Engaging Theatre, Activating Publics: Theory and Practice of a Performance on Darwin

  • Saul E. Halfon Virginia Tech
  • Cora Olson Virginia Tech
  • Ann Kilkelly Virginia Tech
  • Jane L. Lehr Cal Poly
Keywords: performance, public engagement, agonism, expertise, Darwin


The Theatre Workshop in Science, Technology and Society (TWISTS) is a unique public engagement project. Theoretically, TWISTS seeks to activate publics around contemporary science and technology issues by producing agonistic cultural spaces in which participants are confronted with and engaged by multiple perspectives. It thus seeks to enact a model of Public Engagement with Science and Technology (PEST) that is oriented toward neither individualized educational models nor policy deliberation and consensus. Its engaged STS performance model instead merges expanded notions of expertise with challenges and techniques derived from critical performance theory, such as recentering participants, rethinking purpose and evaluation, and reworking narrative structure. Practically, TWISTS’ four existing performance cycles have been sites for both extending and challenging the theory. Using a unique system of expert interviews, writing, and theater games, these performances were collaboratively derived by a range of participants. The “Living Darwin” performance serves as a case study for exploring the tensions of this collaboration. Negotiating a set of different perspectives over the place of Darwin in contemporary life, and the proper way to represent him and his influence, was challenging, but proved productive in developing a performance that raised these issues for the audience within an agonistic space.

Author Biographies

Saul E. Halfon, Virginia Tech

Saul Halfon is Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech. He works in the political sociology of science and technology, especially food governance, the politics of demography and population, and the international politics of food and risk. He also has an ongoing interest in public engagement efforts. He served as co-Director of TWISTS and the Choices and Challenges public engagement program.

Cora Olson, Virginia Tech

Cora M. Olson currently works as an engaged Instructional faculty member at Virginia Tech and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Her instructional practices focus on disrupting the dominant narratives of medicine through intersectional critiques of medical education techniques, biomedical practices, and biomedical constructions of ethical theory. Her research has two foci: one on the role of pedagogy as intervention in medical and pre-medical education and the other on the regulation and construction of athlete bodies through biomedical research.  Cora served as a long term Graduate Assistant for TWISTS.

Ann Kilkelly, Virginia Tech

Ann Kilkelly is Professor Emeritus of Women's Studies and Theatre Arts at Virginia Tech. She is a teacher of theater, women's studies, historical dance forms, and community engagement. She has published on community-based performance and has tap-danced in a range of professional and local venues. She was TWISTS’ artistic director.

Jane L. Lehr, Cal Poly

Dr. Jane Lehr is the Director of Student Research and a professor in Ethnic Studies and Women’s, Gender & Queer Studies at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is Faculty Director of the California State University Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) in STEM Program at Cal Poly. Her teaching and research focus on the complex relationships between gender, race, culture, science, technology, and education. Her PhD is in Science & Technology Studies and Women's Studies at Virginia Tech. She was the founder and co-director of TWISTS.


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20 Jun 2020
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