Musical theater production inspires marine conservation awareness for Upstate locals

The play employs a cast of vibrant puppet characters.
Image Credit: Educational Entertainment, LLC

CLEMSON — The warnings are dire: By 2050, the world’s coral reefs could die off if society doesn’t act now to curb climate change. A Clemson University scientist and his students are taking that message to the generation that will be most affected using an unconventional medium: musical theater.

Michael Childress, an associate professor of biological sciences, and graduate students Kylie Smith and Kara Noonan have been studying for the past eight years how the changing ocean environments – including warming temperatures, hurricane disturbance and emergent diseases – impact coral health and reef fish behaviors.

Now, the team has partnered with Kathy Prosser of Educational Entertainment LLC – a local playwright and award-winning children’s songwriter – to share the importance of marine conservation with the masses in a family-friendly musical theater production for elementary school children, called “Something Very Fishy.”

With the help of more than 30 undergraduate Creative Inquiry students and staff volunteers, “Something Very Fishy” has grown from an impromptu idea Prosser posed in spring 2018 to a fully immersive arts and sciences (STEAM) outreach program, which will debut at the Pickens County Performing Arts Center in January 2019.

Prosser’s play follows Sandy Carson, “an enthusiastic but somewhat naïve science major,” in her quest to study the issues facing our oceans. In contrast, the antagonist – a fisherman named Mr. Stu Pidder – is exploiting the ocean’s resources and creating more problems for the environment. Through a cast of marine characters, the story highlights how what we do above the surface impacts life below.

“To some extent, both characters grow toward one another. Sandy becomes more realistic about what’s going on in the world, and Mr. Pidder becomes more aware of what harm he’s doing to the point that they can work together to help the oceans,” Prosser said. “The takeaway message is that just one little drop in the ocean from every little fish in the sea can change the turning tide.”

After the hour-long performance, students will be led throughout the Performing Arts Center to experience hands-on exhibits, demonstrations, grade-specific experiments and activities in support of the theme of marine conservation. Clemson Creative Inquiry students will serve as tour guides, taking the young students on an imaginary trip to visit the coral reefs of the Florida Keys and the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory, where they will learn about scuba diving, underwater photography, and growing and transplanting corals. The experience will also include a tour backstage to meet the performers and artists, and a visit to the “Little Fishing Town” marine animal hospital, where students can see and touch live marine animals, step into a marine-themed photobooth or star in their own underwater videos.

Smith said she was motivated to develop “Something Very Fishy” in part to show younger generations that they can make a difference, regardless of their ages.

“In every grant proposal I’ve ever written, I’ve tried to bring the message that marine conservation is important and that coral reefs are important,” Smith said. “If you get to kids early enough, you can educate them about how important these habitats are and help them understand that they can make a difference no matter how far they are from the ocean.”

The other motivator for the team is to reconstruct kids’ ideas of what a scientist is and what people with a science degree can achieve.

“We as a society portray scientists in a very one-dimensional way and you don’t get to see scientists for the really unique people that they are,” Childress said. “I think this is a wonderful program because our student tour guides portray a wide range of potential careers in the arts and sciences so that maybe the children will see themselves as future artists or scientists.”

“You can do so much with a science degree,” Smith added. “Sure, you can be a doctor, but you can also be an artist or a park ranger or a dive instructor. That’s what I’m most excited about – to be able to have an 8-year-old excited about the possibilities.”

Childress and Smith give credit for this unlikely collaboration to the Clemson University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, where Smith was invited to present her research back in spring 2018. It was there that the pair met Prosser, without whom, the musical theater science exhibit never would have been conceived.

“This wouldn’t have been possible without Kathy and her artistic talents,” they said.

The team has invited area K-5 classes to “Something Very Fishy” during school hours as field trips on weekdays from Jan. 30 to Feb. 8, 2019. A public performance for the Upstate community – tickets required – will be held on Saturday, Feb. 9. Tickets will be available online within the coming weeks, but those interested in attending can contact Childress (mchildr@clemson.edu) or Prosser (info@educationalentertainment.org) for updates and more information.

The team is also collecting donations via a GoFundMe page, linked here. All gifts will be used to support this production and future iterations of it.