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TBA Online: News & Features: July 2015

Science on Stage

Thursday, July 2, 2015   (0 Comments)
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By Lisa Drostova

At the New York Television Festival in 2009, former Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica writer Ron Moore revealed the secret behind Star Trek: The Next Generation scripts. “We had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we’d just write ‘tech’ in the script. You know, Picard would say, ‘Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.’” Any science-focused theatre artists worth their sodium chloride hearing this must have groaned in despair, as dedicated as they are to the tricky and rewarding dance of getting real science on stage. How do you stage scientific events, concepts and discoveries in a clear, engaging, accurate way that supports the story you’re trying to tell? How do you make a play that doesn’t rely on “tech the tech to the warp drive”?


Mick Mize in Central Works' 2009 production of Blastosphere! by Aaron Loeb and Geetha Reddy. Photo: Tammy Berlin


It’s a worthy challenge, because as playwright Lauren Gunderson points out, science has theatrical juice. “It’s the power of a well told story, with a great climactic moment. Science is great drama: people risking for something they believe in that may sound crazy to other people, something that will create great change at the climactic moment. When the fight is fought, science changes the world; you can’t really have a bigger change than that. And it’s physical, we can see it, and even when we can’t see it, like quantum science, we can see the effects of it. All of that makes for really great drama that sticks, that is emotionally interesting and visceral. I think audiences are ready for something that is intellectual as well as entertaining.”

Her colleague Geetha Reddy, who studied astronomy in college and had a software career before she became a playwright, believes that “[t]he challenges are where the excitement lies. Part of theatre is letting people into a secret world. I am interested in revealing the rigorous way that scientists work. Theatre is good at exposing audiences to things that might be out of their comfort zone, such as social justice issues and issues around inequality or identity. Given the impact of science in our society, I think that understanding how science is done and what motivates the people who do it is just as important. People need to understand science to be effective citizens.”

Anthony Clarvoe, who has written several commissions on science and tech themes, agrees that staging science has larger implications. “Given that plays are supposed to be about noticeable people, how we show the product of conflict of different ways of seeing or being, seeing the ways those conflicts are very similar, because they’re fundamental to the conflicts that we’re undergoing right now—the attempt to reconcile science and religion, science and the power of knowledge, politics and the power of power—these are ongoing issues that will not ever, on some level, go away. It’s trying to recognize and reconcile these conflicts—in presenting and embodying those permanent human conflicts—that the theatre performs its invaluable service.”

All three are quick to note that science stories are still human stories. “What makes it a play is that it’s a story about a person having an idea,” Gunderson says. “It’s not actually a play about science, it’s a play about a person who is experiencing science. Staging a play about science is about finding what is emotional, what is personal, what is risky about these ideas; that’s going to make a better play that is gripping and actable. Unless you’re writing an educational play, which I’ve done, which is about ‘let me show you all these ideas on multiple levels, with interactivity,’ a real mainstage play is all about heart. And the thing is, science has heart. It has a lot of it, and it’s complex, and it is high stakes, and the feeling of a Eureka moment is epic, it’s great drama. I think what’s most satisfying is the Eureka moment. Stage that, because that’s when our hearts soar and our breath quickens, and we cheer. That’s why the act break of Silent Sky [Gunderson's play about turn-of-the-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt] is that moment. We’ve got the lights, and the movement, and ‘She did it!’ and thenblackout.”

Unlike science fiction, Gunderson continues, you must be as accurate as possible. You can take liberties with history, certainly poetry, artistic license, but if the science is wrong, don’t write about science. If it happens, it’s an accident, or a consequence of choosing poetry over science. I’ve been guilty of that: ‘Oh, but that word is much prettier! Stop it, Lauren.’ You’re writing about physics; you can’t adjust the way you would in literature. Where it gets tricky is when you’re writing about history; sometimes there are words that they used differently.

In Emilie [Gunderson’s play about French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet], she was alive in the mid-1700s, and she was working with a concept of force. Now what we call ‘force’ now is mass times acceleration, so it’s different from what she was talking about. When she said ‘force’ she meant the concept of energy. They didn’t really have the distinction. And so there are a few physicists who say, actually, ‘force’ is this, and I say, ‘Yes, they used the word differently back then, and I didn’t want to stop the play to have a lecture about those words.’ So I had to write a preface to the play and ask theatres to put it in their program.” 

Gunderson chooses to approach science from a historical angle, paying careful attention to the period in which the discovery takes place. “If you know what was going on when the person was alive, she says, why this revelation happened then, it sticks in your mind much more clearly than just here’s a fact, or here’s an equation. Newton had to come before Einstein, but if you know more about Newton, and the time in which Einstein’s work was coming about, it makes much more sense.” 

The history of science also holds the potential for great competition and conflict. Gunderson’s Background is about cosmologist Ralph Alpher, who predicted the presence of cosmic microwave background radiation (proof that the Big Bang happened) before there were tools that could measure it. Nearly 20 years later, two other scientists confirmed Alpher’s theory quite accidentally, winning the Nobel prize in the process—and they didn’t mention his work. “The competition and the value of achievement is particularly great and provides great vengeance stories. So this was really the story of a person who was right, and didn’t get credit,” Gunderson says. Produced in Atlanta in 2004, Background was Gunderson's “first attempt to do a couple of things. One, tell the story of a scientist, show science on stage in a way you could understand but also was just a little over your head so you had to reach a little; you’re learning something. And the other thing is to use the structure of the play to tell the story of science. This is a play about the beginning of the universe, which you can only get by going back to the beginning of time. So the play goes backwards in time. We start with his heart attack, and go backwards in time to the moment when he realized he’d gotten it, and back to when he was in school, and back to when he was born, and back to the beginning of the universe.”

Science plays seem to attract writers who love research. “You read every book, but with any research play, you can’t put all your research in it,” Gunderson says. “A play is an efficient form of storytelling. You can’t write everything you know, even though you’re proud you know it. How do we distill not just the history but the science down to the very bare minimum? Because if you go on for more than a minute of science talk, people start to glaze over, even if they’re very interested, because theatre doesn’t handle that well, so we need to find an active way to talk about the ideas.” Reddy says, “The challenge is making it accessible without it becoming a PBS documentary on a subject. Science is full of difficult language that can be a barrier to understanding, but authentic scientist characters speak in pure jargon a lot of the time. So the difficulty is in making vivid, realistic characters that audiences can connect with while not getting bogged down in exposition.”


Henrietta Leavitt (Elena Wright), Annie Cannon (Sarah Dacey Charles) and Williamina Fleming (Lynne Soffer) study star plates in TheatreWorks' 2014 production of Lauren Gunderson's Silent Sky. Photo: Tracy Martin


Having a visual sense of how to make the story work helps. Reddy says, “Like all playwrights (I assume!), I’m always imaging how the play will appear on stage as I am writing it. With the play I’m writing now for Crowded Fire, On a Wonderverse, I’m fortunate to be working with the design team well in advance of production. Maya Linke is our set designer, and she has already started feeding me ideas for representing a universe on stage. We’re in the middle of it, but it is a unique experience to already be working together with designers even as the play is in development.” According to Clarvoe, “You serve as a kind of mediator between the specialists in a discipline and the general public, so the first step is very often to educate your director and designers and performers in the richness of the metaphors available when you are exploring this body of knowledge.”

The shape of the play is also an important design decision. Gunderson describes how the structure of her science plays reflect the concepts she’s illustrating—how the story moves through time, or how people move. “In Emilie there’s a moment where they’re talking about the motion of the planets, and there’s a dance that’s happening around her, much like the moon and the sun and the earth; it helps people see what [the characters] are talking about. In Silent Sky, when the heroine is making her discovery, having her Eureka! moment, there’s a relationship between the music, the blinking stars, and her explanation—they’re all happening at once. She’s talking about seeing a pattern in the stars and the lights are blinking in a certain way, and the music is playing—the idea materializes in a very theatrical and physical way. Theatre has great tools, and especially when you’re dealing with intellectual subjects, you’ve got to use those tools. I’m a firm believer in writing for sound designers, lighting designers, set designers, costumers even, because we’ve got these brilliant people working for us, and oftentimes we just go, ‘We want a naturalistic play,’ and they say, ‘All right.’ But if we go, ‘I want the stars to talk to us,’ some lighting designer is going to say, ‘Hell, yeahI can do that!’ When you ask them for grand things, they deliver, and it makes us all look better, and the story gets told more meaningfully.”

Gunderson’s “Hell, yeah!” lighting designer on Silent Sky was Paul Toben, who is currently based in Chicago and who sports an impressive resume of musicals, classics and experimental and/or new works. “I think there is science in lots of plays, but usually you have to go looking for it. What was interesting to me about Silent Sky was that it is the reverse: the plot of Silent Sky is about astronomy, but underneath all of that, it’s really a play about art, and music, and love,” Toben says.

 Danielle Levin in Symmetry Theatre Company's 2012
production of Lauren Gunderson's
Photo: Bob Grace

How did Toben approach Silent Sky“First, I had to bone up on the science," he says. "I had a basic understanding of the derivative science that came out of Henrietta Leavitt’s work, but it was apparent that that wasn’t going to cut it if I was going to need to teach an audience about her work. So I started by making sure I knew everything I could possibly know about the luminosity-period relation. Early on in the design process, we all agreed that we would need to use projections to fully illustrate the science. So the next thing I did was start to pull images that I thought I could use to describe the science. Our projections programmer Jim Gross and I used these images to build a multilayered composite of the star clusters that Leavitt was studying. Especially when working with projections, it’s important to make sure that the design isn’t something that happens ‘on top of’ or ‘behind’ the play. It was important to all of us that the projections felt fully integrated into the design, so that they didn’t start to feel like a university lecture. Remember, we’re dealing with a play that is actually about art, and music, and love. So we took a little bit of artistic license with the way we treated some of the images. But at the end of the day, we were always true to the science. That part was critical.” 

Gunderson would add that music is critical to the success of her work: Jenny Giering’s score on Silent Sky, including “Margaret’s Piece,” where the protagonist’s sister plays a composition that triggers Leavitt’s Eureka! moment; Brian Lowdermilk’s music for The Amazing Adventures of Doctor Wonderful and Her Dog, an educational show at the Kennedy Center featuring an “Aguilera-style power ballad about solar fusion” and Kate Kilbane’s work on both By and By and the forthcoming Ada and the Memory Engine. 

Collaborations between director and cast can also help get the science across. Chloe Bronzan, who directed Emilie at the Berkeley City Club, was fortunate in that her lead, Danielle Levin, was well versed in physics. Not only could Levin answer some of Bronzan’s questions, but she helped solve a problem that arose with the protagonist’s habit of keeping a tab of “love and philosophy” on a chalkboard, trying to work out the equation that is the link between Newton’s work and Einstein’s. “We couldn’t find a good space to put the blackboard; it was almost impossible. Everything was awkward for some part of the audience. Danielle’s idea was, what if we did it as slides? We ended up doing a projection almost on the ceiling. The slides would come up as she was thinking, taking [the moment] out of the literal world and into a metaphysical place. She’s struggling with this equation and what it means, but she dies before she can work it out. [Pixar animator] James Dash took tally marks into lines which morph into the equation. It was so moving. I can’t take credit for it, but it ended up being one of my favorite parts.” 

The payoff for the creators of science-based plays is gratifying. Toben says, “I loved watching the audience watch Silent Sky. We spent most of the evening in a monochrome world of star plate negatives and turn-of-the-century candlelight, but in the final moments, we explode out into the vast, colorful world of the universe. People would literally press themselves back in their seats when that happened. It was a great reminder about the power of an important story. Silent Sky was a nice reminder that no story is too big to tell. We threw a lot of complicated science at our audiences, and they totally understood what was going on. I think a lot of that credit goes to Lauren, because there is a lovely parallel in Silent Sky between what is happening in the characters’ stories and what Leavitt’s science is telling us. As it turned out, telling both the personal story and the scientific story was actually easier than it would have been to tell just one of them.”


Lisa Drostova is the public engagement manager for Ragged Wing Ensemble and is an associate artist with foolsFury.