How important is language in forming connections? What does it mean to communicate?
These are the kinds of questions asked by language specialists, like Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) faculty Joanne Lasker and Kelly Farquharson. They’re also questions examined by a play, Precious Little, directed by Performing Arts Chair Melia Bensussen for the Central Square Theater in Cambridge.
And on March 4 and 12, those questions will be explored together, when Farquharson (March 4) and Lasker (March 12) join post-performance panels to lend their clinical expertise to a conversation started by the play.
“I’m really excited that it’s an opportunity for two aspects of Emerson College to go out in public and show people how we combine these diverse topics together,” said CSD Chair Lasker. “I like the idea that art and science are friends, and that they work together.”
Precious Little, written by Madeleine George, centers on an accomplished linguist who is fighting the death of a language, even as she’s told by another character that “some things are meant to die out.”
“Beneath this quest to save all languages is a deep-seated belief that the meaning and importance of life is found in verbal communication,” Bensussen writes in her director’s notes. “But this assumption leaves Brodie with a puzzle that is not unfamiliar to many of us—without language, how to explain all the other connections we feel in our lives?”
Lasker, whose work focuses on “augmentative and alternative communication”—helping adults who lack or have lost the ability to communicate through language—is a natural choice to talk about the ways humans bond, with and without spoken words. She will speak on a panel following the March 12 matinee put together by Catalyst Conversations, along with artistic directors Lee Mikeska Gardner (The Nora Theatre Company) and Debra Wise (Underground Railroad Theater).
Following the March 4 evening performance, Farquharson, a CSD assistant professor and speech-language pathologist who focuses on communication disorders in children, will join a panel of colleagues from Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts Boston to talk about the linguistic aspects of the play.
Lasker and Farquharson aren’t the only Emerson faculty to get involved in the play. Bensussen said she enlisted CSD Professor Emeritus Dan Kempler to help her with some of the staging (a backdrop to the set is covered in linguistic notation, and Bensussen wanted it to be accurate), and in getting into the mind of a linguist.
“He wrote [that] yes, for a linguist, a language dying is so crucial, it’s beyond even a human death,” Bensussen said. “That passion that he shared with me that linguists feel is enlightening to me.
“It’s been fun for me to connect with CSD on this,” she said. “I have the great privilege of knowing people in this discipline and getting to learn from them.”
Part of the Precious Little’s power, she said, lies in the teacher/student relationships that develop between three generations of women. As a woman and as a teacher, the dynamic is moving, she said.
“We know we’re always mentoring and being mentored at the same time,” Bensussen said.
For Lasker, who hasn’t yet read or seen the play, the opportunity to collaborate with a stage production is “personally exciting.” In college, Lasker was a double theater/English major.
“I miss theater,” she said. “I’m really glad I became a speech-language pathologist, but it’s gratifying to be involved in a project that’s so theatrical.”
Precious Little runs March 2– 11 at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge. For more information, visit the website.