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Brain waves

by Mark Wanner / Photography by Françoise Gervais

Creativity is vital to innovative science as well as art. And a group of Laboratory employees have begun a grassroots effort named the "Right Brain Café" to provide an active outlet for creative expression.

"Creativity and play—they're often considered fluffy and non-productive, but that mindset comes at the expense of innovation," says Jennifer Torrance, the Laboratory's senior manager of multimedia services and an accomplished singer. A lunchtime discussion between Torrance and Heidi Stanton- Drew, a fellow manager and singer, identified the need for some kind of outlet, where people could gather to play, sing, act, share visual art—right brain activities. The hope was that a more creative culture might extend into the work environment.

Our collective music making is another portal to this community's heart.

Soon after, Torrance had a serendipitous chat with the Laboratory's just-arrived new President and CEO Edison Liu, himself a skilled jazz pianist. They found time to play music together that very week, and Torrance mentioned the idea, which she and Stanton-Drew had dubbed "Right Brain Café." Liu's immediate enthusiasm catalyzed the progression from concept to reality.

"Our collective music making is another portal to this community's heart," says Liu. "It builds relationships and bonds. Our Right Brain Café is that portal, and it is refreshing and heartwarming."

In May 2012, after an informal word-ofmouth marketing campaign, the first Right Brain Café session convened with two dozen employees and Liu himself holding forth on the piano. The gatherings in Roscoe's, the Laboratory's cafeteria, have become a regular and growing occurrence since.

"JAXfit has done a terrific job of providing everyone here with the opportunity to improve their physical health and well-being, and the benefits are obvious," says Torrance. "It's great to start developing similar opportunities for employees to exercise their creative skills as well."

A recently released "Right Brain Café Manifesto" characterizes it as "a defined time and space for individual and group creative expression where:

  • · time for this expression is equally distributed
  • · the atmosphere is non-judgmental
  • · learning is mutual
  • · mistakes are celebrated
  • · regimentation is deplored

Our goals are to support community, to enhance connectivity, to foster individual creative fulfillment and to encourage work-life balance."

A strong proponent of this outlook is Radiation Safety Officer Michael Zittle. "Playing music is more of a need than a want. I've been playing drums for 35 years—it's who I am," says Zittle, who moved with his family last August from Oregon, where he had settled after 17 years as a professional drummer in Los Angeles. "On my first day here the woman leading orientation mentioned Ed and the Right Brain Café, and the day after that I was having lunch with Heidi in Roscoe's, making arrangements to come play."

Right Brain Café gatherings also include an expanding photography group, and informal discussions have begun among visual artists and creative writers. Nonetheless, much of the focus has been and remains in the musical sphere. And the collaborations are expanding.

"I've played a lot of jazz—it was the only thing I could do when my daughter was a baby and I wanted to practice!—and Wayne Frankel (a faculty professor) was getting into jazz piano," says Zittle, whose nickname is Zeppy. "So we looked for a bassist and found one in town. It's been a lot of fun, and our first real gig was at the Laboratory's Big City Nights party, when we opened up for Motor Booty Affair. Now we have gigs in town here, all from getting together through Right Brain Café."