Catch up with the Curious Campus podcast

How movie theaters responded to the pandemic

Many cinemas have reopened in 2021 after being shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been other positive signs that theaters may be rebounding, especially as more Americans get vaccinated. Still, some customers are wary about returning to indoor public spaces such as theaters.

On this episode of Curious Campus, we talk about movie theaters and the movies with Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece, an associate professor of English and Director of the UWM Film Studies program; and Andrew Mencher, director of programming and operations at the Avalon Theater in Washington, D.C.

Mencher also is owner and operations director of The Cinema Club, a national organization that, in non-COVID times, offers sneak previews to new independent and foreign films, and hosts post-screening discussions. Szczepaniak- Gillece is a co-moderator of the Milwaukee chapter of The Cinema Club.

Pick up some popcorn and listen to the full show at WUWM. com or on your favorite podcast app.

What makes watching a movie in a theater special?

Szczepaniak-Gillece: To me, it’s about the democratic aspects of the movie theater, how there is a possibility for all manner of different people to enter the theater. That’s not to say that it’s always been a democratic space, nor one that has welcomed everyone at all times.

We don’t choose our seatmates at the movie theater, usually, and that’s a really powerful thing – the possibility of experiencing something sweeping, emotional and empathetic with a person we wouldn’t necessarily to choose to sit next to. That doesn’t happen very much.

Mencher: I come down along the lines of someone who would define this from the industry side, and as a spectator and movie lover, and that is, “What isn’t great about the going-to-the-movies experience?” There’s the grand aspect

of watching something on a huge screen with excellent sound and excellent lighting, and truly being forced to sit there and pay attention to the time the movie is going to unfold. An inability to walk away and be distracted – I think that has become more and more precious these days, because it’s nearly impossible to find a similar situation.

How were smaller, nonprofit or independent theaters affected by the pandemic?

Mencher: For a nonprofit theater, we had a lot we could lean on. We were able to take advantage of (federal Paycheck Protection Plan) loans and local grants. A lot of theaters did very well by the Shuttered Venue Operators grant. Frankly, that was a lifeline for an enormous number of venues that would be gone if not for that bill.

We also had people who donated. It was somewhat of an advantage over the commercial venues that didn’t have that same sort of customer base that they could lean on. I certainly have my concerns about how we go forward and what it looks like. Our sort of theater, and I would imagine theaters like the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, which has a strong customer base, would probably be in reasonably good shape.

How have theaters tried to bring back customers?

Szczepaniak-Gillece: I’ve been to the movies a few times this year, each time has been packed, which I think is a good sign. I’ve gone to the Avalon Theater in Milwaukee, and I think part of the reason that the Avalon has been so successful is not only its strong customer base, but it’s one of those theaters that relies on concessions.

You can get nachos and chicken fingers delivered to your seat. In this moment of crisis, there is this pivot toward extra possibilities in the movie theater. With concessions, including getting a full meal, and, certainly in Milwaukee, being able to buy alcohol and getting it delivered to your seat, it’s a big part of bringing audiences back in.

By Genaro C. Armas, University Relations


Fish may hold the secret to reversing blindness

When a person’s optic nerve is damaged, by disease or injury, their eyesight goes with it. The nerve can’t be healed, and blindness is permanent.

That’s not the case for fish, which can regenerate their optic nerve in as little as 12 days and regain their eyesight about 80 days after an injury. Amphibians, like frogs and salamanders, also can reverse vision loss through regeneration.

Scientists are closing in on identifying the exact genetic components that fish and amphibians use to regenerate their optic nerve after injury. The work may one day provide new treatments for human eye diseases and prevent permanent vision loss.

On this episode of Curious Campus, we talk with Ava Udvadia, UWM associate professor of biological sciences, and Fiona Watson, associate professor of biology at Washington and Lee University. The two scientists, one of whom studies regeneration in fish and the other who studies it in frogs, discuss their work in this conversation.

Would you explain the basics of vision for us and how that relates to the work you’re doing?

Udvadia: Our eyes are just the detectors of light, and that raw light information has to get to the brain to be processed as an image that we actually perceive. The light information gets transmitted to the brain through the optic nerve.

In diseases such as glaucoma or other optic neuropathies, that conduit gets damaged. So you may still be collecting all the light that you need with your eyes, and your brain may still be working fine, but there’s no communication between them. The problem is, humans don’t have the capacity to regenerate nerves in our central nervous system the way fish and frogs do.

Watson: During our development, our nerve cells grow and connect the eyes to the brain. This is a developmental program, initiated by a particular set of genes. Once they’ve established the connection, a whole other set of genes is used for maintaining that connection. So people have the same genes that fish and frogs use for regeneration, but we can’t reactivate the genes that are turned on during development once the optic nerve is built.

What controls the genetic programming necessary for regeneration in fish and frogs?

Udvadia: We can think of our genome as a recipe for making every part of us. A recipe contains the list of ingredients and the instructions of what to do with those ingredients. Think of the ingredients as our genes. The instructions of how to build the nerve, for example, would be analogous to the genes’ regulatory regions which control when to turn the genes on, how much to make, and where to make it in the body. We’re trying to understand how the method for development and the method for regeneration differ so we’re looking at the regulation of those genes.

Watson: Each of us has generated a list of “ingredients” – the genes that are active and not active during regeneration – for frogs and fish. And we’re now comparing the regulatory regions to see and timing the progression of regeneration in each animal.

Ava had worked out that for zebrafish. And I’ve been able to work out the entire timeline for 1-year-old frogs.

How can this work help save the eyesight of people?

Udvadia: Ultimately we hope to take what we learn from the fish and frogs and apply it to humans. And we think that we can. We hope to be able to compare the injury response of humans to the response of fish and frogs. Then we can begin to get at how to tweak the response in humans.

By Laura Otto, University Relations