Friday, July 22, 2016

Drugs, dolphins, experiments combo
makes for entertaining theater

I recently had occasion to photograph "Acid Dolphin Experiment," the current production of the Phoenix Theatre, a 32-year-old Indianapolis theater company devoted to new or contemporary plays. "Acid," which has its world premiere this weekend, tells the 1960s story in the Virgin Islands of neuroscientist John Lilly's exploration of the nature of consciousness using isolation tanks, dolphin communication and psychedelic drugs.

The writing of resident playwright Tom Horan on his take of the experiment is entertaining and witty; the "Acid" manuscript features quick, clever one-liners and put downs. It also contains profanity and sexual references, making this a show aimed at adult audiences.

Equal in importance to Lilly's role in the "Acid" plot is that of his dolphin assistant, Margaret (played by Chelsey Stauffer), who in the real-life story had the full name Margaret Howe Lovatt. She was responsible for trying to communicate with Peter, one of three dolphins in the Virgin Islands experiment.

In 2014, the BBC aired a documentary, "The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins," about the Virgin Islands project, focusing on Lovatt's role in it. At some point in Lovatt's efforts, she began stimulating the dolphin for his sexual release. In the play, Margaret explains that decision to Lilly (played by Josh Coomer) by first mentioning that Peter had been striking out at her in anger ... and even shows Lilly and Liz (played by Lauren Briggeman) the bruise marks on her thigh. She said she had deduced Peter was doing this because he lacked a sexual outlet.

The primary differences between the real story and theatrical drama is that the play focuses on one dolphin, Peter, and has no ending of consequence for the dolphin. In the 1960s story, while Lovatt worked with Peter, Lilly dosed the two other dolphins with LSD trying to accomplish the same, communication objective.

Also, the real project ended sadly for Peter. Over time, he grew extremely attached to Lovatt, and when funding for the experiment dried up, Peter was moved to a different, smaller location -- without Lovatt joining him. Apparently despondent by the separation, Peter died of what was reported to be self-induced asphyxiation (dolphins do not breathe automatically like humans; they must consciously activate each breath).

I was present for two "Acid" rehearsals this week, and as much as I enjoyed the play, the fact that the three female cast members slipped into the roles of multiple characters had me confused about the storyline. No doubt a good part of that was attributable to my need to focus on my task at hand -- photography. I will say that on the second visit, I picked up a lot I had missed the first night. Nevertheless, when I left Tuesday, I was still a bit fuzzy about some things in the storyline.

Performances of "Acid Dolphin Experiment" are on Thursdays through Sundays from July 21 to Aug. 14 at the theater, which is at 749 N. Park Ave., a short jaunt west of where St. Clair Street converges with Massachusetts and College avenues. You can purchase tickets online at or by calling the box office at 317-635-7529. Ticket prices are $27 on Thursdays and Sundays and $33 on Fridays and Saturdays. For more information, visit this link.

There's a little story behind the photo you see leading off this post. As I mentioned earlier, I was present for two rehearsals -- a mostly complete dress rehearsal on Monday, July 18, and the real, official dress rehearsal the very next day. I brought my camera Monday primarily to assess camera settings ... and to look for any lighting and/or action pitfalls. However, since I saw cast members in costume, I started shooting as if it were the real thing.

One scene featured a blow to Lilly delivered by an unmasked alien force agent (played by Michael Hosp) as depicted in the lead-off photo. I got that particular frame in Monday's visit and was thrilled with the result -- especially because I didn't know it was coming, but happened to be positioned perfectly ... and got the timing just right.

On Tuesday, when I reshot the scene, I wasn't nearly as fortunate with the timing. Luckily, Coomer and Hosp had the same look and costumes on both days, so I can use this in my final album of the archival shoot that I'll deliver to the theater company. I wouldn't have been as lucky if the scene had involved one of the three women; each of them had different outfits and official hairstyles in the Tuesday run-through.

For a full gallery of photos from the shoot, visit my online site at

Photo geek stuff: I shot both performances that I attended with a Canon 6D equipped with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens. I used shutter priority (1/200) and an ISO that varied due to frequent stage lighting changes. ISOs ranged from a low of 1600 to highs of 5000 or thereabouts.

Jolene Moffatt (left), Chelsey Stauffer (center) and Lauren Briggeman are challenged to play multiple characters in "Acid." In this early scene of the play, they trade quick one-liners from laboratory portholes, providing one of many moments of humor. 

John Lilly is in mid-trip in "the tank" (above) in an early scene, only to be startled out of it (below) when his government scientist assistant Alice Miller (played by Moffatt) tosses a cup full of water on his face. 

Above: Lilly's trips leave him ill-equipped to deal with common problems, but fortunately, Alice is nearby to make sure things don't get out of hand ... or fatal.  

Above and below: Lilly is coaxed to take on a second wife to deal with some frustrations of his own, so up steps Liz (played by Briggeman), who sashays toward neuroscientist Lilly to seal the deal.  

Above: Early in the play, there is sexual tension between Lilly and Alice (above). Moffatt (Alice) also plays Constance, an LSD guide (next two below) who helps bring down Lilly from a particularly eventful acid trip. Constance frequently drops a delightful, affectionate, southern-style "baby" into her dialogue.  

Peter is unseen when Margaret reaches through the porthole (above) to tend to Peter even as John trips again in the isolation tank area (below).

Above: Margaret shows a thigh bruise, caused by Peter, to Liz and John.

Above: Lilly's hallucinogenic encounters with a representative of the alien life force Solid State Intelligence (SSI) were a point in the story that lost or confused me. I just resolved to appreciate the faceless SSI dude's cool costuming. 

Above: Another point in the story that takes a wild turn are the two occasions (this is one of them) when Stauffer breaks into a Carl Sagan impression ... and brings a couple more moments of laughs. In a later scene, not to be outdone, Moffatt dresses like the late stage and screen actor Burgess Meredith.

Above and below: Constance and Liz share a joint during a chat that eventually leads to a moment of sexual tension between them. 

Above and next two below: During yet another acid trip, Lilly sees Liz as Peter. While at one point Liz is irritated with Lilly, they part on decent terms.  

Above and below: The SSI dude is back, this time playing the role of an airline flight attendant. I'm chagrined to admit I forget the relevance of John's coonskin cap.  


  1. Joe,
    Thank you so much for capturing so many great moments during our production. You have a fantastic eye and your work is just beautiful!

  2. Kind of you to take the time to comment, Emily. Thank you. I enjoyed my experience shooting the play -- and the work and professionalism of this very fine cast. And kudos, too, to your costuming work!