another.

Titled “Improv-ing Evolution,” our two-hour collaboration where evolutionary concepts met the improvisational system of InterPlay was a resounding success! Participants reported having so much fun, laughing, and patting their chests as they proclaimed it a Sunday afternoon well spent. Other responses expressed surprise, such as “I learned something!” And it was wonderful to discover that often the acquisition of knowledge came from a partner, not the workshop facilitator and authority on the evolution content—Tony Martin, paleontologist, author, and Emory professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, nor me, the certified InterPlay leader.
INTERGENERATIONAL BABBLE.  The goal of this InterPlay/Science workshop was to have all ages play together with the topic of evolution. We began with some children participating in short "tellings" but since the event was geared for all ages and not just children, the children opted to leave--sadly. We learn from each other, no matter the age. (photo by Ruth Schowalter)
How to play with scientific topics? How to engage the “whole” person—in addition to the mind—the body, heart, and spirit? Although we are in the beginning stages of teasing together science content with InterPlay’s respectful improvisational forms and principles, Tony and I find it deeply satisfying to share moments of discovery and insights with participants that feel joyful. 
During this workshop that took place at Core Dance Studios in Decatur Square, I noticed slowly dawning smiles, sudden gasps expressing epiphanies, and a physical expansiveness as they connected with each other through stories and movement.  And these were emotional and physical responses while discussing abstract concepts like deep time and co-evolution through pollination! Yes!

Before we had danced “Trilobite Eyes,” we did a typical InterPlay warm-up series, which included saying our names twice (even though there were more than 25 participants) and choosing a motion and having everyone repeat it. In our case, we had everyone choose a plant or animal and create an action his/her body wanted to make to express it. The workshop “fun” was ignited in the circle as everyone rapidly generated a surprisingly different movement to accompany sloth, rosemary, dinosaur, tree, or dog, or whatever…. It was clear that individual creativity was present in the room!

EMBODIED LEARNING IN COMMUNITY. “Judith and I thoroughly enjoyed the “Improv-ing Evolution” workshop and found it to be a wonderful learning experience," wrote Robert Vogt, Ph.D. and Research Chemist (far right in this photo).  "The diversity of participants was a big plus, with everyone contributing in their own ways during the different interplays.  Tony’s presentations included fascinating perspectives of our geologic and biologic history, and  I personally picked up many insights about a topic I thought I knew pretty well. Promoting science outreach and communication is critical for progress and pluralism in our society, and I am glad to endorse your efforts." 

Playing with the context of “deep time,” we stretched, hugged ourselves, swung our legs, and made big hip circles to the song, “Ages of Rock” on Ray Troll’s album, “Cruisin’ theFossil Freeway.” We embodied the idea that evolution takes time, and that the billions of years comprising the Earth’s history are divided into periods on the geologic time scale. Scientists divide these periods with names like Cambrian, Mississippian, and Jurassic by significant earth events, like the separation of the continents, or mass extinctions, or life explosions. We found that participants, after moving to “Ages of Rock” and asked to describe the periods or stages of their lives to a partner, also defined their life stages by important events, such as graduation, jobs, marriages, children, and illness.

Once again, just as we did in our workshop at the 2016 Southeastern Evolutionary Perspectives Society conference at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa in February, Tony and I introduced two explanations of how change occurs, Phyletic Gradualism and Punctuated Equilibrium, using “Incremental Steps” and “Walk Stop Run” (see this blog post).
PHYLETIC GRADUALISM. Here paleontologist Tony Martin introduces the concept of change that occurs slowly over time in a "micro-lecture" using a simple illustration that he drew. Participants had a chance to embody this concept using incremental steps, placing one foot after another to get to another place in the room. (photo by Ruth Schowalter)
As my husband and I explore how to combine scientific concepts with InterPlay forms, we are developing an organizational structure of play with "micro-lectures." The scientist (Tony) intermittently offers content and answers questions as they occur. Then participants are invited to embody or create with that content in a personal way either through babbling, longer forms of story telling, and solo or group movement.
WAITING TO BE POLLINATED. (photo by Ruth Schowalter)
Perhaps, the most loved activity during our workshop was the one that introduced the concept of co-evolution and genetic variation. Beginning about 130 million years ago, pollinating insects show up in the fossil record at about the same time as flowering plants. After Tony explained how flowering plants and insects must have co-evolved, and still are today, everyone had the opportunity to become both a pollinator and a flowering plant. Taking turns, half the group watched or “witnessed” while the other half pollinated or were pollinated through movement to songs such as “The Flight of the Bumblebee” or “The Four Seasons.” The idea was that the flowering plants used shape and stillness. When they were pollinated they changed shapes. Pollinators were given the permission to explore their own modes of movement to express engaging with a flower.
FLOWERING PLANTS CHANGED SHAPES ECSTATICALLY. "My favorite Improv-ing activities during this workshop included Pollinators and Flowering Plants," wrote participant Joyce Kinnard, J.D., M.S., Licensed Professional Counselor. "We could improvise the delight of a flying insect going from one plant to another on a beautiful spring day, or a flower which is enjoying the visits of bees helping to spread its pollen. This fun activity illustrates the importance of organism and species interdependence in the evolutionary process." (Photo by Tony Martin)
Energy flooded the room during this pollinating frenzy. Witnesses, flowering plants, and pollinators were enlivened. Magic happened. Laughter punctuated individualized choices of movement and connection. “I will never see pollen the same again,” said participant Carol Glickman, M.S. Applied Linguistics and educator. She waved her hand out beyond the dance studio windows from where we were "playshopping." The Decatur, Georgia, skies were darkly yellowed with spring pollen. “I will hear these soundtracks and imagine all kinds of behavior going on that was invisible to me before,” she finished.
NOTICING. At intervals "Improv-ing Evolution" participants were asked to check-in with what they were experiencing and to share what they noticed with a partner or the whole group. (photo by Ruth Schowalter)
The two hours we had together for this Atlanta Science Festival workshop were too short. Tony and I had planned enough activities for a day! We didn’t get a chance to explore movement from dinosaurs to birds (which are modern day dinosaurs), nor did we get to do the hand-to-hand contact to embody our evolution from fish to humans using Ray Troll’s song, “Fish Face.”
FOLLOWING AND LEADING IN ANIMAL GROUPS. To play around with co-evolution within a species, Tony and I divided the big group into four smaller ones and asked the members to decide what animal group they wanted to be. Here in the photo, the nearest group chose to be eagles and the group behind them dogs or wolves. (photo by Ruth Schowalter)
But before concluding our time together with these enthusiastic particpants, we had the opportunity to “flock,” “school,” or “herd”—that is to play around with evolution within a species and cooperative group behavior. After dividing the participants into four groups, each chose an animal to embody together. Wolves, geese, eagles, and lemmings then warmed up by taking turns being leaders and followers within their groups before “flocking” (moving together as a group) for the rest of the participants to watch. 
Surprised laughter erupted again. The movements were so different based on the chosen animal! Also there was committed cooperative leading and following. As the last group finished “herding” moving to Shakira’s song, “Eyes Like Yours,” I invited everyone to join in. There was a riotous uproar as everyone leapt up to dance and move with the lemmings. Oh my goodness! I joined them too!
PERSONAL EVOLUTION STORY. As our workshop came to an end, we invited participants to share their own evolution stories, using movement, a made-up language, or English. (photo by Ruth Schowalter)
Tony Martin and I will continue this journey of playing with science to experience it kinesthetically and emotionally in addition to understanding it intellectually. I hope you will join us!
Improv-ing Evolution GROUP PHOTO! (photo by Atlanta Science Festival volunteer, Michelle Schmitz)
Acknowledgments: Meisa Salaita and Jordan Rose of the Atlanta Science Festival. The volunteers Amanda, Michelle and Michelle, my husband and collaborator, Tony Martin, the InterPlay Atlanta family who attended, Jay and Yumi from CPACS and the Clarkston Community Center, and all the new participants that showed up and dedicated themselves to playing and learning. Thanks to scientists Bill Witherspoon and Pamela Gore, authors of Roadside Geology of Georgia. And as always thanks to InterPlay co-founders, Phil Porter and Cynthia Winton-Henry.
EVALUATIONS. Wonderful to see everyone stay after and fill out the Atlanta Science Festival evaluations. (photo by Ruth Schowalter--you can see me in the mirror)
INTERPLAY and the ATLANTA SCIENCE FESTIVAL. InterPlay Atlanta was a partner with the 2016 Atlanta Science Festival. We were in good company with local universities, schools, businesses, and organizations.



  1. sounds like a marvellous playful experiment, Ruth and Tony. So much embodied imagining and knowing experienced and shared, amongst such a willing bunch of players! Well done. (PS, have you come across "Dance your PHD thesis?")

  2. Thanks Belinda! Micro-lectures of an expert are fun to play with! And yes! Dance you PHD thesis is great!