2009 is an important year for Darwin enthusiasts and natural history scholars. It marks Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most influential work, “On the Origin of Species.” Although his birthday was in February, the bicentennial festivities are still going strong. Australia is issuing a commemorative coin depicting Darwin, and natural history museums all across the globe are holding special events honoring the “father of evolution.”

The Struggle for Existence: Darwin’s Dreams

At the Exhibit Museum
Nov. 20-22 at 7:30 p.m.

As part of the celebration at the University, a cast of students and faculty are performing an original play, “Darwin’s Dreams: The Struggle for Existence,” at the Exhibit Museum of Natural History tonight, Saturday and Sunday.

Written by Residential College Assistant Professor and paleontologist Catherine Badgley and directed by RC lecturer Kate Mendeloff, “Darwin’s Dreams” explores two weeks in Darwin’s life as he puts the finishing touches on “Species.” These two weeks are well-documented and grounded in history, but Badgley uses the naturalist’s dreams as a device to explore the future implications of his work. Darwin spends his days penning passages for “Species,” but at night his dreams foreshadow the repercussions of the words he’s writing.

“Dreams provide special opportunities in dramatic productions. I use them as a creative vehicle,” Badgley said.

“What would it be like if all of us could see, a hundred years from now, what was going to become of the things that were most precious to us? Would we like what we saw, would we be horrified or would it be something else?”

Through his dreams, Darwin takes a glimpse at historical events that have yet to transpire. Reminiscent of “A Christmas Carol,” the play depicts three visions, one for each act. The first act focuses on a religious conflict, highlighting Darwin’s unease about the tension between his ideas and society’s need for god. The dream sequence contains a debate between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, a harsh critic of Darwin’s ideas, and Darwin’s greatest advocate, Thomas Huxley.

Memoirs, letters and published papers comprise much of the dialogue of the play. Characters often speak words written by the actual historical figures they are representing, creating a sense of historical realism.

The second act explores the way Darwin’s work came to be mishandled and exploited. Focusing on the most grotesque misuse of Darwin’s concepts, the second act’s vision takes place in 1935, depicting Nazis justifying their actions with Darwin’s words.

Finally, the third act meta-theatrically makes use of the museum setting, taking place in 2009 in a museum exhibit about Darwin. Depicting both the negative uses and positive ramifications of Darwin’s work, the dream sequences eventually allow Darwin to finish the book that would become so influential.

First taught in 2006 and revived this fall, the RC course “Darwin in Performance” is an interdisciplinary course in which students learn about Darwin’s life and work as well as theater production elements such as script writing and character development. In the class, the paleontologist and theater director team worked together with students to develop the script of “Struggle for Existence.” Badgley had the idea for the play more than 10 years ago, but the play continued to develop with help from Mendeloff and RC students. Students were able to help with the tinkering of the script as they were learning about evolution and Victorian society.

Professors and students used their different strengths and interests to pool their resources in this process of putting a play together. Badgley used her historical and scientific background to create the script, and Mendeloff and drama students helped make it actable and playable in terms of theater.

“I’m a paleontologist. I study the history of life — I study the fossil record of mammals. And while I have been a fan of the theater ever since I was in high school, I had never written a play before,” Badgley said.

“I really didn’t have experience with what it takes to take an interesting idea, even a dramatic idea, and turn it into something that works for the actors and hold the interest of the audience. So that’s where Kate and the students in the class were tremendously important.”

Turning the Exhibit Museum of Natural History into a theatrical playground appealed to Mendeloff, who works with spatially aware, environmental theater when directing plays. Each act takes place in different areas of the museum, making full use of the space. The audience moves with the characters, following them to different parts of the museum, taking an active participatory role and blurring the lines between stage and spectator.

“One of the things that is important in my directing style of doing these environmental performances is to try and create as much reality as possible so that you really believe that you’re there with the characters,” Mendeloff said.

“It’s sort of like the action is happening all around you and you’re part of it. There’s no artificial divide between the stage and looking at actors and really feeling like you have kind of a window in on historical reality.”

As a part of LSA’s “Meaningful Objects: Museums in the Academy”-themed semester, “Darwin’s Dreams” aims to bring together all different kinds of people to experience the Exhibit Museum and take part in the Darwin bicentennial.

“Hopefully it will get some people in the museum who have not seen it yet and also get some museum people to see a play,” Mendeloff said.

Admission is free for students, but reservations are required and can be obtained by calling 734-764-0480.

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