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Alumna's show asks a theatrical 'Where to?'

Aomawa Baker Shields, a 1997 MIT graduate, will perform a one-woman show exploring her life as scientist and actor.
Aomawa Baker Shields, a 1997 MIT graduate, will perform a one-woman show exploring her life as scientist and actor.
Photo courtesy / Aomawa Baker Shields

When she was 12, Aomawa Shields knew she wanted to be an astronaut. She studied astronomy and set her sights on MIT. Then, during high school, Shields became deeply involved in "anything and everything that had to do with theater," she said.

Shields pursued her MIT degree in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, but she also performed with Dramashop and the MIT Community Players; and she sang with the MIT Muses.

Since her graduation in 1997, she has continued to play the part of both scientist and actor. Shields explores both facets of her life in her autobiographical one-woman show, "Where To?" directed by Michael Peebler and David Schweizer. Shields will perform the show in Kresge Rehearsal Room A on Friday, Feb. 24, at 8 p.m.

Although Shields' acting career has been successful (she has appeared on television, on stage and recently in the film "Nine Lives," directed by Rodrigo Garcia), it hasn't been a straight path, she said.

After graduating from MIT, Shields was accepted to the Ph.D. astrophysics program at the University of Wisconsin, only to realize one year later that the relentless pursuit of her childhood dream was no longer fulfilling.

"I took a deferment from Wisconsin ��� to do the UCLA MFA program in acting," she said. "And I never went back."

For six years Shields concentrated solely on performing and didn't do any science. "I heard about discoveries on the news just like everybody else," she said. But in early 2005, Shields felt a pull back to the scientific world.

Now, as Shields continues to perform across the country, she also works on the Observer Support Team at Caltech's Spitzer Science Center.

In "Where To?" Shields weaves together the personal focus of her first one-woman show "Goddess. Divided." and the political themes raised in "Necessary Precautions," an original piece about the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I decided that the two shows could be combined and still carry the message of the search for identity and truth and reflect the sociopolitical debates we as a country are currently involved in," she said.

Shields' performances are provocative not only for their subject matter but also for the way in which she engages her audience. Her pieces are interactive -- viewers are involved in the show instead of "sitting back and being spectators," she said.

"At the very beginning of the piece they are stunned, shocked and reluctant," she said. "That's the idea."

But while Shields acknowledges that "pushing the boundary between audience and actor" can be uncomfortable initially, the result is a more rewarding experience for the viewer.

"It is my hope that in relating to each other, we can find a meeting point," she said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 15, 2006 (download PDF).

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