Nancy Kawalek appointed distinguished fellow in arts, sciences, technology

The Institute for Molecular Engineering has appointed artist and innovator Nancy Kawalek to create and develop new theater work inspired by science and technology, as part of the University of Chicago’s continuing commitment to fostering artistic and scientific collaborations across campus.

Kawalek currently is a studio professor in the film and media studies department and the media arts and technology program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her appointment as professor and distinguished fellow in the arts, sciences and technology will take effect early next year.

“The Institute for Molecular Engineering plans to participate in activities that cross the boundaries of arts, sciences and technology, and we’re extremely fortunate to be able to attract an accomplished professional to campus who has a great track record in this area,” said Matthew Tirrell, the institute’s Pritzker Director. “Nancy’s work could really make the activities of the institute a lot more tangible to the broader community in Chicago.”

“Nancy is passionately interested in dramatizing our scientific and technological world,” noted Larry Norman, UChicago’s deputy provost for the arts. “Her interests, outstanding talents and approach to the arts will wonderfully complement programs already flourishing at the University of Chicago,” Norman said. “We are especially eager to explore collaborations with Nancy that potentially could involve the Institute for Molecular Engineering and our ongoing Arts | Science Initiative.”

One component of that initiative is the Arts | Science Graduate Collaboration Grants program, which encourages independent cross-disciplinary research between the arts and the sciences.

Another manifestation of interest in the arts-sciences crossover at UChicago is the work of Sidney Nagel, the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor in Physics. The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry included Nagel in a recent exhibit on Modern-Day Leonardos because of his stunning photographs of dripping fluids and other phenomena of scientific interest.

Kawalek, a New York theater-trained actor, has 25 years of professional experience that includes acting on and off Broadway and in regional theater, roles in film, television and radio, and work as a director and writer. She also is the founder and director of STAGE — Scientists, Technologists and Artists Generating Exploration at the California NanoSystems Institute at UC Santa Barbara.

“Certainly there are science programs and institutes that have artists-in-residence, but to have the Institute for Molecular Engineering embrace a program that is devoted to the development of new theater work is unique and extraordinary,” Kawalek said.

Although Kawalek gravitated toward theater and the arts as a child, “I always found the sciences interesting,” she said. “I was one of those arts people who actually liked math and science. I’m not a scientific or technical expert by any means, but I appreciate how much science and technology impacts our lives.”

A graduate of Northwestern University, Kawalek is well acquainted with Chicago’s lively theater community. She received her bachelor’s degree in theater and oral interpretation and also studied at Second City. As a senior at Northwestern she performed in her first professional show at what is today known as Northlight Theatre in Skokie and at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago.

At UC Santa Barbara, STAGE’s primary activities include an international script competition and an arts laboratory. The STAGE International Script Competition awards a $10,000 prize to the best new play about science and technology. The STAGE Collaboratory, which Kawalek will move to Chicago, is a developmental lab for creating multimedia theater pieces in which science and technology play prominent roles in content and/or form.

The STAGE script competition, now in its fifth cycle, will culminate in an award ceremony in Dublin, the 2012 European city of science. STAGE is collaborating on these award festivities with the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices at Trinity College Dublin.

In the Collaboratory, an international array of professional artists and distinguished scientists come together in numerous residencies throughout the year at the California NanoSystems Institute to conceive and develop original theatrical work. The Collaboratory’s first creation, The Art of Questionable Provenance, presents a tale of perception that parallels the functions of the brain and explores critical themes emerging from modern neuroscience.

At UChicago, Kawalek will greatly expand the breadth and impact of the Collaboratory, as well as foster additional artistic and scientific collaborations. “I plan to cast a wide net over the city of Chicago. There’s a great deal of scientific and artistic talent here,” she said.