Medical Device Experts David Milestone and Brian Johnson join Playwright Chiara Atik and Editor Sonia Shechet Epstein on June 2 to discuss Current Birthing Technology, the Odon Device, and BUMP

 From left, David Milestone, Brian Johnson, Chiara Atik, Sonia Shechet Epstein

From left, David Milestone, Brian Johnson, Chiara Atik, Sonia Shechet Epstein

On June 2, following the 2:00 pm matinee performance of BUMP, the lively new comedy by Chiara Atik, audiences are encouraged to stay for an extensive discussion of many of the issues the play addresses, especially current birthing technology, devices for instrumental vaginal delivery  (IVD), the Odon Device, and how medical devices get approved for clinical use. Joining playwright Chiara Atik will be David Milestone, Acting Director for the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact, USAID, and Brian Johnson, co-founder and publisher of MassDevice, for a conversation moderated by Sonia Shechet Epstein, Executive Editor of Sloan Science & Film at the Museum of the Moving Image.

BUMP is the exuberant exploration of the evolution of women's understanding about and control over the childbirth process through the  stories of three separate quests for knowledge: a young expectant mother in colonial New England getting coached through her first pregnancy by a peppery midwife (inspired by the diary of Martha Ballard); a contemporary message board where new pregnant moms swap gripes, quips, and observations; and a grandfather/mechanic's invention of a device that could revolutionize how babies in distress could be safely delivered (the last inspired by the story of Argentine mechanic and inventor Jorge Odon). 

The World Premiere of BUMP is this year’s mainstage production of the EST/Sloan Project, EST's partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to develop new plays "exploring the worlds of science and technology," an initiative now in its twentieth year.

About the Panelists

 David Milestone

David Milestone

David Milestone is Acting Director of USAID Bureau for Global Health's Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact (CII). CII applies business-minded approaches to the development, introduction and scale-up of health innovations. Since 2011, USAID, CII, and its partners have cultivated a pipeline of over 150 innovations and supported them on their path to deliver health impact—from improved maternal and newborn health to enhanced outbreak response for diseases like Ebola and Zika to strengthened health supply chains. David has also held various strategic marketing roles at Stryker, an $11B medical device company, where he led innovation and strategy initiatives in India.

 Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson is co-founder and publisher of MassDevice, the newsletter and online journal for the medical devices industry. Brian conceived the idea for MassDevice.com in 2007 and launched the publication in March 2009 with Brad Perriello. As publisher, he has spearheaded the growth of the publication to 75,000 readers each month and led the company to profitability in 2011, just two years after launch. He has worked as a reporter for The Eagle-Tribune, covering business and economics, local government and crime in the Merrimack Valley and is the co-author with Jan Egleson of the graphic novel, MWD: Hell is Coming Home.  

 Chiara Atik

Chiara Atik

Chiara Atik is a graduate of the Obie Award-winning EST/Youngblood program, and a portion of BUMP had its origins as a short play written for Youngblood's monthly Sunday Brunch series, specifically its annual crossover with the EST/Sloan Project, the Youngblood Science Brunch. Her plays include I Gained Five PoundsWomen (a mashup of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and HBO’s Girls) and Five Times in One Night, which was first produced at EST. She is the author of numerous articles for Cosmopolitan Magazine, Glamour Magazine, Refinery29, and New York, as well as the book, Modern Dating: A Field Guide. Her screenplay, Fairy Godmother, was on the 2016 Blacklist. Helen Estabrook (Whiplash) and Cassidy Lange will produce for MGM, which won the rights in a bidding war. Television: NBC’s Superstore.

About the Moderator

 Sonia Shechet Epstein

Sonia Shechet Epstein

Sonia Shechet Epstein works at the intersection of science and culture. As Executive Editor of the Museum of the Moving Image’s website Sloan Science & Film, she produces all of its content. At the Museum, she also curates the ongoing series “Science on Screen” which pairs rarely screened films with discussions between scientists and filmmakers. Since 2014, she has been a mentor at NEW INC—the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s incubator for practitioners in art and technology.

BUMP began previews at the Ensemble Studio Theatre on May 9 and runs through June 3. You can purchase tickets here.

 

 

Historian Rebecca Tannenbaum, Doula Trainer Debra Pascali-Bonaro, and Playwright Chiara Atik join Journalist Robin Marantz Henig on May 26 to discuss Midwives, Birthing Technology, and BUMP

 From left, Rebecca Tannenbaum, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, Chiara Atik, Robin Marantz Henig

From left, Rebecca Tannenbaum, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, Chiara Atik, Robin Marantz Henig

On May 26, following the 2:00 pm matinee performance of BUMP, the spirited new comedy by Chiara Atik, audiences are invited to stay for a far-ranging discussion about how the experience and technology of childbirth — from how a child is delivered to how much the mother understands and controls — has changed over the past two hundred and fifty years. Joining playwright Atik will be Rebecca Tannenbaum, Senior Lecturer in History at Yale University, and Debra Pascali-Bonaro, childbirth educator, doula trainer, and Chair of the International MotherBaby Childbirth Organization, for a conversation and Q&A moderated by journalist Robin Marantz Henig.

BUMP is the exuberant exploration of the evolution of women's understanding about and control over the childbirth process through the  stories of three separate quests for knowledge: a young expectant mother in colonial New England getting coached through her first pregnancy by a peppery midwife (inspired by the diary of Martha Ballard); a contemporary message board where new pregnant moms swap observations and complaints; and a grandfather/mechanic's invention of a device that could revolutionize how babies in distress could be safely delivered (the last inspired by the story of Argentinian mechanic and inventor Jorge Odon). 

The World Premiere of BUMP is this year’s mainstage production of the EST/Sloan Project, EST's partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to develop new plays "exploring the worlds of science and technology," an initiative now in its twentieth year.

About the Panelists

 Rebecca Tannenbaum

Rebecca Tannenbaum

Rebecca Tannenbaum is Senior Lecturer in History at Yale University and Yale NUS Fellow in International Affairs. Her research is focused on Colonial America, especially women’s history and the history of medicine, history of women’s health, as well as history of the family. She is currently working on a cultural history of biological motherhood in America, from the Colonial period through the mid-nineteenth century. Nancy Tomes hailed her book, The Healer’s Calling: Women and Medicine in Colonial New England (Cornell University Press, 2002), as “a masterful account of women's healing practices in colonial New England. . . . a major contribution to the history of medicine and to the history of early American culture.”

 Debra Pascali-Bonaro

Debra Pascali-Bonaro

Debra Pascali-Bonaro has trained thousands of doulas and birth professionals around the world in the practices of gentle birth support. Debra is Chair of the International MotherBaby Childbirth Organization, member of the White Ribbon Alliance, Lamaze International childbirth educator, birth and postpartum doula trainer with DONA International, and co-author of the book Orgasmic Birth, Your Guide to a Safe, Satisfying and Pleasurable Birth Experience. Creator and director of Orgasmic Birth, an award-winning documentary that examines the intimate nature of birth, Debra has been featured on ABC’s 20/20, Good Morning Russia, The NBC Today Show, Discovery Health, in The New York Times, The LA Times, The UK Times as well as numerous Parenting and Health Magazines around the world.

 Chiara Atik

Chiara Atik

Chiara Atik is a graduate of the Obie Award-winning EST/Youngblood program, and a portion of BUMP had its origins as a short play written for Youngblood's monthly Sunday Brunch series, specifically its annual crossover with the EST/Sloan Project, the Youngblood Science Brunch. Her plays include I Gained Five PoundsWomen (a mashup of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and HBO’s Girls) and Five Times in One Night, which was first produced at EST. She is the author of numerous articles for Cosmopolitan Magazine, Glamour Magazine, Refinery29, and New York, as well as the book, Modern Dating: A Field Guide. Her screenplay, Fairy Godmother, was on the 2016 Blacklist. Helen Estabrook (Whiplash) and Cassidy Lange will produce for MGM, which won the rights in a bidding war. Television: NBC’s Superstore.

About the Moderator

 Robin Marantz Henig

Robin Marantz Henig

Journalist and science writer Robin Marantz Henig is the author of nine science books. A contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, Robin has also written for Scientific American, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and numerous women’s magazines. Her book on the first test-tube baby, Pandora’s Baby (2004), won the Outstanding Book Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Most recently, Robin collaborated with her daughter Samantha Henig to write Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? (2014).

BUMP began previews at the Ensemble Studio Theatre on May 9 and runs through June 3. You can purchase tickets here.

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Childbirth’s “Grinding Pirouette,” a Colonial Midwife, the Odon Device: Some Background to BUMP

In the spirit of the EST/Sloan Project’s commitment to “challenge and broaden the public’s understanding of science and technology and their impact in our lives,” we offer this essay on some of the scientific and historical background to BUMP by Chiara Atik, the current EST/Sloan mainstage production. BUMP begins previews on May 9 and runs through June 3. You can purchase tickets here.

Background essay by Rich Kelley

Apes and chimpanzees give birth in one to two hours. Human moms average ten to twenty. Why does our labor take so long?  

Blame our large brains. And our preference for walking upright. We are the only mammal to walk on two legs. That comes at some cost. In 1960, physical anthropologist Sherwood Washburn identified “the obstetrical dilemma.” Evolution, it seems, sometimes involves tradeoffs.  Some seven million years ago, walking upright offered our ancestors an advantage. Our arms could reach higher branches, our hands became free to carry food and to make tools. Walking on two legs uses less energy to cross long stretches of grassland. And we could run.

 Diagram relates the size of the maternal pelvic inlet (outline) and the size of the neonatal head (dark circles) in selected primate species

Diagram relates the size of the maternal pelvic inlet (outline) and the size of the neonatal head (dark circles) in selected primate species

But to walk upright our pelvis needed to change its size, shape and positioning. And this changed how human females gave birth. Non-human primates have pelvises and birth canals that resemble a ring or a hoop.  The primate infant’s head is usually smaller than the birth canal, which is positioned forward on the body. This makes birthing simpler. Delivery can take one to two hours and the baby emerges face up, guided out by the hands of the mothers to immediately begin nursing. Primate mothers can manage this by themselves and usually give birth away from others, in seclusion.

 Midwife's view of the birth canal in a chimpanzee ( P. troglodytes ),  A. afarensis  (A.L. 288–1, ‘Lucy’) and a modern human female. Note the necessary rotation of the head in the human female.

Midwife's view of the birth canal in a chimpanzee (P. troglodytes), A. afarensis (A.L. 288–1, ‘Lucy’) and a modern human female. Note the necessary rotation of the head in the human female.

Our human pelvis has to solve a tricky problem. For us to walk it needs to be narrow; but our brains are large and the female pelvis needs to be able to deliver the newborn’s head. As Tina Cassidy describes it in Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born:

“Today, the upper opening of the pelvis is wide from side to side . . . the lower pelvis, however, the baby’s exit, is widest from front to back. And therein lies the problem . . . human birth is, quite literally, a twisted process. In order to pass through the birth canal, the baby’s head—the largest part of its body—must rotate as it descends in a grinding pirouette. . . . Assuming the baby is not breech—being born feet or buttocks first—its head must enter the pelvis facing up toward the pubic bone, with the widest part of the head—ear to ear—lining up with the widest part of the pelvis—hip to hip. But that has to change quickly. The baby must begin to turn sideways, as much as forty-five to ninety degrees, in order to align its body with the widest pelvis outlet, its head emerging face down rather than face up.”

 Sequential changes in the position of the child during labor.

Sequential changes in the position of the child during labor.

But why is labor so painful?  The chimpanzee brain is about one-third the size of the human brain. Because of the human infant’s large head, the cervix of the human female must dilate three times as much as other primates. Chimpanzee mothers dilate 3.3 centimeters before delivery. Human mothers must dilate 10 centimeters, which takes more time, and is significantly more painful. According to the Mayo Clinic, mothers describe the last three centimeters as being the most painful part of giving birth.

Because of the difficulties of human delivery—and the care the child needs during its second nine months—anthropologists Karen Rosenberg and Wenda Trevathan have argued that “assisted childbirth” is probably as old as bipedalism:

“Because the human fetus emerges from the birth canal facing in the opposite direction from its mother, it is difficult for the mother, whatever her position, to reach down, as non-human primate mothers often do, to clear a breathing passage for the infant or to remove the umbilical cord from around its neck. If a human mother tries to assist in delivery by guiding the infant from the birth canal, she risks pulling it against the body’s angle of flexion, possibly damaging the infant’s spinal cord, brachial nerves, and muscles.”   

In a survey of 296 cultural groups, Rosenerg and Trevathan found that “assisted birth comes close to being universal.”

woodcut childbirth.jpg

For most of human history, those assisting at births were exclusively women. Until about a hundred years ago, delivery occurred in the home, in the bedroom or around the hearth. In Europe and early America, these attendants were called “God’s siblings,” later shortened to “gossip,” their chatter the basis for the word’s current meaning. After a successful birth, the gossips would organize “a groaning party,” a feast for midwife, mother and the assembled women, its name recalling the sounds of labor. Men penetrated the birthing sanctum at their peril. In 1522, a German physician, Dr. Wert, eager to learn more directly about the birthing process, disguised himself as a woman to try to enter a delivery room. He was discovered and reportedly burnt at the stake.

A Midwife’s Tale: Martha Ballard

Martha Ballard, a midwife in colonial Maine, kept a detailed daily account of her activities from 1785 until a few months before her death in 1812. Over those twenty-seven years she delivered 814 babies. Her mortality rate (excluding stillbirths) was 2.5 per 100—very impressive for that time. Being a midwife then involved canoeing down rivers and trudging through snow, sometimes delivering two or more babies within twenty-four hours in houses miles apart. 

 A page from Martha Ballard's diary, February 3 - 12, 1800.

A page from Martha Ballard's diary, February 3 - 12, 1800.

Laura Ulrich Thacher notes, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Ballard, “In Martha’s diary, it is doctors, not midwives, who seem marginal.”  One poignant entry records Ballard’s reaction when a new young doctor does not defer to her years of experience but rather “chooses” to participate himself in the birthing. From ancient times, male physicians were usually called in only for emergencies, when the life of the child or the mother was at risk, hence the adage, “When a man comes, one or both must necessarily die.” In those instances, the life of the mother was paramount. From the Hippocratic Writings we learn that the earliest medical tools related to childbirth were not tools to ease delivery but rather tools for the extraction of the dead fetus. Caesarian sections in ancient times were mostly performed so that the child and mother could be buried separately. The first record of a mother surviving a C-section was not until the 1580s in Switzerland (her husband, a professional pig gelder, performed the operation).

Forceps: A Family Secret

 Peter Chamberlen the Third

Peter Chamberlen the Third

When obstetrical forceps first appeared in seventeenth-century Europe, only members of the all-male barber-surgeon guild could legally use them. The invention is credited to Peter Chamberlen the elder, a French inventor and surgeon. He and his surgeon brother gained fame for delivering babies in difficult cases because of their use of a secret instrument. For 150 years, through several generations of man-midwives, the Chamberlen family kept secret exactly how that instrument worked. Due to etiquette, man-midwives had to operate within severe constraints. A large sheet covered the expectant mother, one end wrapped around her, the other tied around the man’s neck. Without looking beneath the sheet, the man-midwife was expected to deliver the baby by feel.

 The Chamberlen forceps

The Chamberlen forceps

The Chamberlens had a knack for theater. Two men would lug a large elegantly carved lined box into the delivery room.  They then cleared the room and blindfolded the mother before slipping their device under the sheet. During its use, they would clang bells, hammers, and chains to cause further misdirection. It wasn’t until 1813 when some of Peter Chamberlen’s tools were discovered in an attic of a house that the ingenuity of his invention became clear. His forceps used hinged blades that allowed each to be positioned independently around the head of the infant, something not possible with tweezers.

In the 1950s, Swedish professor Tage Malmstrom developed the ventouse, or Malmstrom extractor. In its current version this device involves placing a suction cup onto the head of the baby. The doctor uses a handheld pump to gently apply suction and the suction draws the skin from the scalp into the cup. Handles on the device enable the doctor to pull the baby out.   Over the last few decades, caesarean section and vacuum extractors have replaced forceps as the preferred means of delivery. Since 1985, the World Health Organization has maintained that the ideal rate of caesarean sections is between 10% and 15% of live births. Beyond 10% there is no added improvement in the maternal or newborn mortality rate. Yet from 1996 to 2014, the rate of caesarean sections of all births in the U.S. has risen 55%, from 21% in 1996 to 32.5% in 2014. A recent study by the British Medical Journal found that “C-section rates were lower among poorer women and increased with rising economic status.” High caesarean rates can result in negative outcomes: infection, hemorrhages, and surgical complications.

The Odon Device: Inspired by YouTube

In 2005, Jorge Odon, an Argentinian garage mechanic, bet a friend he could extract a cork from an empty wine bottle without breaking it. He won the bet thanks to a YouTube video he had seen that showed how to do this by inflating a plastic bag inside the bottle until it gripped the cork and then pulling both out. Odon then had the inspiration that this same technique could be used to deliver babies in distress. Having already patented several auto-related inventions, he set to work to realize his idea using a glass jar for the womb, one of his daughter’s dolls for the baby, and a fabric bag and sleeve sewn by his wife as the extraction device. Successful demonstrations to local obstetricians (always starting with the cork and bottle trick) led to consultations with doctors at CEMIC, the Center for Medical Education and Clinical Research in Buenos Aires. At first they thought he was pranking them, but eventually they responded positively and even recommended changes: doing away with the bag that surrounded the baby’s body and just having one bag to surround the baby’s head.

 Jorge Odon demonstrating his device

Jorge Odon demonstrating his device

Odon’s big breakthrough came in 2008 when he was granted ten minutes at a conference in Argentina to present his device to Dr. Mario Merialdi, director of Reproductive Health at the World Health Organization. Merialdi deemed the device “fantastic.” Their ten minute meeting stretched to two hours and led to both traveling that December to the birth simulation center at Des Moines University in Iowa for a successful series of tests. The WHO then agreed to conduct a series of hospital-based tests of the device in three phases in Argentina and South Africa. In 2013, Becton Dickinson and Company (BD) licensed the development rights of the Odon device and developed a new prototype based on their pre-clinical studies. The Odon Device now consists of two main components: a plastic sleeve and an inserter. The sleeve contains an air chamber that is inflated around the fetal head by a manually operated bulb pump. Once the sleeve has surrounded the baby’s head, air is hand pumped into the inner surface of the sleeve until the sleeve has a secure grasp of head. The inserter is then removed and the baby is pulled out. The simplicity and low cost of the device make it potentially revolutionary in reducing mortality in instances of prolonged labor in low-resource settings. Caesarean sections, by contrast, require expensive surgical theaters.

 The sequences of an Odon Device extraction

The sequences of an Odon Device extraction

In 2017, the WHO and BD conducted the third phase of testing. They prioritized three criteria: safe for mothers and babies, easy for different cadres of skilled birth attendants to use, cost-effective, and affordable in low resource settings. In March 2018, they announced the results of the latest round of tests. The Odon device was inserted successfully in 46 of 49 women (93%), and successful delivery with expulsion of the fetal head after one-time application of the Odon device was achieved in 35 women (71%). The report concludes: “Delivery using the Odon device is therefore considered to be feasible.” BD will next pursue a randomized pivotal clinical trial before potential introduction in clinical practice.

Gadding online

In her diary Martha Ballard identifies herself as a “gadder,” that is, someone who frequently visits neighbors to chat and exchange news, recipes, plant medicines, and stories. Today, what gadding goes on among mothers is more likely to happen online via message boards, forums, parenting networks, blogs, and Facebook, Yahoo, Google and Meetup groups. Many of these groups are centered around a physical community so that they can help a new mom find local resources, whether a Nanny, a doula, an OB/GYN or a great deal on strollers. The Bump, one of the largest and oldest (now ten years) online communities for new and expecting mothers, reports that 80% of working mothers use message boards or forums, with 75% naming them as one of the top two most valued resources for information, second only to talking to mothers face to face.    

You can read more about BUMP and the brilliant playwright who wrote it in our interview with Chiara Atik

The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funded BUMP in part because of the compelling nature of one of the stories that inspired it: Jorge Odon's invention of the Odon Device. Its support for the play should not be construed as endorsing the device or any of the products or services mentioned in the play or in this essay.

Chiara Atik on new mom message boards, ALT lines, science stories, and BUMP

 Chiara Atik

Chiara Atik

This year’s EST/Sloan Mainstage Production is the world premiere of BUMP, written by Chiara Atik and directed by Claudia Weill. Previews start May 9 and the show runs through June 4 at EST. BUMP is the exuberant exploration of the evolution of women's understanding about and control over the childbirth process through the  stories of three separate quests for knowledge: a young expectant mother in colonial New England getting coached through her first pregnancy by a peppery midwife (inspired by the diary of Martha Ballard); a contemporary message board where new pregnant moms swap gripes, quips, and observations; and a grandfather/mechanic's invention of a device that could revolutionize how babies in distress could be safely delivered (the last inspired by the story of Argentinian mechanic and inventor Jorge Odon).  We interviewed Chiara a year ago when, as Midwife/Mechanic, her play received a workshop production as part of the 2017 First Light Festival. This year we have even more questions.  

 (Interview by Rich Kelley)

 BUMP consists of three distinct and compelling story lines, all about the childbirth process. How did you decide that these were the three story lines you liked the most and wanted to pursue? Were there other story lines you tried and abandoned?

It’s been these three stories since the beginning! The Sloan Commission came from the story of a car mechanic who happened to invent a birthing device – though my account of it is largely fictionalized. The next part was inspired by some old obstetrics tools I saw in a museum. I started thinking about midwives, and what birth was like before modern medicine. And then the third came from my friend Rachel, who had recently had a baby and regaled me with all the stories from her “Birth month message board.” So these became the three stories!

how to remove a cork from inside a bottle

The YouTube video (or one like it) that inspired the Odon Device

It was just about a year ago that BUMP received a workshop production as part of the 2017 EST/Sloan First Light Festival. How has the play changed since those workshops?

A lot. It’s still changing! I’d say the midwife storyline is largely untouched but the story of the mechanic and his family has hopefully developed considerably since last year.

How many different pregnancy message boards did you sample as part of your research for BUMP? Did you find much difference in the community or the comments from board to board?  Which was the most informative? The most fun?

Hundreds. I love them. I’m obsessed with them. They’re such a peek into other people’s lives. Pregnancy message boards are especially tight-knit: here are other women who are going through exactly what you’re going through, at the exact same time, and unlike your friends, coworkers, family, they will never get tired of discussing symptoms, or test results, or maternity clothes, or ultrasound pictures.

I’ve read so many boards over the two years I’ve worked on this play, and what’s kind of fun/crazy is that every month...there’s a new one! Every month a new group of women gets pregnant, a new board is created, and people start to post.

 A page from Martha Ballard's diary, February 3 - 12, 1800.

A page from Martha Ballard's diary, February 3 - 12, 1800.

The wildest thing I came across in my research (though honestly, it’s beyond research now. The play is written. I’m just addicted!) is a month board that somehow – I think through just the detective work of some of the suspicious members – discovered that someone who had been regularly posting to the board was not actually pregnant. This was months into the pregnancies, when people had been posting to the board every day for so long, and had really gotten to know each other. So people were shocked and scandalized, and even women on the other boards were gossiping about what happened on the NOVEMBER board (or whatever it was).

You have now spent more than a year immersed in the world of pregnant mothers, both contemporary and colonial. What new things have you learned? How has this changed your perspective on childbirth?

Oh, honestly, I wish the Odon device were already available! It’s not quite yet, they’re still doing clinical trials, though very confident it will be on the market soon. I would so happily offer to test it. It’s impressed me so much, I absolutely believe in it, and if something so uninvasive can effectively get a baby out in so few pushes, I’d almost hate to give birth without it.

I know that the producers at EST emphatically insist that EST/Sloan plays have to work as a play and yet have substantive science content. What have you found is trickiest about writing a play about science?

Well, there’s a lot of information you have to impart to the audience when you’re doing a science play. In real life, when you get information, you’re probably reading something, or watching something, or noticing something – none of these things are active or dramatic! They’re all quiet and internal.

So figuring out how to impart information in a way that feels natural and true to the characters and in the dramatic arc of the play, AND making those moments entertaining, is very difficult!

 Jorge Odon demonstrating the Odon Device.

Jorge Odon demonstrating the Odon Device.

I find it very very hard to dramatize a moment of scientific or creative discovery – the actual Eureka! Moment – so I just skipped it in this play, focusing instead on the inspiration, and then the aftermath.

You mentioned once that you get impatient with theater that doesn’t take into account the audience experience. How does BUMP deal with the audience experience? What do you want the audience to take away from BUMP?

It’s funny, it’s very easy to have lots of opinions on this when you’re in the writing process (or in the audience of another play) but it feels so vulnerable to talk about when you’re in production, because you’re so aware of the possibility of falling short!!! But what we hope is that the play is entertaining, and funny, and warm, and that the audience enjoys spending the time with these characters as much as we do. And we’ve been pretty strict about pacing, and when the play needs to race to the finish line.

I love being at home. I think most people love being at home! Most people enjoy not having to trek to midtown. So I guess, when it comes to the audience, I hope that the experience of watching the play is ultimately worth not being at home.

You’ve been part of the writing team for the hit TV show Superstore (IMDB says you’ve written eight episodes so far!). Congrats on that. How is writing for a sitcom different from writing for the theater? I know that soap opera writers have to write to beats. Do you need to get a laugh every three minutes? Do you find that writing for Superstore has informed or changed your playwriting?

 The cast of Superstore

The cast of Superstore

First of all, to say that I wrote eight episodes of Superstore is a very very flattering misapprehension courtesy of IMDB. I was in the writer’s room of Superstore, but it was a BIG writers room, where everyone sort of pitched ideas and jokes. The writers on that show are genius comedians. Everything that comes out of their mouths is funny! I was in awe. SO fast and SO funny.

This is sooooo hugely different from playwriting, or screenwriting, for that matter, where you sort of get to sloooowly construct things.  I am NOT funny out loud. I am ONLY funny like, by myself on my computer.

But one thing I learned from Superstore – that I actually used on Bump! – is about ALTs. Having ALT jokes or ALT lines in a script. You can have the actor read them both and see which you like. In television, I believe they would film all the alts, and you then choose the best one when you’re editing later. For BUMP, I just have the actor try a few and choose right there, but adding ALTs to a theater script is, I think, unusual, and straight out of my time at Superstore.

Do you remember when you first got turned on to science?

Well, tellingly, my interest in science is strongly tied to narrative! I took an incredible Microbiology class in high school which stood out from all the other science classes I’d ever taken because there was such a focus on the stories and scientists themselves – how Louis Pasteur discovered vaccinations by inoculating chickens with weak strains of bacteria; how John Snow traced the cholera epidemic in London back to a single water pump; how Ignaz Semmelweiss realized women were dying after childbirth because doctors weren’t washing their hands. I guess I like unusual discoveries and the logic behind them. It’s no wonder I was so inspired by the real-life story of Jorge Odon and his cork-trick discovery!

 When did you first discover you were funny?

I think there were a good few years of trying very hard to be funny without ever managing to do it. Then, when I was a freshman in high school, I wrote a funny short story (??why) that my friends really liked and passed around, AND I’VE BEEN CHASING THAT HIGH EVER SINCE.

In an interview in 2014 you raved about how great Twitter was for new playwrights. In an interview in early 2017 you scaled down your enthusiasm but admitted that you met your husband through Twitter. Then in November, 2017, just after the presidential election, you left Twitter completely. What happened? Do you blame Twitter for Trump’s election?

 Chiara's retired Twitter page

Chiara's retired Twitter page

I loved Twitter when it felt like a fun and a low-key way to engage with people about art, writing, and current events. There was a time when it was really effective. Writers that I had long admired were suddenly just a tweet away, and I could interact with them! I could post a tweet, an article, a link, a recommendation to a play, and people would really engage back, read the link, go see the play, talk to me about it.

But now it’s just din. Everyone shouting over one another. I don’t feel like it’s an effective way to promote content or ideas anymore, and I don’t know why, only that I also am so much less likely to take a Twitter recommendation seriously.

That’s enough for me to become disenchanted with it, but the reason I quit altogether is that I vehemently disapprove of Twitter as a conduit for political discourse. 140 characters – or whatever it is now – is not sufficient for the kind of conversations I feel are necessary now. Retweeting something does not make you politically engaged – that’s something I learned the hard way in 2016. An unguarded, unthoughtful, unedited screed quickly typed and published on Twitter is absolutely not something I can stand for in a president. I literally find it insulting as a citizen. And I felt that to despise when Trump does it yet continue to use the medium myself would be hypocritical.

Twitter was fun for a long time. I am so indebted to it. But I can’t support it anymore. And I’m ready for longer, more thoughtful conversations.

What else are you working on now?

A screenplay and a play! I’m reading The Odyssey with my dad right now, and I’m hoping to write a play – a comedy! – that picks up where that leaves off – Penelope and Odysseus back to domesticity after a twenty-year break from it.

BUMP is being produced as this year’s Mainstage Production of The EST/Sloan Project, a twenty-year-old initiative between The Ensemble Studio Theater and The Sloan Foundation. BUMP starts previews on May 9 and continues performances through June 4 at The Ensemble Studio Theatre. You can purchase tickets here

Benjamin Weiner on the loves of Alfred Nobel, premature obituaries, dynamite songs, and NOBEL: A NEW MUSICAL

 Benjamin Weiner

Benjamin Weiner

On two nights, Friday April 6 (now sold out), and Saturday April 7, The EST/Sloan Project, as part of the 2018 First Light Festival, will be presenting the first workshop performances of NOBEL: A NEW MUSICAL by Benjamin Weiner, a lively and often moving exploration of the life and loves of Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, philanthropist, and creator of the Nobel Prizes. Playwright/composer Benjamin Weiner kindly took time to answer our many questions about this project.  

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

What inspired you to write a musical about Alfred Nobel?

 Alfred Nobel at 30

Alfred Nobel at 30

In September of 2015, I had just quit my teaching job to focus on writing, and I was terrified. Sitting in the biography room at the Brooklyn Public Library, I stumbled across an article about Bertha Von Suttner.  She was briefly Alfred Nobel's housekeeper and secretary in Paris, where they argued about life and death and science. He quickly fell in love with her, but she ran off to elope with a forbidden flame back in Vienna. She became Nobel's lifelong friend, helped reshape his legacy from dynamite to peace, and was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Mixed with the excitement about their incredible and theatrical story, there was a fair amount of relief. I didn't feel quite so unemployed, because I knew what I needed to write.

Why this musical? Why now?

 Bertha Kinsky (later von Suttner) in 1872, around the time she first met Nobel.

Bertha Kinsky (later von Suttner) in 1872, around the time she first met Nobel.

There are so many parallels to today. It features a powerful businessman obsessed with his own image (Nobel), nationalistic countries stockpiling weapons and teetering on the edge of war, and a woman fighting to be recognized in a world dominated by men. In the end, the dominant motivation for me was bringing Bertha's story to life. She was a household name in her time, Tolstoy sang her praises for her pacifist work, she was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and NO ONE I have encountered in the past three years has ever heard of her. I am delighted to be changing that.

How would you describe the kind of music you feature in NOBEL? The play’s action runs between 1870 and 1905 but the music isn’t really period music. Did you compose all the music? What number and kind of instruments would you like to hear play it?

The music is kind of folk rock, with some roots in musical theater tradition, and a handful of references to nineteenth-century opera (though it is by no means period music.) It's all original. I'd love to see violin, cello, piano, drums, guitar, and bass. For this workshop version, I think we'll do nicely with piano and a guitar.

 Portrait of Alfred Nobel by Emil Osterman. Image provided by the Nobel Foundation.

Portrait of Alfred Nobel by Emil Osterman. Image provided by the Nobel Foundation.

You play with time in the play, switching back and forth between scenes between Emanuel, Nobel’s nephew and executor of his estate, and Bertha von Suttner, after Alfred has died and between Alfred and Bertha in their younger years. How did you decide that was the structure that worked best for your story?

I've always loved that kind of structure. From Shakespeare starting Romeo and Juliet with a massive spoiler about their deaths, to Andrew Lloyd Webber's chandelier reassembling itself, to Sondheim's Follies or Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine — there's something really powerful to me about jumping in time, especially starting at the end and showing how you got there. It lets the audience stop worrying about what's going to happen, and lets them focus on the story itself.  For a historical piece, where the story is a google away, that felt right.   

Your play introduces us to the two loves of Nobel’s life, Bertha von Suttner and Sofie Hess — he kept up with both of them for a good part of his life — yet he never married. Any theories about why?

 Sofie Hess

Sofie Hess

Well, Bertha was in love with someone else, and Sophie was twenty years old and mostly interested in Nobel's money. But at the root of it was Nobel's own heart. His journals and letters are filled with insecurity and self-loathing. In the words of RuPaul— "If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love someone else?"  

You mention that Bertha won the Nobel Peace Prize herself in 1905, nine years after Nobel’s death. She was only the second woman after Marie Curie to win a Nobel. How solid were her credentials for winning?

She completely deserved it — she built groundwork for the UN and the EU before anyone was dreaming about them, and wrote the seminal pacifist book of her time. And she is, arguably, the reason why the prize existed in the first place. But, being a woman, she still had to fight for it.

You manage to pack an impressive amount of scientific detail into your lyrics. I expect that “Throw It Down” is the first song with C3H5N3O9 in it. Can you offer tips on how to make science musical? Any chance you’re a fan of Tom Lehrer?

Thank you! I think for any musical number, the key question is, “why is this person singing?” And the answer is usually because the moment is too big for spoken words. “Throw It Down” takes place at the bottom of a cliff, where Nobel is defending dynamite and its safety in front of a crowd of Manhattanites by having an assistant throw dynamite down on him. That's a huge moment, and a song packed with the science of his invention feels justified to me. And YES!  I love Tom Lehrer.  I definitely owe a lot to him.

 Nobel's letter to Bertha in French from Paris dated January 7, 1893 in which he outlines his idea of establishing a prize for those who made important contributions to the cause of peace in Europe.

Nobel's letter to Bertha in French from Paris dated January 7, 1893 in which he outlines his idea of establishing a prize for those who made important contributions to the cause of peace in Europe.

You include in the play the curious incident where Nobel reads his own obituary prematurely in 1888 when his brother dies and the papers write about the wrong Nobel. “The merchant of death is dead!” the obituary read. “Alfred Nobel, who made his money finding more ways to kill people faster than ever before.”  He apparently got so upset about this being his legacy that he then changed his will to devote his wealth to setting up the prizes. Is this a true incident? Might we have no Nobel Prizes if Paris had better reporters?

It is real. While I'm more inclined to give Bertha the lion's share of the credit, I do think it was an incredible gift for him, and helped him realize how he would be remembered if he didn't do something about it.     

What kind of research did you do to write NOBEL? 

There is a lot of wonderful source material — biographies of Nobel, Bertha's memoirs, her pacifist novel, a lot of letters. There's such a wealth of information, and I was sorely tempted to include it all. Linsay and Graeme really helped me find the story of this musical, and not worry so much about including every historical detail. Maybe I can save some of them for liner notes, someday.

We learn in your musical that Nobel fancied himself a writer, writing poems and a play. Have you read any of his works? Any good? 

 Poster from 2005 world premiere of Nemesis, Nobel's play, at Strindbergs Intima Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden.

Poster from 2005 world premiere of Nemesis, Nobel's play, at Strindbergs Intima Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden.

Yeah, they're not great. In fact, to protect his image his estate destroyed almost all the copies of his play. Thankfully it survived, because it's still a fascinating window into who he was, his obsession with death and unrequited love. And I've turned one of his poems, which he showed to Bertha in Paris, into a song. It's about worms eating dead bodies. I think it's really funny, but I don't think Nobel intended it that way. Mostly though, I use his letters, which are wonderful and vivid. He was a great correspondent. 

Have you written other musicals? What were they about?

Pants, Dante's Inferno, Santa Claus, gentrification, Pippi Longstocking, and now Roy Sullivan, a real man who was struck by lightning seven times throughout his life. That one you can see May 11th and 12th at the Jalopy Theatre.

Have you written other plays about science?

The Noise Dixon cr.jpg

Yes. I've been working for a few years as the writer in residence for the Upstream Artists Collective, an incredible group that is making theater about climate change. I wrote a play for them called The Noise. It's a Babylonian flood myth updated for today, and inspired by work I did with first graders after Hurricane Sandy. The goal is to keep our stories theatrical and entertaining and, at the same time, call into question how to live and make theater that is itself sustainable. Usually, it's not. 

Are you still performing the songs of Princess Backpack? Tell us more about how these came about.

Yes!  My backpack is a princess who can talk and sing. She comes from Backpackia and is hoping to meet Jay-Z to further her rap career. Together we made a kids album, which you can find at PrincessBackpack.com. It's weirdly popular in Australia.

What’s next for Benjamin Weiner?

Roy Sullivan: Lightning Man, at the Jalopy Theatre, May 11th and 12th.  Then, a long nap.

The 2018 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from February 5 through April 7 and features readings and workshop productions of eight new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year is the world premiere of BUMP by Chiara Atik. Directed by Claudia Weill, BUMP is a wildly entertaining exploration of the history of pregnancy and childbirth, from colonial times until now. Tickets are on sale now for performances, May 9 through June 3. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year. 

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Charly Evon Simpson on medical experiments on slaves, the birth of gynecology, lost voices, and BEHIND THE SHEET

 Charly Evon Simpson

Charly Evon Simpson

On Tuesday, April 3, the EST/Sloan Project, as part of the 2018 First Light Festival will present the first workshop of BEHIND THE SHEET, the powerful new play by Charly Evon Simpson about how medical experiments on plantation slaves in Alabama in the 1840s led to the birth of the science of gynecology in America. The playwright has much to tell us.

(Interview by Rich Kelley)  

How did BEHIND THE SHEET come to be? How has it changed through different drafts?

 Statue of J. Marion Sims at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue in NYC

Statue of J. Marion Sims at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue in NYC

A few years ago, I read an article about a group of women protesting at a statue of J. Marion Sims. As someone interested in how black women’s bodies have been seen and treated throughout history, I found myself trying to learn more about Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy (the three enslaved women we know Sims experimented on) and how slavery intersected with the rise of gynecology. When it came time to apply for an EST/Sloan commission, my brain immediately went back to this history.

The play has changed since the proposal. For example, my first proposal included a more contemporary piece—a black woman gynecologist having to reconcile this history of her field. I soon decided to just focus on the history. Characters have come and gone, scenes have been cut and added, and history has made its way in and out of the story. My first draft was very true to what we know happened. This current draft allows a little more room for my voice and imagination, while staying true to the basic facts.

As you say, the play tells a story strongly inspired by the work of J. Marion Sims, a physician often referred to as the "father of gynecology" who practiced medicine in Alabama in the 1840s. He is credited with inventing the speculum and, most notoriously, trying out new gynecological surgical procedures on slaves without using anesthesia. But you don't use his name for your main character, whom you call George, and you give the female characters names different from the ones we know from history. Why the name changes? How is the story in the play different from Sims’?

 “J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon,” painting by Robert Thom, from the Great Moments in Medicine series, shows Sims with Anarcha, as Betsey and Lucy look on.

“J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon,” painting by Robert Thom, from the Great Moments in Medicine series, shows Sims with Anarcha, as Betsey and Lucy look on.

I’ve gone back and forth on the name changes. And, you never know, perhaps the name changes won’t exist in a future draft, but for right now, it allows me some distance from the real story. It allows me to play as a writer in a way that I wasn’t able to when I was using their real names and really focused on getting every historical detail right. With the name changes, I am acknowledging that some of this is fiction. It is historical fiction. I am very aware that we don’t know what Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy were thinking or saying. I have J. Marion Sims’ book, for example, and what he says about them, but I don’t have their words. And I didn’t want to put words in their mouths. I want to shed light on this history and I want to give voice to the experience from the women’s perspective. For me, it is easier to explore the possibility of their perspectives without using their real names. That said, we make a point at the end of the play to bring it back to Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and J. Marion Sims. I don’t want to lose them or ignore them. I want the audience to know their names.

Why this play? Why now?

In December 2017, ProPublica published an article entitled “Nothing Protects Black Women from Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth.” The article is heartbreaking and shows how much more at risk black women are when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth. Education, income…when it comes to black women successfully carrying a child to term and surviving the childbirth and weeks after, it seems nothing is protecting us. In February 2018, Serena Williams shared her own struggles and complications after giving birth. There is a long history of our physical pain being ignored. There is a long history of black women being used for medical innovation while at the same time being ignored by medicine. This history, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, has influenced our current medical systems. And it is important to know the history so that we can make strides away from it. 

Women of all races are fighting for their reproductive rights and their healthcare right now, and I think it is important to acknowledge that some women have to fight particular fights that their counterparts do not. This is one of the fights. 

 Illustration of Sims repairing a vesico-vaginal fistula with silver wire sutures (1870)

Illustration of Sims repairing a vesico-vaginal fistula with silver wire sutures (1870)

BEHIND THE SHEET features five black slave women and one black slave man. How did you come to decide how many different black slave voices you wanted to dramatize? Did the number or the kind of voices change over time?

To be honest, I’m not sure. It just happened. I started with only three black women, but also wanted to somehow honor the other women Sims experimented on whose names we don’t know. So I felt free to move away from the three women and add the voices that came to me. 

There is an article in The Journal of Medical Ethics that states that "Although enslaved African American women certainly represented a ‘vulnerable population’ in the 19th century American South, the evidence suggests that Sims's original patients were willing participants in his
surgical attempts to cure their affliction." What do you make of this statement?

My first instinct is that, sure, if you are in pain and someone offers you a possible way out of that pain, chances are you might be willing to agree to experiments aimed at curing you. That said, “willing” is a…complicated word to use in reference to enslaved people. The power dynamic alone complicates any ideas around the word “willing”. What does willing even mean when your rights have been stripped away and your body is often being used in service of other people? When one does not own their own body, and when their worth is attached to said body, how does consent work? If any of them said “no,” how do we think their owners may have reacted? Also, if there was any notion of willingness and if it was respected at first, was there any room for that “willingness” to end? When Sims took on the financial burden of taking care of these women who were “unfit” to do much of what was expected to them, are we sure he would have been willing to stop?  Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and the other women—along with J. Marion Sims—didn’t know it would take numerous surgeries to find a cure for fistulas. If Anarcha wanted to stop at surgery 15, would she have been able to? What may have been done to “convince" her to keep going? 

We have a tendency to want to make our history seem way more light, bright, and friendly than it actually is. History is complicated. I’d rather we live in the complications than ignore them. 

What do you want the audience to take away from BEHIND THE SHEET?

 Front page of New York Daily News on February 8, 2018 reporting on relocation of Sims statue to Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Front page of New York Daily News on February 8, 2018 reporting on relocation of Sims statue to Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

When director Colette Robert first read the play, she said she had to put it down because it made her stomach hurt. I don’t want to cause people pain, but I do hope the audience feels the discomfort, feels the complicatedness, feels the pain that is intertwined in our history. You can be grateful there is a cure for fistulas. You can also be disappointed that it was found at the expense of black women’s bodies. Holding those two feelings inside is possible and it is messy and it is uncomfortable and I want us to do it anyway. I hope the audience walks away feeling that messiness, thinking about that discomfort, and wondering what systems we may have in place that continue this history.

What kind of research did you do to write BEHIND THE SHEET? Did you work with a consultant?

I didn’t have a consultant. I read J. Marion Sims’ book, The Story of My Life. I read numerous articles, listened to talks (like "Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology" on NPR) and parts of books like, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A Washington. I read Patient. by Bettina Judd which is a book of poetry intertwining her experience as a patient with the experiences of Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy (as well as other black women who found themselves in the role of patient under racist conditions). I went to talks. Then I had to stop researching and just write the play. I wanted to respect and honor the history, but I also knew I was creating a piece of fiction and so I had to find a balance. 

How is BEHIND THE SHEET different from your other plays?

BEHIND THE SHEET is my most historical play. I have plays, like my play Hottenttotted, that has historical figures in them or attempts to discuss/shed light on an aspect of history, but this play is the most historical in that it is set in the past and tries to stay true to certain aspects of the history in a very big way.

You have been a member of EST's Youngblood program.  What impact did being a member have on your writing?

I have to say that I think the biggest impact for me was not on my writing, but on my understanding and participation in the theater community. I became a member of Youngblood only two months after moving back to NYC. While I knew a few people from college and high school doing theater in the city, being in Youngblood allowed me to meet a wide variety of actors, directors, writers, stage managers, etc. Many of my first theater opportunities came from people I met at EST. They helped me find my footing and place and continue to even after nearly two years out of the group. 

What's next for Charly Evon Simpson?

Jump.jpg

I have a few readings of new plays coming up in April and May with SPACE on Ryder Farm and Clubbed Thumb, respectively. Next January, my play Jump premieres at PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina. And there are some exciting things happening in between!

The 2018 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from February 5 through April 6 and features readings and workshop productions of eight new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year is the world premiere of BUMP by Chiara Atik. Directed by Claudia Weill, BUMP is a wildly entertaining exploration of the history of pregnancy and childbirth, from colonial times until now. Tickets are on sale now for performances, May 9 through June 3. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year. 

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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

WHAT COULD MAKE A GREAT PLAY ABOUT SCIENCE?

“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.

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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.