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Spotlight on Aileen Robinson: Forging Connections between Theater and Science

Modified: December 9, 2015

It might seem unusual for a Performance Studies PhD student to receive an NSF grant, but for Aileen Robinson, it’s just the most recent step in an impressively interdisciplinary career. The seventh-year graduate student is part of both the Science and Human Culture cluster and the British Studies cluster; a Faculty Fellow in the Slivka Residential College; a recipient of grants from both the Social Science Research Council and the National Science Foundation; and a dramaturg for a 2012 Mainstage production of The Bluest Eye.

Aileen’s research focuses on the history of early science communication, examining the ways in which science was circulated to the public in the 18th century through displays, lectures, magic shows, and theatrical performances. “What I’m looking at is how technologies themselves were celebrated for their potential […] Some of those technologies were sensational, and being used in ways we wouldn’t necessarily expect, and then sometimes they were being used in scientific practice for things we would recognize today as science,” Aileen said.

A particular example that Aileen brings up is microscopes. “I look specifically at projection microscopes, which were a form of microscope that allowed collective witnessing; many people could view the magnification of a flea, or a drop of water, or an insect,” she said. “The sub-visible world interested people.”

“I look at these things in order to understand how our culture of public science has emerged,” she continued, “especially looking at the relationship between media and science.” Aileen points at a variety of different events and institutions as examples of public science, including TED talks and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Aileen started thinking about the history of theater and performance as an undergraduate at Harvard. While working on her senior thesis, she followed a suggestion from her advisor and started exploring the Harvard Theater Archive, where she eventually found a set of old British playbills. “They were for pantomimes, a British musical form traditionally performed at Christmas where people take fairy tales and add cultural references,” she said.

By the time Aileen completed her senior thesis on early British pantomime, she knew that she wanted to study the history of performance. “I wanted to be going into archives and looking at historical data,” she said, “and I also wanted to think about that research as it related to teaching students.”

Aileen applied to Northwestern after her thesis advisor recommended the University as a place where she could pursue her interdisciplinary work. “When I interviewed it felt like a good fit; the department’s interest in teaching and building community, as well as the interdisciplinary aspect, really appealed to me, and I met a couple professors, such as Tracy Davis, that I wanted to work with.”

Aileen’s receipt of two very different research grants – the Social Science Research Council’s International Dissertation Research Fellowship (IDRF), and the National Science Foundation’s Doctoral Improvement Grant – demonstrates the unique interdisciplinarity of her work. The IDRF allowed Aileen to travel to the United Kingdom and work with archival materials. “I looked at a lot of playbills and technical data,” she said, “which was sometimes an interesting jump.”

Aileen’s research trip to the U.K. was also an opportunity to think about the possibilities of an interdisciplinary career. “All the PhDs I met there were working in museums and archives and different cultural locations. I met a lot of people working at the science museum and thinking about display,” she said. “Those kinds of intersections are things I’m very interested doing. For me, the ideal job would be a faculty position that allows some kind of contact with cultural institutions.”

In addition to working on her dissertation and the time she spends as a faculty fellow at Slivka Residential College, Aileen has put her theater background to work as a dramaturg for several shows at Northwestern working with director Rives Collins. She points to her work on a 2012 Mainstage production of The Bluest Eye, based on the novel by Toni Morrison, as a particularly exciting moment in her Northwestern career.

“We did these talk-backs [discussions with audience members after the show] for The Bluest Eye, and it was an amazing experience for us,” she said. “I led the talk-backs, and there was one night where we had these tough conversations about performance and race and representation. It was the type of moment where you saw the benefit and the difficulty of these conversations, and you saw people trying to have them, and sometimes misunderstanding and sometimes connecting. It was a great experience, one where you really learn to talk about yourself and where you’re from, and you think about how important it is to keep showing up and have these conversations.”