As a scientist, I am the Senior Technian for Dr. Matthew Harms (look, I know that sounds fake, but he's real, I promise!) researching the genetics of motor neuron disorders. I also support the ongoing clinical research efforts of the Eleanor and Lou Gehrig ALS Center. But let's be honest, you probably didn't show up here expecting to learn about the kind of science I do.
Outside of the lab, I write texts for live performances like these:
In 1935, American Democracy was in danger. Rising fascism at home and abroad, economic catastrophe, and the horrors of Jim Crow meant Americans felt evermore divided. The advent of radio only years before had promised to unite the country, connecting listeners thousands of miles apart into a collective audience of the air. But George V. Denny Jr., an educator and entertainer, saw the divisive potential of this new technology, after his neighbor offered that "he'd rather be shot than caught listening to F.D.R. on the radio." Denny proposed a solution by broadcasting "America's Town Meeting of the Air," a radio forum in which a panel of experts discussed pressing issues of the day—"Can democracies avoid dictatorship?"; "Does America need compulsory health insurance?"—and fielded questions from a live audience. Using the inherent drama of live debate between moderates, progressives, and radicals alike, Denny's program tapped into a broader theme coursing through American history. Free speech, a foundational American ideal, had been used by the founders to build consensus. Over the decades, it was used as a tool in the fight for political emancipation. Activists like Ida B. Wells and Elizabeth Cady Stanton debated their oppressors, wielding arguments like weapons, firmly believing that fair and open debate would lead America to a more just future. In 2020, America once again feels its democracy shudder under Denny's worst nightmares—partisan news, social media bubbles, and a historical legacy that demands attention—that together make finding common ground seems like a fantasy from a bygone era.
America Talks It Over (ATIO) is a new performance by Marc Atkinson Borrull and Ben Hoover that seeks to continue the tradition of using debate to drive American Democracy toward greater truth. ATIO revives the spirit of radio from the 1930s and invites audiences to meet in community centers to watch a live radio dramatization hosted by the ghost of George Denny. He’s joined by a recent graduate of the local public high school who’s back on break and trying to reconcile the place where she grew up with where she lives now: NYC, as urban and disconnected as it gets. They begin to debate the story of America, one that links the rain-battered New England halls to the platforms that now host our culture wars. But a debate among two people is simply a dialogue, and soon the audience finds themselves taking sides, asking questions of panel experts, and exercising their freedom of speech in ways that prepare them to be active citizens of an engaged American Democracy.
By 2021, it’s expected that 100 million people will have sent their DNA to be sequenced by privately-held corporations. These companies boast that their direct-to-consumer genetic tests connect unknown family members, uncover important health information, and erase the concept of being from any one country or place. But they have also been used to tear families apart, cause baseless medical concerns, and reinforce white supremacy. Grounded in interviews with people who have taken the tests, benefitted from the tests, found nothing useful in the tests, and outrightly condemn the tests, VARIANTS OF UNKNOWN SIGNIFICANCE investigates if you are your DNA, the risks of sending private corporations your DNA, and how the results can rupture and reinforce your ideas of family, privacy, and identity.
The title was inspired by our interview with a genetic counselor, who explained that a common result for a genetic test is “variant of unknown significance,” which means a change in a person’s genetic code has been detected but it is not yet known what such a change means. Much is unknown about genes, genetic testing, and particularly direct-to-consumer genetic testing; we are sorting through all of those unknowns and will share what we find in VARIANTS OF UNKNOWN SIGNIFICANCE.
VARIANTS OF UNKNOWN SIGNIFICANCE is being co-created with: