Thursday, October 13, 2005

ENV: Evolution on Stage

Now Arguing Near You: The Evolution Drama
By STEVEN McELROY, The New York Times, October 12, 2005

In Harrisburg, Pa., lawyers are in court today arguing whether intelligent design should be taught in biology class alongside evolution. As Richard Thompson, the lawyer representing the school board members who favor teaching intelligent design, said, "There are two worldviews that are in conflict."

Last night, in Arcata, Calif., in another trial involving evolution's place in the school curriculum, a lawyer told a jury, "The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death, between the unbelief that attempts to speak through so-called science, and the defenders of the Christian faith."

The difference is that the Pennsylvania trial, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, is real, while the one taking place on the other side of the country is a play performed by L.A. Theater Works and drawn from the transcripts of the famed Scopes "monkey trial" of 1925, when a high school teacher in Tennessee was indicted for teaching evolution.

Observing the 80th anniversary of the Scopes trial, Theater Works began its 23-city tour of Peter Goodchild's radio play "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial" last night with a rotating cast of actors that includes Edward Asner, Michael Learned, John de Lancie and Tom Bosley. Many places where the play, directed by Gordon Hunt, will be performed - mainly college campuses - are sponsoring additional events like panel discussions and workshops with the actors.

Susan Albert Loewenberg, the producing director of L.A. Theater Works, said recently: "This is not agitprop theater. Hopefully, this docudrama will enable people to think about the issue. The presentation will help to create a useful national conversation." But she emphasized that the theater company is not promoting either side of the argument.

After this week's performances at Humboldt State University, the company will make stops in Nashville, Tenn.; Green Bay, Wis.; Purchase, N.Y.; and other cities before finishing the tour in Los Angeles in March.

"I think the timing is great because it's something that's in controversy right now," said Roy Furshpan, the director of Center Arts, which is sponsoring this week's performances at Humboldt State. Mr. Furshpan was not expecting much contention over the performance. "Arcata is a fairly liberal town," he said.

But in Tennessee, home of the Scopes trial, the issue is white hot, said Bridgette Kohnhorst, assistant director of performing and fine arts at Vanderbilt University, where the show and forum are scheduled for Oct. 19. Ms. Kohnhorst said she had been working on the project long before the Dover School Board voted to include intelligent design in the science curriculum. The timing, though, is serendipitous, she said, adding, "You begin conversations about something like this a whole year earlier, and then what could be better?"

Ms. Loewenberg originally commissioned Mr. Goodchild, a writer and producer at the British Broadcasting Corporation, in 1992 to work on an adaptation of the Scopes trial transcripts. ("Inherit the Wind," the 1955 play and the 1960 film with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, was based on the trial.) The company recorded the show, with Mr. Asner as William Jennings Bryan facing off against Charles Durning as Clarence Darrow.

L.A. Theater Works began producing recorded plays in 1987, with a 14-hour recording of the Sinclair Lewis novel "Babbitt." Now the company has created a library of more than 360 titles - the largest collection of its kind in the country.

The recordings are used in an educational outreach program, "Alive and Aloud," which supplies free radio plays and teaching materials to 2,000 schools. "The Play's the Thing," a weekly two-hour radio show broadcast on public radio affiliates across the country, features plays, interviews and other programs. In addition, L.A. Theater Works has an annual season of 10 or more plays at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where each play is recorded five times in front of a live audience and then edited to create a definitive CD version.

Three years ago, when Ms. Loewenberg was thinking about whether to do a show on tour, she reviewed the results of a recent company survey of teachers. "Surprisingly, we found that Scopes was the most utilized of all the recordings," she said, adding, "and we were already aware of the growing controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution."

The show has traveled before. When the Kansas State Board of Education decided to remove evolution from the science curriculum in 1999, Ms. Loewenberg received a phone call from the television producer Norman Lear. "He said, 'If I arrange it and pay for it, will you take the Scopes show to Kansas?' " Mr. Lear's advocacy group, People for the American Way, set up a performance the following summer at the Lied Center at the University of Kansas and ran a spirited panel discussion as well, Ms. Loewenberg said.

Mr. Asner, a Kansas native who was in that show, is one of several actors who has been with the company since its beginning. As part of the current tour's revolving cast, he is returning a third time to play Bryan, the prosecuting attorney, for the first several stops. Since Mr. Asner, like the other actors, is working for union-scale wages, it is not a particularly lucrative venture. But, he said, "I love doing radio; it's a very gratifying experience." He added, "It's a phenomenal exercise, like trying to get a tune out of a Schoenberg piece."

In each city on the tour, Ms. Loewenberg said, the local National Public Radio affiliate will record and broadcast the production, along with any discussions, to "extend the conversation."

Ms. Loewenberg might be interested to find herself in agreement with Bryan, who said at the 1925 trial, "There can be no settlement of a great cause without discussion, and people will not discuss a cause until their attention is drawn to it."