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Fruit flies make their stage debut

Audiences at a college production of Sartre's "The Flies" got swarmed in their seats by thousands of bugs bred on campus

By | January 5, 2007

Last month, audiences of Brown University's production of the Jean-Paul Sartre play "The Flies" were greatly outnumbered by 30,000 fruit flies, bred by a science student specifically for the play. "The Flies" is Sartre's take on a Greek tragedy, in which the protagonist, Orestes, murders his mother and her lover. The purpose of the flies, according to the show's director, Brown senior James Rutherford, is to physically manifest the guilt that plagues Orestes after his deadly deeds. Rutherford hinted the thousands of bugs add a political significance, as well. "I just wanted to insinuate that there were so many [flies] around now because we were in days of remorse and political apathy." The flies had a palpable effect. According to Rutherford, several audience members remarked that the flies made the room's temperature feel hotter. "Swatting at the flies keeps you in mind of other sensations," Rutherford said. "You became more aware of all your physical reactions." Elliot Quick, a Brown student who attended the show, said the flies "attuned me in a very physical way to the space I was in," he said. Netting designed to keep the flies in the seating area and stage "closed in the space and made it claustrophobic," Quick added. The 30,000 flies used in this production were bred by Sara Naylor, a biochemistry and molecular biology student who works with fruit flies. The production team calculated the rough density of the theater to determine the amount of flies that would be "present but not really annoying," and settled on a number of 30,000 to 40,000 flies, Naylor said. Naylor used a stock of Drosophila melanogaster from a neighboring lab that had originally been collected at a Massachusetts farm. The flies were bred in close to ideal conditions, she said. Though the flies are usually allowed to develop at around 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), Naylor raised the temperature to 27 degrees C (81 degrees F) to make the environment even more hospitable for breeding, and made sure flies had plenty of food. Naylor bred the flies for two months to obtain the number needed for the play. The day before the performance, the cast and crew released most of the flies into the theater, which was surrounded by netting. They continued freeing the flies over the next few days so their numbers would remain approximately constant throughout the performances, Naylor said. Several methods were used to keep the flies circulating around the audience, Rutherford said. More than a hundred food traps were distributed mostly in low places around the theater. One of the actresses in the play brought a bowl of rotting fruit onstage with her. Even the blood -- made of chocolate syrup -- was designed to lure the flies, he said. Precautions -- including airlocks and a fan in front of the entrance blowing inward -- insured that the flies remained in the theater, Naylor said. The Rhode Island Department of Health also required a disclaimer before each performance warning audience members to shake off their clothes after the play to prevent flies from being carried outside. This precaution arose from concerns about infestation and the need to collect the flies after the show ended, she said -- even though the cold weather in Providence, RI, likely would have killed the flies anyway, Naylor added. But ultimately, the theater's sparse environment meant it was easy to capture the flies at the end of the show's run, by which time the flies were suffering from lack of food and cold temperatures. "The flies need warm temperatures and soft, rotting fruit," Naylor said. "It was like a pregnant woman trying to survive in the Arctic." To capture the flies, the team used food traps to draw the flies into bottles, after which they were placed in lab autoclave bags, high-pressure environments that killed them through steaming, Naylor said. Though the flies might have survived for a couple of weeks in the laboratory, they were of no use in other experiments since they had experienced such extreme conditions, she said. Gabriella Doob mail@the-scientist.com Links within this article: G. Doob, "PW show to unleash 30,000 fruit flies on stage," Brown Daily Herald, December 6, 2006. http://www.browndailyherald.com/media/storage/paper472/news/2006/12/06/ArtsCulture/Pw.Show.To.Unleash.30000.Fruit.Flies.On.Stage-2524703.shtml?norewrite200701021345&sourcedomain=www.browndailyherald.com The Flies, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Flies K. Hopkin, "Drunken drosophila," The Scientist, March 1, 2006. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/23159 L. Gunderson, "Science plays come of age," The Scientist, July 28, 2006. http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/24160/
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