November 6, 2012

By Greg Langen

Theater Oobleck’s The Hysterical Alphabet, aptly described as an alternative mode of sharing academic research, is coming to the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts on Wednesday, November 7. Part medical scholarship, part dramatic performance, part soundscape, the event, presented by UChicago’s Arts|Science Initiative and the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, promises a unique convergence of discourses and disciplines.

The Hysterical Alphabet — a collaboration between author Terri Kapsalis, video-collagist Danny Thompson, and sound artist John Corbett —chronicles the saga of the “female malady,” hysteria throughout human history. Based on over 4000 years of medical history, Kapsalis grounds the story in a long list of scholarly texts. Drawing from medical records, philosophical works, film, sound, and other critical texts, this multimedia performance smartly weaves together the critical with the creative.  

The unique performance is a project of Theater Oobleck, a collective that has launched, over 23 years, 60 productions of “idiosyncratic new works.” Each work is created and developed by the collective without an overseeing director. Kapsalis is not only the researcher and writer of The Hysterical Alphabet, she is also the voice of the performance.

“I think of the history of hysteria as an important cultural legacy that helps us investigate the assumptions we’re dealing with when it comes to gender, particularly in relationship to medicine,” said Kapsalis. “I hope that the audience finds the history of hysteria to be shocking, amazing, and helpful as well. I am particularly excited to perform The Hysterical Alphabet as part of UChicago's Arts|Science Initiative because I truly feel that the interplay of art and science gets to the heart of the piece.”

The Hysterical Alphabet likewise accomplishes a basic goal of the Arts|Science Initiative: to place the art and science into conversation with one another. Ideally, this cross-fertilization of ideas leads participants into uncharted territories of inquiry and helps foster cohesion and interaction between diverse disciplines.

The Hysterical Alphabet caught my attention immediately for the expert and remarkable way in which the performance blends theory, scholarship, and practice into one captivating event,” said Julie Marie Lemon, Program Director of the Arts|Science Initiative, a campus wide effort to capture, cultivate, and sustain meaningful discourse between artistic and scientific inquiry.

“Works that are deeply invested in both academic research and artistic practice, like The Hysterical Alphabet, help us pursue our greater mission in bringing the arts and sciences into concert with one another,” says Lemon. “We are excited that we can share this event with the greater Chicago community and our neighbors on the south side, and hopefully challenge our audience to think and new ways. Most importantly, we hope this performance will spark conversations.”

Terri Kapsalis will also be holding a workshop to speak on the making of The Hysterical Alphabet and discuss the surprising ways in which unconventional modes of presentation can transform one’s own academic research. Interested parties can register for the workshop, taking place 12:15 – 1:30pm on Friday, November 9, by emailing  

The Hysterical Alphabet is presented by the Arts|Science Initiative and the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Chicago. The event is free, but reservations are strongly recommended for priority seating. Please call 773-702-ARTS (2787) for tickets, or visit the UChicago Arts Box Office:


Clip of The Hysterical Alphabet