Smashing the Patriarchy with Virgil's Epic Poem

Abby Dido Final Headshot.jpg

We spoke with Dido of Idaho playwright Abby Rosebrock about her experiences as both a playwright & actor, working on her new play, and the powerful messages she's pulled from the story of Dido and Aeneas.

What drew you to playwriting?

I do a lot of different kinds of writing for performance, but playwriting is probably the best outlet for my obsession with music, language and the math of comedy. I love working with voices as a creative medium. Transcribing voices, crafting new and hybrid voices, writing for the voices of specific actors. It's a miracle that everyone on earth speaks a unique language with its own internal poetics and comic machinery. I get hopelessly engrossed in finding the beauty and humor in the tiniest idiosyncrasies of a character's speech patterns. And finding the way a character's hopes and fears, psychology and cultural inheritance express themselves grammatically. And composing the music of multiple voices interacting with each other. Playwriting lends itself to crafting dialogue with that level of precision. 

 a rehearsal from the 2015 Youngblood Workshop of  Dido of Idaho

a rehearsal from the 2015 Youngblood Workshop of Dido of Idaho

Can you tell us briefly about the history of DIDO OF IDAHO?

I drafted a lot of the play at SPACE on Ryder Farm with Youngblood in 2015, and EST produced an early version as a workshop. It's since had a few readings around town and in Idaho and Montana.

Layla Khosh, who plays Nora, and I were talking a few years ago about how we wanted to explore themes of addiction and obsession in our work as comedic performers. Also: heterosexuality itself as destructive addiction. Around the same time, Layla and Curran Connor, who plays Nora's lover, Michael, played Dido and Aeneas in a short adaptation of that story I wrote for an EST brunch. 

I sensed there was some connection between the enduring relevance of this myth – in which a rootless man exploits a queen for sex and ghosts her and goes on to found Rome, while she kills herself – and the widespread emotional and psychological problems that have been plaguing everyone I know for decades and have come to a head recently. How do we escape from the tragic stories that seem to keep playing out in our individual lives and collective histories? The play has evolved from a sort of twisted romantic comedy into an effort to answer this question.

What's the most exciting thing about working with this cast?

It just feels incredible. There's no describing what it's like to jam with actors who have comedy in their blood. They know how the language works, they trust their hearts and make the script sing. And our newest cast member, Dalia Davi, is bringing all manner of fresh insight to the story and her character of Julie. 

In the play, you refer to DIDO AND AENEAS as “the central founding my of western civilization.” Can you tell us a little bit more about this idea?

The most famous version of this story appears in The Aeneid, Virgil's Latin epic about the founding of Rome. Aeneas is the hero, laid low by the Trojan War, but destined to make his way to Italy and start an empire. Like many archetypal heroes, he has an affair with a woman who's more or less a human pit stop on his journey to becoming the best version of himself. He thinks she's a fun distraction from work; she thinks it's true love. What's remarkable about this story is that Dido has an empire of her own when Aeneas washes up, itinerant, on her shores. She's overcome all kinds of obstacles to make a political career, and she and Aeneas have this beautiful meeting of minds. But once he's worked through whatever feelings he needed to work through, he leaves her behind to focus on work and marry for convenience. This is how the dominant voices in western civilization have defined Honor for thousands of years. 

Dido is emotionally destroyed, convinced she'll never find love in a world designed for powerful men and small women, and kills herself. She's completely undone by daring to believe that women can be both powerful and fully loved. Her suicide is a tragic but logical response to a culture that breeds, accommodates and empowers dysfunctional men, that compartmentalizes love as a secondary aspect of life, and that tends to gaslight and marginalize people who assert that love and sex are as sacred and important to human development as work and commerce are. Our fearful complacency in trivializing love; in holding onto lazy, self-sabotaging emotional attachments; in buying into narratives that valorize male recklessness: these things can plummet us to rock bottom as individuals and collectives. (Cast member Dawn McGee, who plays Ethel, recently sent around a brilliant Vanity Fair article about this by Monica Lewinsky, who comes up in the play a lot.) The solution has to be spiritual in nature, a dismantling of artificial distinctions between genders and between public and private life, and a letting go of what we know in the name of creating what we want and need. I wanted to write the boldest and funniest play I could about that, to offer myself and others hope of transformation.

What has it been like working as both an actor and playwright for this show?

An actor-playwright's mode of working is not unlike that of a songwriter in a band. You're performing in a band you've written some songs for. And nobody's precious in rehearsal about saying, I don't get what's happening here, and sometimes people goof off and improvise and then graciously assent to seeing their riffs in the script the next day. (There's a lewd act with a pillow that came about this way.) I love the energy that dynamic creates; it frees my mind and grounds me, especially when the team is this committed and good. And wild. Our director Mikhaela Mahony facilitates all this with a unique ease and grace. 

Dido of Idaho begins performances March 14th, don't miss out!

Gabrielle Reisman on land loss, Jean Lafitte, traveling theatre, and JEUNE TERRE

Beginning Thursday, March 1 and running through Saturday, March 3, the EST/Sloan Project is co-sponsoring with Barnard College’s New Plays at Barnard four performances of JEUNE TERRE, the compelling new play by Gabrielle Reisman, a satellite event of the 2018 First Light Festival. Performances will be at the Glicker-Milstein Theatre at Barnard College. Set on a bayou several miles southwest of....

Robert Lyons on Émile Zola, Claude Bernard, science, playwriting, and ZOLA’S LABORATORY

On Monday, February 26, the EST/Sloan Project, as part of the 2018 First Light Festival, will present the first public reading of ZOLA’S LABORATORY, the saucy new play by Robert Lyons imagining the problems the young Émile Zola faced in introducing Naturalism to the French theater. Zola based many of his ideas on the scientific principles of the famed French physiologist....

Kristin Idaszak on Prohibition, Privilege, Forensic Toxicology, and THE SUREST POISON

On Tuesday, February 27, as part of the 2018 First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project will present the first public reading of Kristin Idaszak’s riveting new play, THE SUREST POISON, a fast-paced whodunit in which 1920s New York City spawns not just Prohibition and Jazz Age speakeasies, but also the birth of forensic science. The play’s many colorful characters include Lipstick, The New Yorker ’s flapper correspondent....

Christina Quintana on planet hunting, academic anxiety, women’s basketball, and CITIZEN SCIENTIST

On Monday, February 12, the EST/Sloan Project is excited to host, as part of the 2018 First Light Festival, the first public reading of CITIZEN SCIENTIST, the moving new play by Christina Quintana. The play follows the pursuits in 2010 of two inquiring minds, one a young astronomer seeking a tenure-worthy project at a major university, the other a retired actuary....

C. Denby Swanson on Frances Glessner Lee, dolls as forensic tools, truth, justice, and NUTSHELL

On Thursday, February 8, as part of the 2018 First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project will host the first public reading of NUTSHELL, a riveting new play by C. Denby Swanson. The play’s charismatic central character is Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962), the Chicago heiress often called the “mother of forensic science” because of her lifelong interest in how detectives solve crimes. In 1931, she endowed....

Marc Acito on Wernher von Braun, Alabama in the sixties, the ethics and dreams of America’s Apollo program, and MAN IN THE MOON

On Monday, February 5, as part of this year’s First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project will host the first public reading of MAN IN THE MOON: An American Dream by Marc Acito.  The play opens in 1967 when 55-year-old German émigré rocket scientist Wernher von Braun is on the verge of realizing his lifelong dream of putting a man on the moon. For the past seventeen years he....

What Makes a Great Play about Science? Physicist Brian Greene, Biochemist Mandë Holford, Playwrights Lucas Hnath and Deb Laufer share insights with Science Editor Steve Mirsky at EST/Sloan Event

On November 2, an audience of playwrights engaged in a lively and free-wheeling discussion of “What Makes a Great Play about Science?” with an expert panel of scientists and playwrights at this year’s EST/Sloan Artist Cultivation Event....

Physicist Brian Greene, Biochemist Mandë Holford, and Playwrights Lucas Hnath and Deb Laufer join Science Editor Steve Mirsky for the November 2 EST/Sloan Artist Cultivation Event

 From left: Brian Greene, Mandë Holford, Lucas Hnath, Deb Laufer, Steve Mirsky

From left: Brian Greene, Mandë Holford, Lucas Hnath, Deb Laufer, Steve Mirsky


“To stimulate artists to create credible and compelling work exploring the worlds of science and technology and to challenge the existing stereotypes of scientists and engineers in the popular imagination.”—this has been the mission of The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project (EST/Sloan Project, for short) for the past 19 years. Over that time the EST/Sloan Project has awarded more than $3 million in grants to some 300 playwrights and theatre companies. More than 150 productions of EST/Sloan-developed plays have been mounted nationwide. (You can view previous commission recipients on the EST/Sloan web page and submission guidelines here).

Every year the highlight of the EST/Sloan Project submission season (September 1 to December 1) is the Fall Artist Cultivation Event. At this eagerly anticipated event, a panel of scientists, science writers and playwrights engages in a far-ranging and free-wheeling discussion with an audience of prospective playwrights about “what could make a great play about science?” The 2016 Fall Artist Cultivation Event will take place at EST on Thursday, November 2 at 7 PM. The event is free and any playwright interested in developing a play about science or technology is welcome to attend.  

Two related events culminate each EST/Sloan season: 1) The First Light Festival is a month-long series of readings and workshops that showcase plays in development, and 2) a full mainstage production of at least one work. Recent mainstage productions have included SPILL (2017) by Leigh Fondakowski on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Boy (2016) by Anna Ziegler on sexual identity, Please Continue (2016) by Frank Basloe on Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, Informed Consent (2015) by Deborah Zoe Laufer on scientific research and Alzheimer’s, Fast Company (2014) by Carla Ching on game theory and confidence games, Isaac’s Eye (2013) by Lukas Hnath on scientific method and rivalry, and Headstrong (2012) by Patrick Link on sports and concussions.

This year's Artist Cultivation Event panelists:

 Brian Greene (Photo: Lark Elliott/Vintage Books)

Brian Greene (Photo: Lark Elliott/Vintage Books)

Brian Greene is an American theoretical physicist, mathematician, and string theorist, renowned for his groundbreaking discoveries in superstring theory, including the co-discovery of mirror symmetry and of spatial topology change. He has been a professor at Columbia University since 1996, chairman of the World Science Festival since co-founding it with producer Tracy Day in 2008, and is Director of Columbia University’s Center for Theoretical Physics. He is known to the public through his books, The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality, which have collectively spent 65 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. The Washington Post has called him “the single best explainer of abstruse concepts in the world today.” Professor Greene hosted two Peabody and Emmy Award winning NOVA miniseries based on his books and is a frequent television guest, joining Stephen Colbert seven times and playing himself in an episode of The Big Bang Theory. He has also had cameo roles in a number of Hollywood films including Frequency, Maze and The Last Mimzy.

 Mandë Holford (Photo © D. Finnin/AMNH2015)

Mandë Holford (Photo © D. Finnin/AMNH2015)

Chemical biologist Mandë Holford is an Associate Professor in Chemistry at Hunter College and CUNY-Graduate Center, with scientific appointments at the American Museum of Natural History and Weill Cornell Medical College. Her joint appointments reflect her interdisciplinary research, which goes from mollusks to medicine, combining chemistry and biology to discover, characterize, and deliver novel peptides from venomous marine snails as tools for manipulating cellular physiology in pain and cancer. She has received several awards, including being named a New Champion Young Scientist by the World Economic Forum in 2014, the prestigious Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, an NSF CAREER Award, and named a 21st Century Chemist in the NBC-Learn, Chemistry Now series. Dr. Holford is actively involved in science education, advancing the public understanding of science, and science diplomacy. She is co-founder of Killer Snails, a learning games company that uses extreme creatures, like venomous marine snails, as a conduit to advance scientific learning on a global scale. She is also co-founder of RAISE-W (Resource Assisted Initiatives in Science Empowerment for Women), an NSF project to increase the number of women in science. Dr. Holford co-developed a premier Science Diplomacy course at The Rockefeller University to encourage early career scientists to think globally about the impact of their research as it pertains to international relations.

 Lucas Hnath (Photo:Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Lucas Hnath (Photo:Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Playwright Lucas Hnath is the author of Isaac’s Eye, which EST produced as the 2012 EST/Sloan Mainstage Production and which won the 2012 Whitfield Cook Award. More recently, Lucas wrote A Doll’s House, Part 2, which had its world premiere on Broadway on April 27 of this year and closed September 24 after 30 previews and 173 regular performances at the Golden Theatre. With the original cast featuring Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper, Jayne Houdyshell and Condola Rashad, the play garnered eight TONY nominations—the most of any play in the 2016-2017 season—and a Best Actress win for Metcalf as Nora. Lucas’s other plays include A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, The Christians (which won the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off Broadway Play and a 2016 Playwriting Obie), and Red Speedo, which also won a 2016 Playwriting Obie. Lucas has been a resident playwright at New Dramatists since 2011 and is Assistant Professor in the Department of Dramatic Writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

 Deborah Zoe Laufer (Photo: Monica Simoes)

Deborah Zoe Laufer (Photo: Monica Simoes)

Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer  is the author of Informed Consent, which EST co-produced as the 2015 EST/Sloan Mainstage Production with Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street to much critical and popular acclaim. In 2017 Informed Consent had productions at the Lantern Theatre in Philadelphia; the Apollinaire Theatre in Chelsea, MA; the American Stage in St. Petersburg, FL; and the GableStage in Coral Gables, FL; and will be produced in March, 2018 at the Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City, MO. Deb is also the author of End Days (EST/Sloan 2009 Mainstage Production and awarded The ATCA Steinberg citation). End Days received a rolling work premiere through the National New Play Network, and went on to receive over 60 productions after that. Her other plays include Be Here Now, Leveling Up, Sirens, Out of Sterno, The Last Schwartz, Meta, The Three Sisters of Weehawken, Fortune, The Gulf of Westchester, Miniatures, and Random Acts. Deb has received the Helen Merrill Playwriting Award and the Lilly Award.

About the moderator

 Steve Mirsky

Steve Mirsky

Writer and editor Steve Mirsky has written the “Anti Gravity” column for Scientific American since 1995 and is a member of the magazine’s board of editors. Mirsky launched Scientific American ’s interview-format Science Talk podcast in 2006 and has been hosting it ever since. He also created the daily 60-Second Science podcast, which has also been running since 2006 and has been nominated for a Webby Award.  He has contributed to numerous publications and broadcast outlets, including Audubon; Wildlife Conservation; National Wildlife; Earth; Longevity; The Humanist; Men’s Fitness; American Health; Technology Review; the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Bulletin; Astronomy; New York Newsday; Sea Frontiers; the children’s magazines Current Science, Science World and Muse; National Public Radio; and the Medical News Network.


Sam Chanse on unstable memories, applying an Asian American perspective, and WHAT YOU ARE NOW

On Thursday, April 27, this year’s  EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature as its final event a reading of WHAT YOU ARE NOW by Sam Chanse. Cutting-edge neuroscience commingles with ancient culture in this compelling family drama as we watch Pia, a neuroscience postdoc, research how the brain copes with pain even as she tries to come to terms with the traumatic events of her family’s past. Sam kindly took a moment to tell us more...

Marine Geophysicist Timothy Crone, Marine Geochemist Beizhan Yan, Science Reporter Henry Fountain & Playwright Leigh Fondakowski discuss the Deepwater Horizon disaster, its impact and SPILL on April 1

On April 1, following the 2:00 PM matinee performance of SPILL, the powerful new drama by Leigh Fondakowski, Timothy Crone, Beizhan Yan, Henry Fountain, and Leigh Fondakowski, author and director of SPILL, will gather for a lively discussion of the social, scientific and political issues the play addresses.

Cassandra Medley on writing plays about science, belief systems, making choices, harbored racism, fracking, and COMING UP FOR AIR

On Tuesday, March 28, this year’s EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature a reading of COMING UP FOR AIR by Cassandra Medley. In 2006, her play Relativity was an EST/Sloan mainstage production...

Chiara Atik on getting a cork out of a bottle, dating, tweeting, delivering babies, and MIDWIFE/MECHANIC

Twice this week — on Tuesday, March 21 at 8 pm and on Wednesday, March 22 at 3 pm — this year’s EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature a Roughcut Workshop of MIDWIFE/MECHANIC by Chiara Atik.

Marine Ecologist Carl Safina, Public Health Professor David Abramson, Playwright/Director Leigh Fondakowski discuss Deepwater Horizon disaster, its impact on Gulf Coast life, and SPILL on March 18

On March 18, following the 2:00 PM matinee performance of SPILL, the compelling new drama by Leigh Fondakowski, Carl Safina, Professor for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University and author of A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout; David Abramson, Clinical Associate Professor and Director of the Program on Population Impact, Recovery and Resilience at New York University; and Leigh Fondakowski, author and director of SPILL, will gather for a lively discussion of the social, scientific and political issues the play addresses about risk, technology, the tension between industry and nature, and the impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on the wildlife and people of the Gulf Coast.  

Leigh Fondakowski on nature, oil, the Deepwater Horizon, documentary theater, empathy, and SPILL

This year’s EST/Sloan Mainstage Production is SPILL, written and directed by Leigh Fondakowski. Created from over 200 hours of interviews, SPILL uses the techniques Fondakowski pioneered with The Laramie Project (2000) to dramatize the story of what happened on board the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

Andrea Lepcio on Dangerous Chemicals, Personal Chemistry, Climate Change and WORLD AVOIDED

On Tuesday, February 7, this year’s EST/Sloan First Light Festival features the first reading of Andrea Lepcio’s new play, WORLD AVOIDED. The title captures in two words the future environmentalists hope their efforts can deliver: a future different from the one we are destined to arrive at if we don’t change our behavior.