NEW YORK – At 6 p.m., the doors to Joe’s Pub opened, and guests were greeted by a string quartet onstage playing Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” (“A Little Night Music”), followed by “Wimoweh” (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”). As ticketholders made their way to candlelit tables where centerpieces ranged from boxes of Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Tea to CPAP machines for people with sleep apnea, the evening’s theme became readily apparent.
Clearly, this was not a conventional program. In a seeming contradiction, it was to be a lively evening celebrating quiet evenings and the importance of sleep.
But this kind of out-of-the-box creative approach is the hallmark of the Yale School of Public Health’s new Humanity, Arts, and Public Health Practice at Yale (HAPPY) Initiative, which orchestrated the evening as its first multimedia performance program. Appropriately titled “Wake Up to Yale School of Public Health’s HAPPY Initiative,” the October 27 event attracted a capacity crowd of mostly Yale alumni at the iconic Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater.
Emceed by actor and Tony Award-winning producer and supporter of the initiative, Michael Shulman ’04, the program flowed gently from one artistic touchstone to another. It opened with HAPPY founder and YSPH Professor Judith Lichtman explaining the initiative and the reason for the event, followed by YSPH lecturer Dr. Neal Baer, MD, testifying to the power of media to improve public health. The program also included a presentation by YSPH MPH candidate Mary Peng ’23, who uses public health research to inspire her mixed-media art, and a scientific explanation of the importance of sleep by Dr. Henry Klar Yaggi, MD, MPH ’03, professor of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at the Yale School of Medicine and a leading expert in the field. Keeping with the evening’s tribute to the health benefits of sleep, a musical interlude by The Woodbridge Quartet naturally included Brahms’ Lullaby, followed by Tony-winning actor Michael Cerveris ’83, performing an original song, “Sleepwalking,” with the quartet. The program wrapped up with a half-hour improvisational comedy performance by the Yale Exit Players, followed by a Q&A session moderated by Shulman.
“Tonight’s subject is an important one – it’s one our distinguished panel doesn’t take lying down,” Shulman told the audience, launching a string of groan-inducing puns to get the production off on a light note. “They take it seriously. For many of them, it’s their dream job.”
So why this program and why sleep? Lichtman and Baer said the idea has been percolating since the formation of HAPPY in 2019.
“I’ve worked with Judy since the beginning of the HAPPY Initiative, when (then-YSPH Dean) Sten Vermund brought me on and introduced me to her,” said Baer, an acclaimed television showrunner, producer, and writer. “It’s been really fulfilling and gratifying to draw on the arts and humanities to promote health and well-being.”
Baer said he and Lichtman discussed ways to introduce HAPPY to the Yale community, and the obvious answer was to do something in a venue where artists perform to demonstrate how the arts and humanities can be involved in promoting public health.
And the reason for focusing on sleep?
“Sleep, because it’s one of the basic health issues,” said Lichtman, chair of the Chronic Disease Epidemiology Department, and Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Epidemiology (Chronic Diseases).
“Everybody has a story about how they slept last night,” Baer said. “Everybody ... It’s a very relatable public health issue that has a lot of empirical research underpinning it. We do our work looking at data, going from the data to the story.”
During the program, Baer demonstrated how a powerful media message can be used to bring attention to public health issues.
He showed clips from two of the most famous shows on which he worked – an episode of ER that focused on cervical cancer and HPV; and an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that focused on the huge backlog of untested rape kits around the country at the time. The ER episode heightened awareness of cervical cancer and HPV; The SVU episode led to several states (including Connecticut) clearing their rape kit backlogs and several others passing laws on processing them.
Peng told the audience how she uses public health research to influence her art. For example, she showed what looked like a distended dandelion, in gradient shades from white to purple.
“For data art, I wanted to transform factual data about sleep research into an artistic and visual representation,” she said. For this particular piece, she collected data on investment in sleep research by the National Institutes of Health from 2008 to 2023.
“I wanted to highlight the rapid increase in sleep research investment over the past 15 years,” she said, “so I created this flower-like piece consisting of 16 dandelion-like microneedle structures, with every microneedle representing one million dollars. When they’re put together, they form this dazzling projectile structure that not only captures factual data, but also highlights this narrative, the blossoming field of sleep research.”
The Yale Exit Players, a group of undergraduate performers, took sleep and the arts to several other tangents. Taking their cues from index cards filled out by the audience, the players jumped in and out of scenes (just like dream sequences many people have) – free-associating from driving while trying to stay awake, to snoring, to playing video games all night, to mass-consuming energy drinks.
“Where we fit in is just providing another avenue of thinking about sleep,” said the group’s director, Gonna Nwakudu. “Our group is very experimental. We try out different forms of improv. A lot of it is relationship-building and road-building, and so we hope to use some of our own talents in order to add to the narrative of sleep.”
As the audience filed out — hopefully to a good night’s sleep — Lichtman hoped the evening’s message had gotten through.
“I hope we realize that all the arts and humanities around us play a big role in how we live our lives, and there are great opportunities for us to think about how we can tell great stories to improve health,” she said. “In my field, so much of it is research and publications and talks. But the reality is that when you want to spin it out to society, there are many other modes. I think the ones that can have the greatest impact could be music or film or theater, all different media, and my hope is that we can raise that awareness, connecting our health with a lot of aspects of the arts.”