‘Theory of Flight’ takes off

“Theory of Flight” — a show by the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities — explores one human's obsession with flight.
“Theory of Flight” — a show by the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities — explores one human's obsession with flight. Photo by Kathy High, Jim de Seve.

Almost a year after the launch of The Franke Program in Science and the Humanities, the interdisciplinary initiative’s first performance venture will take flight this weekend.

“Theory of Flight,” created by Anna Lindemann ’09 and first performed in 2011, explores one human’s obsession with flight through a combination of scientific lecture, projected animation and operatic arias sung live over electronic music. “Theory of Flight” has already been mounted several times with varying directors, but Lindemann said the show is returning to its roots in coming to Yale. The performance begins with a scientist named Alida Kear, played by Lindemann, delivering a lecture about the mechanics of flight. The factual, scientific portions of the show alternate with an ambiguous dreamscape world that becomes increasingly “wild and chaotic” as the show goes on, said Sara Holdren ’08 DRA ’15, who will be directing the Yale production.

Although the Franke Program has already brought a number of speakers from broad disciplines to campus, “Theory of Flight” will mark the initiative’s first foray into art and performance as a way of bringing the sciences and humanities together, said ecology and evolutionary biology professor Richard Prum, who specializes in ornithology and is serving as the Franke Program’s first director. Differences in culture and research style between the sciences and humanities can lead to misunderstandings between the two fields, he added, explaining that the program seeks to foster interaction between the disciplines to further academic progress.

“We have an opportunity to reintegrate the culture of sciences and humanities on campus,” Prum said. “I don’t know any other universities doing this better — I think there’s an opportunity for international leadership at Yale.”

Holdren said the low ceilings of the Off Broadway Theater space forced the production to find a way to convey flight theatrically without using the literal, rigged flying of some past productions of “Theory of Flight.” Lindemann said every space that has hosted the show has had its own unique physical restrictions forcing the team to rethink its approach to staging, adding that the Yale production will include “some surprises.”

The projections used in the show serve in part as a “magical chalkboard” to supplement the scientific information, Lindemann said. Holdren said the stop motion animation in “Theory of Flight” uses a very “tangible, physical vocabulary.” Yarn might represent a strand of DNA, and pieces of lace might stand in for proteins, Lindemann explained.

“The science is really real, but it doesn’t preclude the possibility of magic,” Holdren said. “It seems magical in and of itself.”

Although Lindemann first presented the show as her Master of Fine Arts thesis work in integrated electronic arts at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, she said she began to think of the ideas that would later become “Theory of Flight” when she was an undergraduate studying evolutionary developmental biology and immersing herself in Yale’s musical and artistic culture.

The compact, two-person show pairs live opera singing with electronic music, Lindemann said, explaining that this marriage allows “Theory of Flight” to explore an extremely wide range of timbres which would be both more difficult and more expensive to achieve with live performers. Electronic-based composition also allowed Lindemann, who wrote the show’s music, to experiment with the use of algorithms as a base for building music, she said. Soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon ’10, who plays the “Bird Spirit” in this weekend’s production, said it has been more challenging to work with electronic music than live music since it forces her to align perfectly with the production’s music and video elements.

Fitz Gibbon said much of what she sings involves repeating certain gene sequences and scientific phrases tied to flight. Fitz Gibbon said the musical aspects of the show embody its more otherworldly side, adding that the lines between the lecture and “moments of music” blur as the scientist begins losing her grip on reality.

Prum said he believes that “Theory of Flight” is the first of many artistic exchanges that will come out of the Franke Program, with a combined lecture and concert celebrating the music of bugs already scheduled to take place at the Yale Peabody Museum this May.

He added that the still nascent program is actively recruiting input from different parts of the science and humanities communities as the initiative grows into its role as a permanent, endowed program at Yale.

“Theory of Flight” will run at the Off Broadway Theater March 1-2.

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