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April 17, 2014

Faculty, students combine arts to teach, hybrid film challenges boundaries of artistic expression

By Travis Raymond

A wide range of colleges at Cleveland State University converged on the moot courtroom in the Law Building April 12 to present, view, and discuss a dynamic creative collaboration about Henrietta Lacks three years in the making.  Lacks was the woman whose cells eventually led to tremendous advances in medical research as the HeLa cell line without her consent or knowledge.

The event was called “Bringing Henrietta to Life: Medical Humanities and the Arts” and included participants from the university’s college of law, the college of sciences and health professions, the school of nursing and the college of liberal arts and social sciences (CLASS).

The event featured the premiere screening of “Bringing Henrietta to Life,” a film written and produced completely in-house by English, theatre and dance, and film professors and students here at Cleveland State.

While introducing the film, professor Holly Holsinger, the director of the film’s theatre portions, told the audience of her experience in 2011 producing an event to complement the freshmen reading selection, Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” 

Wanting to bring Lacks’ story to life using different performance mediums, Holsinger worked with professors Lynn Deering and Adrienne Gosselin on a creative response to the book.  Deering provided dance choreography based on the book’s themes and Gosselin wrote and directed a scene in reaction to the book. 

The new collaboration, “Bringing Henrietta to Life: The Art and Dance of Theatrical Adaptation,” played to a packed house as one of the last performances in the Factory Theatre. 

“It became clear to us pretty quickly after that there was a great need and a desire for our work to continue,” Holsinger said. 

According to Holsinger, they realized that their work needed to become a film to reach a wider audience.  With a grant from the Office of Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement and involvement of Cleveland State film students, they made the film a reality.

“What we’re going to see is a very, very unusual hybrid,” said professor Evan Lieberman, the director of film.  “It is equally a record of dance performance as it is a record of theatrical performance.”

The Moot Courtroom proved to be less than optimal as a screening room on a bright day – some of the visuals onscreen were washed out by the light streaming in the room’s windows.

But no one in the room had seen a film like “Bringing Henrietta to Life” before.  Actors and dancers interpreted Henrietta Lacks’ true story onscreen, sometimes simultaneously, combining theater and dance as well as film elements together.

After the film, attendees had lunch before splitting into four breakout discussion groups, each focused on different subject areas derived from the film.  Attendees could choose to discuss ethical issues in nursing, social, institutional and structural policy issues, health disparities and vulnerable population groups, and Henrietta in the classroom, before reconvening back in the moot courtroom for a brief summary.

Facilitators from the various discussion groups gathered onstage and led a final discussion of some of the film’s themes with the members of the audience who remained.  Some of the film’s actors joined the discussion groups and provided input to the summary discussion as well.

“One of the things that we really learned from this is we all speak the same creative language, just different dialects,” Lieberman said.

Gosselin, who wrote the film’s screenplay, described the process as many people working together toward a common goal.  With so much creative input required to make the project happen, she said she considered herself a member of the audience as well as a contributor. 

“It was an amazing experience and we all learned a lot from each other,” Gosselin said.  “It did the same for the students – the students have a much greater appreciation and understanding of other artists and other fields.”

“Bringing Henrietta to Life” will be available for faculty use as an educational tool at Cleveland State’s Engaged Scholarship website.