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Theatre Artists and Scientists Collaborate in Marcellus Shale Education

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From left: Timothy Riley, Barbara Korner, Josephine Wilson, Bill Doan, Susan Rus

Mention “Marcellus Shale” to residents of Pennsylvania, and you’ll get a host of responses, from complaints to questions to general confusion about how natural gas drilling will affect them, now and in the future.

Experts in the geosciences, engineering, hydrology, energy use, environmental issues, and related areas are involved in research and outreach projects addressing the subject, which has become one of the most polarizing issues in the Commonwealth today.

Natural gas drilling from Marcellus Shale geological formations is complicated—in terms of environmental science and social science. So how do you educate and foster healthy dialogue among the landowners, community members, local decision makers, and other stakeholders on the topic?

Enter Theatre faculty from the College of Arts and Architecture. Barbara Korner, Bill Doan, and Susan Russell are leading the “Marcellus Community-Based Performance Program” as part of a $2.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) education program grant awarded to an interdisciplinary group of Penn State researchers, marking the first time theatre artists have been part of a Penn State NSF grant.

“As dean of the College of Arts and Architecture and a Theatre faculty member, I am thrilled that we are involved in this project, which will help people across Pennsylvania and beyond better understand the complicated issue of Marcellus Shale,” said Korner. “Using theatre to get at the heart of the issue is one way to bridge the gap between science and the impact of natural gas drilling on the average citizen.”

The Theatre faculty team has been writing short, ten-minute plays on the theme of “Living with Risk and Uncertainty,” using social data gathered through conversations with local residents most impacted by shale gas development. Beginning this summer, the plays will be performed across the state by Penn State M.F.A. actors. Some members of the project team will tour with the actors to facilitate scientific discussions and ensure understanding of the issues. “We are part of a larger conversation that includes access to science via the experts,” noted Russell.

The overall grant project, “Marcellus Matters: Engaging Adults in Science and Energy,” aims to enhance the public’s understanding of science, engineering, and energy through community-based activities that foster constructive dialogue, engage locals in science and research, and help residents become “Marcellus Community Scientists” who can transfer knowledge to their respective communities. Michael Arthur, professor of geosciences and co-director of the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research (MCOR), is the principal investigator.

The grant team also includes researchers from the colleges of Agricultural Sciences, Education, and Earth and Mineral Sciences. The three-year project kicked off in fall 2011.

Landscape Architecture faculty Brian Orland and Tim Murtha are involved in another part of the grant, developing a series of environmental planning workshops that engage community members via Geographic Information Systems (GIS)-based modeling and visualization tools that help users see how potential changes in rural landscapes would affect real-world existing conditions (see sidebar).

Doan’s background in community-based theatre and personal interest in the social and cultural issues surrounding Marcellus Shale led him to contact Mike Arthur in fall 2010 to see if he was interested in adding a theatre component to his project.

Arthur welcomed the theatre artists with open arms. “Science is mostly so cut and dried, so when Bill approached me, I thought, ‘wow, this is interesting,’” he said, adding he has always been interested in multidisciplinary projects. “The issue is so all encompassing and lends itself to a broader scale of examination. [Using theatre] is a neat way to appeal to different groups, and to shape what they’re thinking by providing the facts.”

According to Doan, associate dean for administration, research, and graduate studies and professor of theatre, community-based performance is a “unique and effective way” to enhance individuals’ understanding of an issue. “It engages community members to enter the discussion through the exchange of ideas and constructive debate.”

The exchange of ideas will have an ongoing influence on the plays’ content, which will evolve based on audience response. During the information-gathering stage, conversations addressed perceptions of “acceptable” and “unacceptable” risks, uncertainty regarding scientific data and interpretation, and specific risks associated with natural gas drilling, such as well blowouts, groundwater pollution, and hazardous waste.

According to Russell, one of the most exciting aspects of the project is how the plays will change. “If someone says, ‘no, I don’t really feel that way,’ we’ll change the play,” she explained. “We are getting at the people inside the data. We want to give a voice to the people who do not normally have a voice.”

Russell and colleagues listened to some of those “voices” during fall 2011 visits to drilling and fracking sites in Tioga and Bradford counties, where they met with farmers, landowners, economic development officials, and local residents.

“We know we will find different experiences in different counties, and some people may be suspect of what Penn State researchers are doing in their town,” explained Doan. “But if you’re clear up front about what you’re doing and you present a piece of theatre that is well written and well rehearsed, people are more responsive. “

Russell agreed, noting “we know we can’t go into a community and tell them what it’s like to be them.”

When the grant ends, the community-based theatre work will continue. Doan said the team plans to develop a large-scale piece of theatre covering many of the issues addressed in the short plays. “Our ultimate goal is to create a piece that will be available to professional theatre companies across the country.”

The collaboration between scientists and artists won’t end with the grant, either.

“This is a great opportunity to show people what can happen when you throw science people and arts people together,” said Arthur.

And Doan agreed: “This is real work that will help us create better models for how the arts and science can collaborate.”

For more information, visit the website for Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research at http://marcellus.psu.edu.

(This article appears in the 2012 issue of the College of Arts and Architecture News Magazine.)