'Flight' tells the story of two refugee boys through a unique audience experience

The show comes to Tempe Center for the Arts in collaboration with ASU Gammage Jan. 17–Feb. 1

January 13, 2020

Painted plastic figurines and 225 boxes. Voices through a pair of headphones. A performance with no live actors, no distractions and no light except for the one illuminating the box. "Flight" brings the audience along for the journey of two Afghan boys’ quest for refuge through a groundbreaking new way of storytelling. 

"Flight" was created by the Scottish company Vox Motus and gained nationwide recognition at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2017 when it won the Herald Angel Award. The show is co-directed by Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison, magic and illusion designer for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”  Inside one of the dioramas for "Flight." Download Full Image

The show will be making its way to Tempe Center for the Arts in its collaboration with ASU Gammage from Jan. 17 through Feb. 1. 

MORE: Purchase tickets for "Flight" 

Edmunds and Harrison developed "Flight" based on Caroline Brothers’ novel “Hinterland,” which follows the highs and lows of Aryan and Kabir’s journey from war zone to safety. 

Harrison said he and Edmunds wanted a story that dove deeper into the refugee crisis than the facts and figures. “Hinterland” did just that. 

“We found the story very moving and wanted more people to experience it,” Harrison said. “It was something that we wanted to bring to life theatrically.” 

In order to translate the same compelling message from paper to production, the two co-directors set out on their own journey to Paris. There, they met the children who made similar excursions the two young brothers made in the novel.  

“While the journey may change and the specifics for each individual migrant situation might be slightly different, the thing that is universal about Aryan and Kabir are those thoughts and feelings that we examine in 'Flight,'” Harrison said. 

What captured Harrison’s heart was not only the stories of the young boys who ventured across continents, but the feelings that remained afterward. 

When Edmunds and Harrison arrived at the scene where the boys lived, they were playing soccer.  

“They are having an extremely difficult time in their life and they have suffered great hardship, yet still they will have a giggle and knock around,” Harrison said. “It’s very inspiring.” 

Still hopeful, still joyous. Harrison said the young boys played on the field, despite the language barrier separating many of them. 

The two directors made it a goal for "Flight" to depict not only the troubles of the boys, but to represent the hopeful and jovial nature that coincides with being a boy on the cusp of adolescence.  

From there, the “narrative diorama-scope,” as Harrison calls it, was born. 

Dioramas for the show "Flight.

The unique structure of the show was inspired by the interest of a diorama model used for a previous show Edmund and Harrison were working on.   

“We thought ‘That’s a really interesting perspective, to put Aryan and Kabir in front of an audience as two fragile little characters traveling through the vast world,” Harrison said. “We really felt that this idea that we came up with would allow us to do justice to the epic writing in Caroline’s novel.” 

For the show, audience members are subject to their own space — a small nook with two walls that block them from the person on the other side. There are 25 seats. The dioramas rotate around a carousel and are lit once in front of the viewer to tell the story.  Viewers have headphones that serve as a voiceover for the scene on display.

“People buy a ticket because they want to see the revolving models, and they come out talking about the boys,” Harrison said. “We think that is our greatest achievement.” 

Overall, the fresh take on theater and the rich story of the brothers’ escape to safety has taken the world by storm on its national tour. 

“No matter where you take this piece, people react very strongly to it because we are all human beings who can empathize with people who are having a difficult time in their lives,” Harrison said.  

Marketing assistant, ASU Gammage

ASU doctoral student devoted to promoting LGBTQIA+ inclusion in STEM professions

National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship winner chose ASU to pursue mission to foster equality

January 13, 2020

Madeleine Jennings recalls being a child who was constantly tinkering and taking things apart to understand how they worked.     

That inclination blossomed into “an affinity for the sciences,” said Jennings, who identifies as queer and prefers gender-neutral pronouns. three people standing and talking in classroom After Madeleine Jennings (center) gave a recent presentation on a key aspect of their doctoral research — challenges faced by LGBTQIA+ students in engineering programs — they discussed the subject with Bala Vignesh Sundaram (left) and Cecilia Laplace, fellow students in the engineering education and system design doctoral program in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Photo by Nadia Kellam/ASU. Download Full Image

Jennings excelled in science classes in high school, winning the chemistry department’s award of excellence in their senior year. With encouragement from their parents, Jennings decided to pursue a career in a STEM field — science, engineering, technology and math.

In their freshman year at Texas State University, Jennings landed an undergraduate research position in ferrous metallurgy, focusing on grain refinement during the casting process, as well as steel quality improvement during refining and casting processes.

The experience they gained would lead to an internship with a local steel mill for three summers. In doing that work, Jennings said they “fell in love with steelmaking” and “was absolutely certain I had found my calling.”

As a result, they switched majors from chemistry to manufacturing engineering, and eventually got a tentative offer for a full-time position at the steel mill after graduation.

“I was planning to work there for a while and then go to graduate school to study metallurgy engineering,” Jennings said.

But not long before Jennings was to graduate — and shortly after they came out to their manager at the mill as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community — Jennings says they were abruptly told the mill’s budget allowed funding for only one intern and that someone else would be filling the role, effectively rescinding the full-time job offer.

Lured by intriguing engineering education research at ASU

While that door closed, another opened for Jennings to unexpectedly “stumble into” another career possibility that would soon spark their zeal for engineering education.

Needing work after losing the internship, Jennings took an engineering education research assistantship at Texas State with construction science and management Associate Professor Kimberly Talley. The job had been recommended to Jennings by their mentor in the engineering program, mechanical engineering Lecturer Austin Talley.

The research job “worked out really well,” Jennings said, and both the mentor and the research leader urged Jennings to consider getting a graduate degree in the field.

That led Jennings to attend a national conference of the American Society for Engineering Education, where they met Associate Professor Nadia Kellam, chair of the engineering education and systems design doctoral program in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, and Assistant Professor Brooke Coley, a faculty member in the program.  

Jennings looked up information about the program and was “blown away” at the intriguing engineering education research being done by faculty and students. Jennings then asked Kellam and Coley to mentor them in applying to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program for support to earn a doctoral degree.

GRFP fellows have opportunities for internships, professional development and participation in international research projects, and can choose to do their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education.

Acceptance into the highly competitive NSF fellowship program provides a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees to pursue graduate degrees.

Jennings says the opportunities available through the Fulton Schools engineering education program made the choice an easy one.

Turning negative experience into a passion

Last January, Jennings began work as a research assistant for Kellam and Coley, just a month after receiving an undergraduate degree from Texas State. 

This past spring, Jennings was accepted into the NSF graduate research fellowship program and promptly enrolled in the engineering education and systems design doctoral program in The Polytechnic School, one of the six Fulton Schools. In July, they were also accepted into the human systems engineering master’s program.

Jennings says both graduate programs are innovative, interesting, committed to student diversity and closely aligned with their own research goals.  

Their career aspirations stem in a poignant way from the reason they feel they were not kept on as an intern at the steel mill in Texas. What happened reflects the fact “that the culture in some fields is not very welcoming to people like me,” Jennings said.

The engineering profession as well is “not always a welcoming place for a lot of people and I see that as a problem,” Jennings said. “I want to use my PhD and master’s degree work to get to the bottom of why that is happening and to try to find ways to fix it for all kinds of minority status people. But my focus is on the LGBTQIA+ community because it is so diverse.”

Kellam, who is now one of Jennings’ doctoral research mentors, said, “For Madeleine, they initially thought that their sexuality would not be important in their journey to becoming an engineer, but then learned differently when their full-time job opportunity was rescinded after coming out to their manager. Madeleine has turned this very negative experience into a passion to help other LGBTQIA+ students as they navigate engineering.”

three students in a lab building a Rube Goldberg machine

Madeleine Jennings (center) and fellow engineering education and systems design doctoral students Ieshya Anderson (at left) and Katreena Thomas (at right) are shown building a Rube Goldberg machine as an educational aid for the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics, or STEAM, lab at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus. Photo by Tim Trumble/Tim Trumble Photography

Inclusive environments produce better engineers

There is a wealth of research on the benefits of diversity in engineering, Jennings points out, but diversity and inclusion research has focused primarily on recruiting and retaining cisgender women and ethnic minorities in engineering programs, not on “invisible populations” such as the LGBTQIA+ community.

In their NSF application statements, Jennings writes that they want their work to help lay the foundation for including “more intersectional transgender and queer individuals in engineering by providing substantiation for updating obsolete policies and curriculum, increasing visibility of the LGBTQIA+ community and providing resources for transgender and other queer students to utilize.”

“Madeleine has been very courageous in their journey, in spite of the overt discrimination that they have faced,” Kellam said. “I am looking forward to mentoring them as they begin conducting research to better understand the experiences of LGBTQIA+ engineering students and finding ways to translate this important research into practice.”

Jennings explained why they decided to add the master’s degree to their educational credentials: “I’m a staunch believer in engineering education being as interdisciplinary as possible, and human systems engineering focuses on many topics important to creating an environment that is more inclusive and diverse, and that I believe produces a better all-around engineer.”

All of which, Jennings emphasizes, aligns with the NSF’s goals to support a diverse engineering student body and workforce.

Committed to advancing diversity and equity

Jennings has already assisted Kellam in writing a grant proposal to the NSF for research that would aim to broaden understanding of the experiences of LGBTQIA+ students in traditional engineering programs — for instance mechanical or electrical engineering — as opposed to a nontraditional interdisciplinary program. Another aspect is to understand what those students could do to cope with the stresses of engineering.

Jennings is particularly interested in improving the “climate” for transgender individuals, as well as other underrepresented minorities, in both engineering education and the workplace.

Such work would fill a big equality gap in the engineering profession, said Associate Professor Rod Roscoe, who is Jennings’ adviser in the human systems engineering program.

“The pursuit of inclusion needs to be all-inclusive, and LGBTQIA+ communities in engineering seem to be neglected,” Roscoe said. “We share a passion for understanding and addressing these issues in our fields.”

Diversity, inclusion and equity are increasingly important topics in engineering, he adds, noting that the American Society of Engineering Education, or ASEE, issued the Deans Diversity Pledge in 2017, in which signers, including ASU, commit to improving and promoting inclusion.

“It is exciting to see students leading and doing innovative work this area,” Roscoe said. “Jennings is a role model.”

Family support is motivating factor

Jennings is still in exploration mode on where they want to go professionally once they have earned a doctoral degree.

“Part of me wants to go into academia and do research, part of me wants to start my own business and part of me wants to start a nonprofit of some sort,” they say.

Jennings, the first in their family to graduate from a four-year college undergraduate program, acknowledges their parents, who work in a tech and engineering industry (they own a consulting company focusing on oil, gas and ethylene plant startups) for their enthusiasm for their child’s higher education endeavors.

Jennings’ spouse, a Phoenix native, clinician and teacher with the Phoenix-based Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center, also gets credit as a motivator.

“He has been an advocate for me going to grad school since we met, and I wouldn’t be here without his support,” Jennings said.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering