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

Sam Chanse

Sam Chanse

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.

What sparked the idea for WHAT YOU ARE NOW?

A few years ago I read a piece in The New Yorker, “Partial Recall” by Michael Specter, about memory and trauma, and latched onto the idea that a memory, in the act of being retrieved or remembered, is unstable and vulnerable to change. The article also profiled a neuroscientist, Dr. Daniela Schiller, who studies how emotional memories are formed in the brain, and who describes her work as driven in part by a desire to understand her dad, a Holocaust survivor. Her story resonated with another one that had been on my mind for a while, related to the experience of Cambodian refugees in the U.S. who face deportation – and consequently another major trauma.

Dr. Daniela Schiller (Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images North America)

Dr. Daniela Schiller (Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images North America)

We see the main character, Pia, early in her career as an enthusiastic young neuroscience student and then, ten years later, as a beleaguered postdoc. Both feel very real. The play also references specific research by Nader and LeDoux, Eric Kandel, and work on zeta inhibitor peptides (ZIP), among other things. What kind of research did you do to write your play?

Linsay and Graeme were kind enough to connect me with Dr. Schiller, so I was able to meet her in person and talk with her a bit (she’s a pretty phenomenal human and scientist, not to mention musician and songwriter). And then I did a lot of reading and some watching – books on the science of memory, and essays and articles on memory and trauma, as well as some videos.

WHAT ARE YOU NOW is wonderfully steeped in Cambodian culture: Cambodian creation myths, Apsara dancing, the music of Cambodian singer Ros Serey Sothea all play important roles. Is this your first play that conjures with Cambodian culture? Has it played a part in your life?

I’m Asian American, and mixed (Chinese and Pennsylvania Dutch – basically Swiss-German), and it’s always been a key aspect of where I’m coming from as a writer. A lot of my plays have centered around Asian American or Asian characters and implicitly involved an (or multiple) Asian American perspective(s), but this is the first play I’ve written with Cambodian American characters, and that involves elements of Cambodian culture. I’ve been grateful for the chance to explore these characters and their history and where they’re coming from through working on this play. In particular, I did a brief residency at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts, where I was able (thanks to MRT folks Megan Sandberg-Zakian and Elizabeth Kegley) to connect with members and leaders of the Cambodian community there – including Sovanna Pouv of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, and Linda Sopheap Sou, Dahvy Tran, and Tim Thou, of the Angkor Dance Troupe.

The Angkor Dance Troupe performs “Apsara Dancing Stones” (Sun Photos/Julia Malakie)

The Angkor Dance Troupe performs “Apsara Dancing Stones” (Sun Photos/Julia Malakie)

The play dramatizes powerfully what a world apart the refugee’s experience of America was in the second half of the twentieth century – and thereafter. And how scars can pass from one generation to another. Are there other writers you look to who have also captured this phenomenon?

From left: Qui Nguyen, Mona Mansour, Michael Golamco

From left: Qui Nguyen, Mona Mansour, Michael Golamco

Yeah, absolutely – I know a lot of writers have written plays about the experience of being a refugee (or the children of refugees), in the US and elsewhere – and given the current political and global climate, it’s a subject that feels especially immediate. Some writers and plays that come immediately to mind: Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, Mona Mansour’s Urge for Going, and Michael Golamco’s Year Zero.

What do you want the audience to take away from WHAT YOU ARE NOW?

I’m interested in what the audience will take away from it, but I’m not sure I want to predefine what that is. For myself, there are a few things I take away from it. One of those things: we can have these concretized ways of thinking about our own history, which can sometimes be damaging. I’m interested in the possibility of changing the stories we tell about ourselves – not in a way where we’re making shit up or being dishonest or erasing history, but in a way where we’re revisiting and maybe changing a potentially destructive relationship to painful experiences.

Have you written other plays about science?

There are other plays I’ve written or am working on that explicitly involve or reference scientific ideas and concepts. A collaborator, Bob Kelly and I, have been developing a musical (gilgamesh & the mosquito) whose main characters include a genetically modified mosquito and a biotech scientist, so there’s some science-y stuff in that (I mean it’s an anthropomorphized genetically modified mosquito, so not necessarily a strictly-scientific approach). And a couple other plays, Fruiting Bodies and The Opportunities of Extinction, include a fair amount of material from a more environmental and ecological perspective.

I don’t think of this play as being about science so much as being about people struggling with their relationship with one another and with their own history and past. The science is part of how the main character, Pia, is wrestling with these things – it’s a way for her (and us) to try and understand what’s going on.

What do you like about science? What scares you about science?

For me (and from my very layperson perspective), scientific ideas and theories and methods are another way of interpreting and understanding (or trying to understand) the world we’re in – I love how science offers us these other lenses through which to view and consider different aspects of living and doing this human thing we’re all doing.

A couple things scare me about science and technology, including the accelerated pace and issues of access. We’re developing new technology and scientific processes at an unprecedented rate, which of course can be exciting and promising and potentially life- and planet-saving. But I wonder if the development of this science and technology – and our enthusiasm for it – might be outstripping our ability to thoroughly consider and explore the intended and unintended consequences. I'm also concerned about access – the gap between people who can make use of all the amazing new technology and scientific advances and people who are shut out of it – and maybe an overreliance on science and tech alone to save us from some pretty serious problems.

Lydia's Funeral Video cover

You turned your one-woman play, Lydia’s Funeral Video, into a book but added a “counterpoint narrative” through drawings and marginal comments. What effect were you going for there?

Lydia’s Funeral Video is a solo play I wrote back when I was making work as a writer and performer. Kaya Press published it in 2015 (several years after I wrote it). The counterpoint narrative and illustrations were elements developed with Kaya Press specifically for the publication as a way to adapt some of the dimensionality of the live performance into printed matter.

What’s next for Sam Chanse?

On May 9th I have a reading of the opportunities of extinction as part of the Lark’s Rita Goldberg Playwrights Workshop Reading Series. And in July, another play (the other instinct) will be part of Stage Left’s Leapfest in Chicago.

The 2017 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 30 through April 27 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its nineteenth year.

Sloan logo
EST-Sloan logo

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

From left, Timothy Crone, Beizhan Yan, Leigh Fondakowski, Henry Fountain

From left, Timothy Crone, Beizhan Yan, Leigh Fondakowski, Henry Fountain

On April 1, following the 2:00 PM matinee performance of SPILL, the powerful new drama by Leigh Fondakowski, Timothy Crone, Lamont Associate Research Professor in Marine Geology and Geophysics; Beizhan Yan, Lamont Associate Research Professor in Geochemistry, both from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University; Henry Fountain, science reporter at The New York Times, 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 and oil spill on the Gulf Coast, its people and wildlife.

Created from over 200 hours of interviews with industry experts, surviving crew members, environmental scientists, families of the victims, fishermen, and cleanup workers, SPILL uses the techniques Fondakowski pioneered with The Laramie Project to dramatize the story of what happened on board the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 2010 when an explosion killed eleven crew members and triggered a massive 87-day oil spill, the largest in American history. No previous treatment of this event has covered the complete spectrum of the disaster, from the stories of the eleven crew members who died – and those who survived – to what went on before and during the explosion – to the hearings about its causes – to first person accounts from fishermen and the people engaged in the cleanup on the impact of the spill on the coastal community and wildlife.

The New York Premiere of SPILL is being produced as part of The EST/Sloan Project, a twenty-year-long partnership between The Ensemble Studio Theater and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation dedicated to developing new plays “exploring the worlds of science and technology.”

About the panelists

Timothy Crone

Timothy Crone

Timothy Crone is Lamont Associate Research Professor in Marine Geology and Geophysics, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University. Tim’s research focuses on the interplay between relatively large-scale geophysical processes and the microbial biosphere. He is currently studying the tidal modulation of aqueous fluid flow within mid-ocean ridge hydrothermal systems, with the hope of understanding how such flow variations can affect subseafloor primary production. His other interests include spatial variations in the tidal triggering of microearthquakes within ridge systems, and problems in acoustics associated with high-temperature hydrothermal vents and seafloor seismic networks.

In May 2010, Tim was part of the team of scientists who used computer image analysis of satellite photos of the surface oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as well as optical plume velocimetry (OPV) analysis of the video footage of the seafloor oil flow to challenge BP’s estimate of the volume of the flow of oil in an op-ed in The New York Times. In a paper written with Maya Tolstoy and published in Science in September, Tim and his co-author used OPV to calculate that the total release of oil over the 87 days of the spill amounted to approximately 5.2 million barrels.

Beizhan Yan

Beizhan Yan

Beizhan Yan is Lamont Associate Research Professor in Geochemistry, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University. Beizhan’s research is mainly focused on two areas: 1) characterizing exposure of pollutants and investigating adverse health effects of these pollutants in urban environments and 2) apportioning contamination sources and assessing environmental impact related to human activities (e.g., the fate of contaminants after Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and impact of hydraulic fracturing on water and air quality).

In 2016, Beizhan led a team of scientists working in the Gulf of Mexico who found that contaminants from the massive 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill lingered in the subsurface water for months after oil on the surface had been swept up or dispersed. In a new study, they also detailed how remnants of the oil, black carbon from burning oil slicks and contaminants from drilling mud combined with microscopic algae and other marine debris to descend in a “dirty blizzard” to the seafloor.

Henry Fountain

Henry Fountain

Henry Fountain is a science reporter for The New York Times. He covers climate change, with a focus on the innovations that will be needed to overcome it. He also writes about earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides, nuclear accidents and other natural and human-caused disasters. Among other subjects, he has written about concrete, an elephant that thinks it’s a truck, jealous dogs, nuclear tourism, a building based on bubbles, poison ivy and climate change, arthritic cane toads and worm grunting. Henry joined the Times as an editor on the national desk in 1995. He became a full-time reporter in 2009, after writing the weekly Observatory column in Science Times and other articles on a part-time basis for the previous decade. The Great Quake, his book on the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, will be published in August 2017.

Leigh Fondakowski

Leigh Fondakowski

Leigh Fondakowski wrote and directed SPILL, this year’s featured EST/Sloan drama about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. A veteran member of Tectonic Theater Project, she was the Head Writer on The Laramie Project (2000), about the murder of Matthew Shepard; an Emmy-nominated co-screenwriter for the adaptation of The Laramie Project (2002) for HBO; and a co-writer of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later (2009). Her original work as writer/director also includes The People’s Temple (2005) about the Jonestown massacre (which led to her book, Stories from Jonestown (2013)), and I Think I Like Girls (2002). Leigh is a 2007 recipient of the NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Program for Playwrights, a 2009 MacDowell Colony Fellow, and a 2010 Distinguished Visiting Chair at the University of Minnesota, where she lectured and developed Casa Cushman, a work-in-progress about nineteenth-century American actress Charlotte Cushman. She is currently a teaching artist at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and Naropa University. You can read an EST Blog interview with Leigh about SPILL here.

SPILL began previews on March 8 and performances continue at The Ensemble Studio Theatre through April 2.

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

Cassandra Medley

Cassandra Medley

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. Reviewing the 2004 Magic Theatre production, The San Francisco Chronicle called it “a full-fledged drama bristling with challenging ideas and emotional complexity.” Challenging ideas are very much at the heart of COMING UP FOR AIR, which focuses on the dilemma of Joyce Davis Mitchell, an African-American fifth grade science teacher, who returns to her Ohio hometown energized from attending the Paris Climate Summit to find her convictions about climate change clashing with the pragmatic needs of her farming family. We had our own challenging questions for Cassandra about her play.

What inspired you to write COMING UP FOR AIR?

Climate change and the pollution of the earth, air, and water are, of course, crucial issues of our times, regardless of what the deniers insist on denying. I found myself intrigued by stories of "ordinary Americans" being forced to personally cope with and confront the controversies involved in the environmental debate. 

Dare I ask whether any aspect of the play is autobiographical?

The most autobiographical aspect of the play is it being set in the fictional town of Ephraim, a small town in Ohio, which is very loosely based on where I spent my summers growing up as a child. Unlike southern towns, Ephraim, like its actual counterpart, is a place where the few black families coexist, and even socialize quite comfortably with their white neighbors, at least on the surface. Of course, we are all now witnessing the provocations in our society that are cracking that surface wide open. The second autobiographical element is my fond remembrance of my own sixth-grade science teacher, Mrs. Jackson.

What kind of research into attending climate conferences, fracking and/or teaching science to children did you do?

COMING UP FOR AIR has been written over a period of three years during which I have extensively researched the hydraulic fracturing controversy, the work of worldwide climatologists, and been very inspired by the work of some of the grammar school science teachers across the country who are courageously educating their young students about fracking and climate change, as well as encouraging their students to become activists, often at the cost of their jobs – they were my inspiration for Joyce, the main character. I was particularly inspired by the 2015 Climate Change Summit held in Paris where the global participants courageously insisted on marching in the streets despite the devastating terrorist attack that had occurred only two weeks before.

Schematic depiction of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas (Mike Norton)

Schematic depiction of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas (Mike Norton)

Several of your plays – Relativity, Cell, and now COMING UP FOR AIR – concern the conflict between a character’s ideals and her devotion to her family. Why is this juncture so important to you?

Yes, that's true. I'm fascinated with the question of what constitutes personal integrity versus familial and/or social pressure. It's my Arthur Miller influence. We live in a time when it is imperative that people speak up and speak out. Of course, when has that ever not been the case? But now, we find ourselves on the brink of planetary catastrophe, so the personal risks involved in daring to speak up have never been more urgent.

I have always been moved by stories of people who are economically dependent on fracking, mining, and industrial jobs that cause pollution. It is often too easy for those of us in the comfortable and somewhat stable middle class to pass judgments on the choices of the working class and working poor. Job opportunities are increasingly scarce. Yes, one can say, “we need to create more environmentally friendly jobs” – and we do; however, tomorrow I personally have a good paying job to go to, so how easy and convenient it is for me to say that. In the case of my play, small farmers are increasingly losing their farms due to bankruptcy, and the small black farmers are becoming more and more extinct as time goes on. The family in COMING UP FOR AIR gives me the opportunity to play with all of these elements.

Your previous play, Relativity (2006), was a very popular EST/Sloan play. You currently teach playwriting at Sarah Lawrence College. How does writing a play about science differ from writing a play about a non-science subject?

EST poster for Relativity (2006)

EST poster for Relativity (2006)

The challenge in writing a play about science is in the struggle to dramatize the science subject itself, whatever it may be.  As a playwright, you invent character-driven motivations that are generated by your characters’ emotional needs. You then want to fuse those needs with the actual scientific exposition in a way that does not sound self-conscious. In other words, just why is so-and-so mouthing all those facts and figures?  You hope to present characters who are involved in a compelling story that is generating genuine conflict while revealing complex emotional dynamics onstage.

Relativity concerned the little-known melanin belief system which contends that people of color have more melanin and that gives them more intelligence, better athletic ability, etc. COMING UP FOR AIR concerns what many may consider a much more dangerous belief system: that “green fracking” resolves all the environmental issues people have had with fracking. What concerns you about green fracking?  

I am concerned about the concept of "green" fracking precisely because it encourages the belief that fracking can now appear to have a pleasant face. As with Relativity, I am fascinated and disturbed by ways that false, suspicious or questionable claims are put forth by authorities who claim to be scientific experts, and who can be so convincing in doing so. For example, there are now five farm families in upstate New York who are petitioning Governor Cuomo to allow them to have profitable and "safer" green fracking wells on their property; they must petition because New York State has outlawed fracking, at least for now. The farmers want to save their farms and livelihoods. The question is: why shouldn't they be able to if they want to?

In your play, the Davises have been living in the Ephraim, Ohio farming community for several generations. Are we to understand that they are only now experiencing racism for the first time when Joyce’s stance on fracking clashes with the community’s?

Yes, the Davises have indeed been living in their small farming community for several generations. The current family has not had to experience the type of overt racism of the generations of their grandparents and great-grandparents – as is the case with my own actual small town family. Of course, nobody in the actual town is broadcasting  whether or not they voted for “Mr. T.” However, as James Baldwin summed it up, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” As we are seeing in all kinds of examples now throughout the country, the interior legacy of harbored racism needs just the slightest provocation to rear up time and time again. In the play, Joyce's “inconvenient” stance is such a provocation.

From left, Kim Sullivan, Elain Graham and Melanie Nicholls-King in EST production of Relativity in 2006. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

From left, Kim Sullivan, Elain Graham and Melanie Nicholls-King in EST production of Relativity in 2006. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

You’ve had your plays produced all over the country. How does the EST/Sloan play development process differ from other theater organizations?

I have had plays produced all over the country, and for me, the EST/Sloan Play development process stands out in the quality of the dramaturgy that Billy, Linsay and Graeme offer as a play develops. I am a very proud and grateful member of the EST Playwrights Unit which has nurtured and encouraged the numerous drafts of this play.

What’s next for Cassandra Medley?

Cell, which was in EST’s Marathon 2012, is to be recorded online for the Playing on Air series. I will be joining various activist groups to fight the present federal administration, plus teaching and writing continue as always, especially work on my “Writers Gym” book.

The 2017 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 30 through March 30 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its nineteenth year.

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.

Susan Bernfield on Poppy Northcutt, Apollo 8, the swinging sixties, and SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY

On Tuesday, January 31, the 2017 EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature the first reading of Susan Bernfield ’s sparkling new play SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY, a drama about Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the first female engineer to work in NASA’s Mission Control.

Neuroscientist Heather Berlin, biologist Stuart Firestein, science writer Jonathan Weiner, playwright Deb Laufer join science watchdog Ivan Oransky for October 25 EST/Sloan Artist Cultivation Event

Every year the highlight of the EST/Sloan Project submission season 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?”