Using Biology to Build a Character’s World
Emi Hegarty, a senior majoring in Theater Studies and Biology, uses the ideas of Umwelt and body memory to build a world for her character onstage. (Les Todd)

Using Biology to Build a Character’s World

Emi Hegarty’s distinction project, Biology, Movement and Theater, is a true synthesis of the senior’s four years at Duke. It encompasses not just what she’s learned in her undergraduate career, but also the connections she’s made between her two majors, Theater Studies and Biology.

The idea for the project was born when Hegarty was introduced to the concept of Umwelt in Professor Stephen Nowicki’s Mechanisms of Animal Behavior class. Umwelt, she explained, is a notion that Baltic-German biologist Jakob von Uexküll used to theorize how individual organisms see the world. “It’s the idea that each organism has its own worldview based on its physical biology, perception and history.”

The concept intrigued Hegarty, and she wondered if it could be applied to creating a role on stage. She was already a veteran of the Department of Theater Studies’ Mainstage productions. Prior to being cast in the title role in Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, where she carried out her distinction project’s research, she had performed in Medea, Life Is a Dream, She Kills Monsters and Twelfth Night. She had also been assistant director of Citizen: An American Lyric and had worked on shows for the student theater group Duke Players as assistant fight choreographer and fight captain, positions that allowed her a deep dive into exploring stage movement.

Biology, Movement and Theater took all her prior work a step further. “My thesis involved applying the concept of Umwelt to a theatrical space and character work through embodiment and movement techniques,” Hegarty said. “I kept thinking about the idea that each individual organism takes in information and processes it differently, and how that could be applied to humans.”

Emi Hegarty performing and holding papers
Prior to being cast in the title role in Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, where she carried out her distinction project’s research, she had performed in Medea, Life Is a Dream, She Kills Monsters and Twelfth Night. (Les Todd)

Hegarty realized Umwelt might be a route into figuring out characters’ differing views of their world. “Eurydice is an especially good play for this because it has a lot of dichotomies to explore, like the tension between music and words (Orpheus is very musical and Eurydice is in love with text) and how time moves differently in the overworld and underworld, allowing the beings in each space to interact with time and each other differently.”

To find her own neutral body space to bring to the character of Eurydice, Hegarty worked with Tami Bulmash, a teacher of the Alexander Technique. “The Alexander Technique makes you more aware of your own habits and movements in an attempt to neutralize them,” she said. With Bulmash, she started creating gestures that reflected how Eurydice understood her world. “For example, there’s a very specific head tilt I used to bring out what Eurydice’s thinking about and what she's noticing.”

Hegarty also experimented with body memory, the idea that a person’s memories live subconsciously in their bodies as well as consciously in their minds. “The nature of time is a little bit circular in Ruhl’s Eurydice,” she said. “Several times throughout the production, Eurydice reaches out to Orpheus. The play opens with a game of tag where Eurydice reaches for him with the same gesture she uses later in the climax of the show.” By exploring body memory, Hegarty was able to convey through her choice of movements that even if Eurydice had forgotten everything about her previous life when she was in the underworld, her body still held those memories.

For Hegarty, one of the biggest advantages of experimenting with the ideas of Umwelt and body memory was the positive effect it had on her focus as an actor. “This approach — from a biological perspective — helped me be more adaptable on stage. For example, on closing night I made a mistake. I jumped a line, but since I'd done all this work, I immediately caught it and recovered in a way that was consistent with Eurydice’s character. I also noticed I was able to maintain characterization better throughout the duration of the show.”

Hegarty is finishing strong in the Theater Studies department. In addition to her distinction project, she is a recipient of the department’s 2024 Award for Excellence in Acting and the John M. Clum Distinguished Theater Studies Graduate Award. “Doing a distinction project was a really rewarding process,” she said. “Professor Darren Gobert was my advisor, both for my distinction project and as my Theater Studies major advisor. He's really guided me through my time here.”

After she graduates, Hegarty plans to continue to apply the ideas of Umwelt and body memory to her stage work. “If I were to explore it even more,” she said, “the next step would be for me to direct a production that is centered around Umwelt, where the cast is encouraged to explore the whole show through this lens.”