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Production aims to bring healing to veterans

November 4, 2021

As part of Salute to Service, ASU presents 'Healing Wars,' an interactive multimedia piece that pays tribute to soldiers from Civil War to present

Veterans find healing in a variety of ways and places.

It could be camping in the woods. Playing with dogs. Working with pottery. Now they can add the theater to the list of options.

Arizona State University's School of Music, Dance and TheatreThe ASU School of Music, Dance and Theatre is part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. will host a series of performances of Liz Lerman’s “Healing Wars” for Salute to Service starting on Nov. 5 at the Galvin Playhouse Theatre on the ASU Tempe campus.

Lerman, who is a Herberger Institute Professor, choreographer and dancer, said the arts has a dynamic way of tackling and addressing difficult subjects.

“It’s my perception that the military found the normal mechanisms by which they hoped things would work for veterans to be engaged in society had not been working,” said Lerman, whose father served in World War II and suffered from PTSD. “The military discovered that veterans opened up to the arts in a way they had not opened up in the past.”

And that’s one of the reasons Lerman started research on “Healing Wars” about a decade ago, when she was an artist-in-residence at Harvard University. She said the inspiration for the play grew out of a moment while visiting Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. It made her wonder about the women during the Civil War, including her personal hero, Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross. She said it’s one of the most spiritual and emotional plays she has ever written.

“I wrote about the pain of the soldiers, including the pain of the people trying to support them such as doctors and nurses,” Lerman said. “When you’re marred by something like war, you never get over it. Your task is to learn to find a way to live with it.”

Billed as multimedia experience that fuses music, dance, theater and performance art, “Healing Wars” addresses various issues related to war, medicine and the ways people’s minds respond to traumatic events. It also toggles back and forth between historical accounts of the Civil War and tales of soldiers lost and maimed on battlefields today.

“Healing Wars” opened in 2014 in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Actor Bill Pullman and his wife, Tamara Hurwitz Pullman, were cast in the starring roles, and the production toured across the country.

It has now been revitalized and repurposed for Salute to Service with Keith Thompson at the helm. Thompson, an associate professor and assistant director of dance in ASU’s School of Music, Dance and Theatre, was also a dancer and choreographer in the first phase of the work. He is more than familiar with the material, and he’s putting his own stamp on it.

“It’s a whole new set design, whole new costuming, whole new lighting, whole new media design,” Thompson said. “I’ve incorporated some of the threads from the original, but I’ve also created a lot of new things.”

Thompson has also expanded the original number of roles from eight to 18 to make it “an educational experience” for students. Many will be mentored by faculty such as Marissa Barnathan, a first-year MFA student at ASU.

“It is a play but has elements of music, dance and theater,” said Barnathan, who has worked in the Philadelphia theater industry for almost a decade and will assist Thompson to oversee a cast and crew of around 50 people. “It uses all of these art forms to elevate and make visible the struggle of veterans.”

It’s also elevating the cast, according to Honestine Mbuyenge, a performance and movement major in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre.

“The use of movement takes you to a place … it offers more emotion,” said Mbuyenge, who is cast as “Spirit” in the play. “This is an ensemble-based show, and I feel even more connected to my classmates than any other show I’ve done.”

Thompson is keeping some original pieces of the play intact, including a preamble 30 minutes prior to the show where the audience walks through an immersive experience en route to their seats. Thompson recommends ticket holders arrive 45 minutes early to have the full experience, but audience members may opt out and go directly to their seats.

“Healing Wars” will also continue to use veterans in the cast. This incarnation will feature three, including Aaron Hernandez, Anders Lettie and Kermit Brown, who is cast as “Vet.”

“A colleague referred me and said, ‘Hey, you’d be great for this role,’” said Brown, who is a full-time lecturer in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts and served seven years in the Marines from 1991–98. “I was reluctant at first, even skeptical, but I’ve been blessed with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. I decided I wanted to try something new. And so here I am.”

Brown instantly related to the material, having joined the Marines right out of high school and served at the tail end of the Gulf War in the '90s.

“This play has been therapeutic for me. It has forced me to deal with the dark side of being in the military, and death is very prevalent in this play,” said Brown, who portrays a soldier with PTSD. “It has also taught me that art can be therapy.”

It can also be informative. Theater major Matthew Griesgraber said he has had little contact with people who have served in the military.

“It has opened my eyes to the effects of war,” Griesgraber said. “Through the play and the script, it shines a light on what our veterans experience in war time and has given me some perspective.”

For actress Ann Ethington, “Healing Wars” is a way to give back to veterans and bring awareness to some of the issues they struggle with after military conflict.

“Every 21 minutes a veteran commits suicide, so every time that’s mentioned in the news or on social media, I’ll drop and do 21 pushups,” Ethington said. “We can bring healing to veterans by showing them they’re not alone in this and that we can get a message out to the public that this what they’re struggling with. Having that recognition and representation in our play can help heal them.”

Lerman’s “Healing Wars,” directed and adapted by Thompson, opens Nov. 5 and runs through Nov. 14. Tickets must be purchased in advance through the Herberger Institute Box Office. Because the production focuses on death and war, audiences should be warned that there are loud sounds and explosions as well as depictions of violence and trauma. Audiences can learn more about the production here

Written by Marshall Terrill and Lacy Chaffee.

Top photo: Fourth-year theater major Ann Ethington (right) and second-year theater major Matt Griesgrabar perform a rehearsal of “Healing Wars” at the Galvin Playhouse in Tempe on Nov. 3. Photo by Samantha Chow/ASU News

ASU biogeochemist awarded prestigious fellowship

November 4, 2021

As a world-renowned microbiologist and biogeochemist, Ferran Garcia-Pichel has developed an understanding of the interconnectivity of the sciences. 

He studies microbial communities, examining the way bacteria exist and interact within ecosystems — and what we can glean from the simplicity and adaptability of their mechanisms. ASU School of Life Sciences Center Director Ferran Garcia-Pichel The American Geophysical Union recently named microbiologist and biogeochemist Ferran Garcia-Pichel a 2021 AGU Fellow. His work studies the roles, adaptations and impacts of microbes in natural environments that range from desert soils to shallow marine waters. Photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU Download Full Image

His unique skill for distilling breakthroughs from simple observations has gifted us with many influential discoveries. For example, the discovery of microbial sunscreens that enable survival in high-stress and isolated environments has had implications from biomedicine to global warming to interpreting early life on Earth.

Throughout his remarkable career, he has forged connections of global impact, melding knowledge and approaches from disparate areas into entirely new disciplines and groundbreaking discoveries.

“I am proud of several discoveries regarding how microbes cope (or don’t) with tough situations because they represent teachable moments for our own conduct: how microbes protect themselves from sunlight’s ravages, or how their risky behaviors, like crowding together or going for a stroll, can influence their fate in the presence of epidemics,” he said.

In recognition of his pioneering achievement, the American Geophysical Union has recently named Garcia-Pichel as a 2021 AGU Fellow

AGU Fellows serve as global leaders and experts, pushing the boundaries of scientific understanding and working to create a healthier planet. Since 1962, the American Geophysical Union has elected fewer than 0.1% of members to join this prestigious group. 

“For decades, Ferran Garcia-Pichel has made tremendous contributions not only to the ASU community but to the scientific community at large,” said Kenro Kusumi, dean of natural sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of the School of Life Sciences

“His research has led to significant discoveries that are shaping our collective understanding of microbial communities in their natural habitats. This prestigious honor recognizes his interdisciplinary approach to studying microbes in ecosystems ranging from deserts to tropical islands.”

Garcia-Pichel is an ASU Regents Professor, the Virginia M. Ullman Professor of the Environment in the School of Life Sciences and the founding director of the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics.

He joined ASU in 2000. He was a pivotal collaborator in the foundation of the School of Life Sciences — the first academic unit created as part of ASU President Michael Crow’s vision for a New American University

He has continued to bring disciplines together, serving as dean of natural sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and establishing seven ASU research centers.

Of his many accolades, the AGU fellowship holds a particular value. 

“More than two decades ago, I was hired at ASU to provide a stronger link between life and geological sciences, even though my background was only tangentially interdisciplinary in that way. It was most definitely a career challenge,” said Garcia-Pichel. 

“Receiving this recognition from the premier society in Earth and space science means to me that my decades-long effort to bring microbial science to bear in Earth science has had a real impact across the divide. Of this, I could not be prouder.”

AGU was established in 1919 by the National Research Council and operated as an unincorporated affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences for more than 50 years. They were independently incorporated in 1972. Garcia-Pichel was elected by the Global Environmental Change section. 

“The fellows program was established in 1962 and recognizes AGU members who have made exceptional contributions to Earth and space science through a breakthrough, discovery or innovation in their field. Fellows act as external experts, capable of advising government agencies and other organizations outside the sciences upon request,” said a representative of the Union Fellows Program.  

“Dr. Garcia-Pichel is being recognized specifically for pioneering research in environmental microbiology with applications from the ancient past to the Anthropocene.”

Garcia-Pichel is now one of six ASU faculty who have received this distinguished honor, along with Ariel Anbar, President’s Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the School of Molecular Sciences, who was also elected this year. 

“Ferran is the perfect recipient of this very prestigious fellowship because of his extraordinary creativity and unique intellectual contributions to science,” said Osvaldo Sala, who was named an AGU Fellow in 2019. 

Sala is an ASU Julie A. Wrigley, Regents and Foundation Professor, and he contributes to both the School of Life Sciences and School of Sustainability. He is also the founding director of the Global Drylands Center and the leader of the Extremes Focal Area, which is part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory

“He has merged the fields of microbiology and Earth science to produce a novel understanding of the way life emerged on our planet and how it is currently being modified by humans,” Sala said of Garcia-Pichel. “Moreover, he has successfully translated his new scientific understanding into solutions to the most pressing problems of humanity, such as global change and land degradation.”

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of the ASU Interplanetary Initiative in the School of Earth and Space Exploration; Nancy Grimm, Regents Professor and the Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Ecology in the School of Life Sciences; and Meenakshi Wadhwa, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, are also AGU Fellows. 

Garcia-Pichel continues to focus much of his current work on the microbiology of arid lands and is looking forward to the possibilities the future holds. 

“I am keeping this open, but I am excited currently about exploring large-scale consequences of the simplest microbial traits, like cell size,” he said.

“Who knows what’s next? Something exciting, I hope.”  

Dominique Perkins

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Life Sciences