The Dodo-Brained Dramaturg

by Jacob C. Shuler

As a child, I was an avid bird-watcher (surely a manifestation of some deep-seated adolescent trauma that rendered me an outsider and an observer). From an uncomfortably young age, my plan had always been to attend college for ornithology, a subgenre of biology dedicated to birds. Though this interest later specified itself further to dodology (literally the study of dodo birds, with a degree offered at only one or two universities in the world), my determination never wavered. Never wavered, that is, until my unfortunate days in high school biology, chemistry, and calculus classes that brought me to the conclusion: my brain doesn’t work this way. Though I had long anticipated a life in the sciences, I soon learned that passion and procedure were two different things. My interpretation of staying informed about current events has lead to an obsession with reading Google Science News, a subcategory of their regular news page. Every morning, I bypass big headlines and national affairs to read about NASA’s exploration of the cosmos, newly discovered species of frogs, and the great climate change debate (which Al Gore deliciously deemed the “racism of the 21st century”). I am fascinated by the strange wonders of our world that lie beyond the comprehension of myself and a large majority of the world’s population. What is a particle accelerator? Why are those Alaskan fungal spores washing up on the beach? How can we not live in ignorance of these impossibly intricate functions of our world? Should this enlightenment be available only to the scientifically savvy?
I credit Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring which sparked a legislative revolution on the ban of DDT and other toxic chemicals in the United States, for shaping my own artistic expression in this way: though the bulk of the book is filled with hard, but stirring facts, Carson fictionalizes her data in her introduction. She amasses her statistics into one, brief piece of poetry where she paints the picture of the world our actions are avalanching us toward (or at least the actions of our 1962 selves). “No witchcraft,” she says, “no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.” In my own opinion, this one, beautifully constructed passage holds the key to why her book was so affective in inciting change. It presented science through the senses. It condenses her entire manifesto on pesticide use and human carelessness into the simplest, accessible terms. My own art, then, is an attempt to transform these vague concepts into something I can use. I consider my work to be the work of a translator, but rather than stealing Strindberg from the Swedish or Chekov from the Russians, I’m taking the stories of science and bringing them to the common man’s brain.
As a practical example: my newest play-in-the works, The Death of Gaia Divine, has been gestating since an article published early last fall. The text presented new evidence that the Australopithecus (an early hominoid ancestor of ours) had developed emotions earlier than was previously thought. While my interest peaked instantaneously, I failed to comprehend the beef of the matter below the pungent spices. My mind whirled as I tried to understand just how emotions developed along with the human race, and how, perhaps, they’ve come to the complicated state we now need volumes of Freud to decode. Now, though little of this initial article remains obvious in my play, I can still see my own frustration in trying to decode the complex thoughts beneath every line and every action.

To return and reexamine my childhood with the analytical eye of age, it’s as though my young self had prophesied my future artistic vision. My youthful obsession with the dodo bird now draws the perfect parallel to my art: the mascot for my mission. What mankind mind knows the dodo bird to be today is an animal that has never truly existed: a culture built on a false understanding, a story told, a fiction. Media confirms our cartoon caricature of the blubbering, brainless feathered-friends (as in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the film Ice Age, and even the short-lived 1948 Looney Tunes character). The reality of the dodo has been slaughtered by the invention of a mythological bird that shares its name and physical image. But the true story of the dodo is not the story of extinction due to inherent ignorance. Theirs is a sad story, a mournful song: the story of Columbus and the native peoples or Hitler and his holocaust. The gritty fact of the matter is that this was a species killed by colonization in the 17th century (no distant ice age or parallel universe). But that’s not a story we like to tell. Not for the dodo. Not for Columbus. Not for our world today (I myself am guilty of avoiding world news). Our version of the dodo bird is far more fun, and though my love and passion for the species runs deep, it is usurped the overwhelming fascination for how their story has been warped.
August Strindberg, another icon of inspiration for me (mandated by my Swedish heritage), spoke of love in much the same way. He reflected upon three failed marriages and concluded that the ideal wife, exists only after death or divorce. A woman is only ideal once she has left, and only her memory exists. The heart is then left to fill in the imperfections and she can be remembered for all that she was, and all that she should have been. The story survives the reality. And so as an artist I ask myself: What cultures can I create? What memories can I misremember? What misunderstandings can I make sense of? What sense can I misunderstand? There are still so many stories stirring in my mind, and this library of untapped inspiration only grows with every morning perusal of the daily news. I take comfort in the fact that as long as there are things in the world that I fail to understand (an infinite chasm), I will have ample fodder for creative exploration.


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