On Sept. 22, faculty, staff, and students gathered on Zoom for a “Talk It Out” that related to the Theater Department’s upcoming production of SLABBER. Directed and created by Katie Pearl, assistant professor of theater, SLABBER is an open-air, interactive, socially distanced performance that brings viewers directly into the research and experiments of a group of people who are trying to identify a mysterious condition, known only as “slabber.” The interdisciplinary conversation, titled “Dis/Ease: Contagion and Pandemics in Our World and Its Stories” was facilitated by Luna Mac-Williams ’22, pictured at top, center.
The SLABBER performance invites viewers to consider notions of social and physical contamination and asks whether it’s possible to come close to someone else across a great distance. During the “Talk It Out,” guest speakers Fred Cohan, Huffington Foundation Professor in the College of the Environment, professor of biology; and Anthony Hatch, associate professor of science in society, offered their insight on how pandemics and contagion play out in our world and in our stories. Participants discussed the topics of contagion and how concepts of “dirty/clean” are changing social constructs.
Cohan spoke about the idea of purification. “When biologists learned about the microbiome, we lost the idea that there was something pure about our bodies, and the more we can scrub ourselves of those nasty bacteria, the better our lives would be. And it turns out, now it’s the opposite,” he said. “How hard do you really want to scrub to make yourself pure? It would be a dangerous exercise, and nobody really knows how bad an idea that would be.”
Hatch, who worked as an HIV/AIDS educator in the 1990s and early 2000s, noted that scholars find repetitive themes with the emergence of new infectious epidemic and pandemic diseases. “It’s quite easy to vilify a particular group that you believe is responsible for what has happened. Now, we have the so-called ‘China virus,’ which is a racist ploy designed to take attention away from the lack of leadership and [terms of] providing testing, which should happen. We saw this in 1918. . . . This has happened with everything from AIDS to Zika, and now with the COVID-19 pandemic. . . . We’re asking, who’s bringing the infection, what’s the source of the infection, how do we prevent the infection?”
“There’s a word I want to drop into the conversation and that is stigma,” Pearl said. “I’m thinking back to that moment, in the beginning [of the pandemic], when you wouldn’t want to put a mask on because you wouldn’t want people to think you were sick. The stigma around dirtiness is so huge, it keeps us from putting on that external marker of protection, to protect you from other people, and that is what has taken us down. It’s the stigma.”
The discussion was sponsored by the Creative Campus Initiative, Office of Academic Affairs, and the Theater Department. Theater Department “Talk It Outs” occur at least once a semester, and serve as a way to invite the larger Wesleyan community into an interdisciplinary, open conversation around the issues the productions are framing. SLABBER will be performed Oct. 16–18 on the Center for the Arts green, and will be open to 48 audience members each night.
Reserve your spot for a SLABBER performance here.