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

Robert Lyons (Photo by Andrea Reese)

Robert Lyons (Photo by Andrea Reese)

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 and vivisectionist Claude Bernard and Lyons brings Bernard on stage (along with his anti-vivisectionist wife) to illuminate how ideas about art, science, and life clashed at the time. Hear more from the playwright.

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

How did you come to write ZOLA’S LABORATORY?

Caricature by André Gill of naturalist novelist Émile Zola using a chamber pot to make a distasteful stew of ram's horn, devil's head and women's legs (1882). What is that dripping from his quill?

Caricature by André Gill of naturalist novelist Émile Zola using a chamber pot to make a distasteful stew of ram's horn, devil's head and women's legs (1882). What is that dripping from his quill?

I forget what I was reading, but there was a footnote about Émile Zola being influenced by scientist Claude Bernard in developing his theories of Naturalism.  And I thought that's kind of interesting. And then I went down the rabbit hole. 

ZOLA’S LABORATORY brings together two giants of nineteenth-century French culture: the novelist, playwright and activist Émile Zola, in his early thirties, and the 60-year-old path-breaking physiologist Claude Bernard, one of the first to use blind experiments to insure scientific objectivity. Did they actually know one another? Did they get along?

They did not know each other personally.  Émile openly quotes Bernard so he clearly knew of him.  But the story in my play is completely made up. 

The Zola we meet in your play is not the one we remember from Paul Muni’s acclaimed performance in The Life of Émile Zola (1937) where he is bravely accusing the president of the French Republic of anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus Affair. That all comes some 25 years later. In your play, Zola and Bernard are quite funny and the action is quite racy. Were they really that funny? What kind of research did you do to write the play?  

Left, Émile Zola in 1970. Right, Paul Muni as Zola in The Life of Émile Zola (1937).

Left, Émile Zola in 1970. Right, Paul Muni as Zola in The Life of Émile Zola (1937).

Although I did a lot of research about their ideas, the characters as presented in my play are completely made up by me.  Rather than thinking of this as a historically accurate play, you should think of it as a rigorously researched clash of ideas.  At some point I came across the argument that Bernard would be appalled by Zola's idea of applying the scientific method to literature and the stage.  And so I concocted a scenario to bring that idea into sharp relief!  This Zola is the way I imagine him as an ambitious upstart. There is zero attempt to be historically accurate! 

You’ve created no less than three plays that adapted works of Dostoevsky (The Possessed, The Fever, and The Idiot) so you’re clearly at home in nineteenth century Europe. How is writing about nineteenth-century France different from writing about nineteenth-century Russia?

In the case of adapting Dostoevsky, I was much more committed to bringing his ideas and stories to the stage.  With ZOLA’S LABORATORY I researched the ideas, but completely made up the plot. 

Zola is famous for saying Nulles dies sine linea (“No day without a line”). Do you subscribe to that philosophy? Is that what drew you to him?

I wish I wrote a line every day!  But in spite of the fact that my play basically makes fun of both Zola and Bernard, I actually have tremendous respect for both men.  They were both serious thinkers and I find that inspiring. 

The Lesson of Claude Bernard or Session at the Vivisection Laboratory by Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1889)

The Lesson of Claude Bernard or Session at the Vivisection Laboratory by Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1889)

You’ve been engaged in so many aspects of the theater over the past 30 or so years: playwright, director, founder of New Ohio Theatre and its artistic director. How does the EST/Sloan play development process differ from that of other companies you’ve been involved with? Is it hard to restrain yourself to being just the playwright this time or is it a relief?

A total relief!  I love all the roles I play in the theatre, but my favorite is playwright. 

Perhaps the time you’ve spent mining the past can help you predict the future? One hundred years from now someone will surely be writing a play about the intersection of science and theater in the two-thousand-teens. What will that be about?

Dark matter. 

What’s next for Robert Lyons?

I'm currently experimenting with extreme short forms and digging for the deep causes behind our current political realities. 

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

Kristin Idaszak

Kristin Idaszak

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; Charles Norris, the city’s well-to-do first Chief Medical Examiner; and Alexander Gettler, his workaholic, path-breaking forensic toxicologist. But let’s have the playwright take it from here.

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

What prompted you to write THE SUREST POISON?

Dr. Charles Norris in his lab in the 1920s.

Dr. Charles Norris in his lab in the 1920s.

THE SUREST POISON has a number of different origin points. I’ve had a longtime interest in the 1920s because of the way that speakeasy culture provided new opportunities for women to enter into the public sphere. Because speakeasies weren’t regulated, nobody could keep women out. Both the enactment and the repeal of Prohibition are closely tied to the feminist movement. I also have a longtime love of hardboiled detective fiction. (For this play, I found myself revisiting Dashiell Hammett’s frothier novel The Thin Man and the subsequent series of films.) Growing up, I always identified with the male detective. As an adult, I have made it into a personal mission to reclaim the hardboiled genre for queer women. These elements came together for me when my husband gave me Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook for Christmas one year. He knows me well. The book introduced me to the incredible toxicologist Alexander Gettler and pathologist Charles Norris. Soon thereafter, all of these different interests began to coalesce. Like all my plays, it also comes from something deeply personal. In THE SUREST POISON, one of the characters is an Italian immigrant whose family is torn apart by alcohol. While that’s not autobiographical, it comes from a place close to my heart.

Why this play? Why now?

Lois Long (aka Lipstick, right) in her office at The New Yorker, c. 1920s

Lois Long (aka Lipstick, right) in her office at The New Yorker, c. 1920s

The great luminary Taylor Mac talks about how theatre is an opportunity to rediscover things we’ve forgotten, dismissed, or buried. That’s my North Star. I believe that every time we tell a story about the past, it needs to be rigorously about the present. During Prohibition, bootleggers essentially started purifying industrial alcohol and selling it. In response, the government hired chemists to add denaturants to the industrial alcohol supply. The intention was to create something extremely toxic. However, the people who ended up drinking this poisoned alcohol were almost entirely from marginalized groups—immigrants, people of color, and the country’s poorest citizens. To me, the core of this play is about what happens when one group of people tries to legislate what it means to be “the right kind of American.” Prohibition was a very white, middle-to-upper class, Protestant movement. THE SUREST POISON interrogates many spheres of privilege that intersect in this environment—gender, race, immigration status, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status.

You bring so many things together in THE SUREST POISON: Prohibition, Jazz Age New York City, the Harlem Renaissance, the Birth of Forensic Science, the arch sassiness of the early New Yorker magazine, Race and Gender Identity – and a Murder Mystery! How did you decide to put all these into a play and not a ten-part series for Netflix?

That’s a great idea! Hold on, let me call my agent. In all seriousness, I’m hugely influenced by hardboiled detective fiction, which tends to throw together major social questions, a few dead bodies, and a colorful cast of characters. It uses those ingredients to take the audience on a whirlwind tour of a city’s underbelly. It leaves you with as many questions as answers. I want to whet the audience’s appetite. My hope is that people leave my plays hungry to dig deeper for themselves. Not everything wraps up in the play, and that’s intentional too.

Your play script includes a very helpful bibliography. You’ve clearly done a lot of research. Can you walk us through the writing of your play and the role your research played in the writing? Did you consult with any science experts during your writing?

Dr. Alexander Gettler in his lab in the 1920s

Dr. Alexander Gettler in his lab in the 1920s

Research is my opportunity to play detective, to find connections, and to expand my own understanding of the world. I’m always trying to strike a balance between honoring the history and telling a story that has its own needs. To write the scenes where Gettler is performing experiments onstage, I used Gettler’s own paper, “The toxicology of cyanide.” I basically transcribed the steps of testing for cyanide in tissue the way he describes them in the paper. After I finished the first draft, I sent the play and the paper to my parents (both chemical engineers) to fact check the science. I think I might have sent them back to their college textbooks. But they gave me the okay on the science.

In the play Gettler, a Hungarian immigrant, is convinced that the government is intentionally distributing poisonous denatured alcohol through the Prohibition’s black market as a way to rid the country of the poor, people of color, and immigrants. Is he speculating or was there evidence from the time that his suspicions were true?

The intentional distribution of poisonous liquor was very well documented. It was well understood at the time and now that the poisonous liquor was disproportionately affecting the groups you’ve mentioned. I found this over and over in my research, including in several New York Times articles from the 1920s. I think a useful contemporary example is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, although the situations aren’t analogous. The government isn’t necessarily conspiring to murder the citizens of Flint. But there have been a series of very conscious choices made that jeopardize the health and lives of the people who live there. What’s the line between complicity and culpability?

Your title comes from a wonderful quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Tobacco, coffee, alcohol, hashish, prussic acid, strychnine, are weak dilutions: the surest poison is time.” You incorporate those elements and more into an original song that the character The Chanteuse sings. It’s such a great quote! How is it that no one has used it in a song before?

Harlem speakeasy in the 1920s

Harlem speakeasy in the 1920s

Probably because it’s hard to make rhyme! The title came before I knew exactly how or if it was going to appear in the play. But it was an idea I couldn’t get out of my head. The fundamental principle of toxicology is, “The dose makes the poison.” If you think about it, that principle applies to time as well. When I stumbled upon the idea of making it into a song, it immediately felt really right.

Your play has an epitaph quote from a chemical engineer, Joseph Vincent Idaszak: “It’s all deadly.” I’m wondering at what age you heard that and what impact it had on your lifestyle and writing?

I don’t remember when I first heard my dad say that, but it’s become family shorthand. The sense of it is a bit cavalier, but it’s also a deeply pragmatic axiom. If everything’s deadly, you might as well live boldly. Both my parents originally trained as chemical engineers. The engineers I know (including the ones who raised me) see what they do as the marriage of pure scientific knowledge with practicality. So I grew up in an environment that combined intellectual rigor, pragmatism, and a very offbeat sense of humor. I think that has a pretty one-to-one translation into my aesthetic as a playwright. It’s also influenced how I live my life: I studied philosophy in college, and similarly see theatre as the practical application of all the big questions about how to be a human being that I loved from my philosophy coursework.

There’s a Latin quote that Norris brought back from his travels in Europe and that apparently still hangs in the New York City morgue today. In translation it reads: “Let conversation cease, let laughter flee. This is the place where death delights in helping the living.” What insight does this give us into Norris?

Latin quote at NYC morgue that translates into English: “Let conversation cease, let laughter flee. This is the place where death delights in helping the living.”

Latin quote at NYC morgue that translates into English: “Let conversation cease, let laughter flee. This is the place where death delights in helping the living.”

I love this quote! I think it captures the entire ethos of the Chief Medical Examiner’s Officer under Norris’s tenure. There is a solemnity and sense of higher purpose to the work these individuals are doing. It’s not for the abstract advancement of human knowledge. It’s for the concrete betterment of people who are living hard lives. But there’s also an acknowledgement of the presence of death. The quote reminds me of the way that Gettler was described as the man who reads corpses. There’s a sense that death is not final, that death has been activated in some way. In an early draft of the play, the character who was murdered had a supernatural presence in the play. While that story element has gone away, the impulse remains.

What’s next for Kristin Idaszak?

Another Jungle (2).jpg

In April, my play Another Jungle will have its premiere in Chicago, as a co-production between my company, Cloudgate Theatre, and the internationally-based ensemble The Syndicate. I’m also writing a new play that spans the entirety of human history in Antarctica through the lens of gender and climate. That’s called Three Antarcticas and will have its first public reading at The Goodman Theatre this summer as the culmination of the Goodman Playwrights Unit.

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

Christina Quintana (Photo: Benjamin Pradet)

Christina Quintana (Photo: Benjamin Pradet)

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 in his sixties eager to find a way to make an enduring contribution to science. What brings them together is the project the astronomer wants to develop using the innovative new approach to scientific research begun in 2007 by the Citizen Science Alliance, a group of scientists, software developers and educators who draw on the time, abilities and energies of a distributed community of citizen scientists to further science. Their work is best known through their web portal, the Zooniverse, which now has accounts for some 1.6 million citizen scientists pursuing projects across astronomy, physics, biology, philosophy, and the humanities. But let’s hear more from the playwright.

What drew you to write a play about citizen scientists, and the Planet Hunters project specifically?

Diagram of NASA's Kepler space telescope, the first agency mission capable of detecting Earth-size planets using the transit method, a photometric technique that measures the minuscule dimming of starlight as a planet passes in front of its host star. (NASA)

Diagram of NASA's Kepler space telescope, the first agency mission capable of detecting Earth-size planets using the transit method, a photometric technique that measures the minuscule dimming of starlight as a planet passes in front of its host star. (NASA)

We all know what it’s like to stare with wonder at a starry night sky—how incredible that anyone with an Internet connection can help discover a planet, no PhD necessary!

There was a citizen scientist named Kian Jek involved in the discovery of the planet PH1 in 2012. Is the character Kian Chung in the play based on him? Did you have the opportunity of meeting or interviewing him?

I haven’t met Kian, but it’s true that I borrowed his name! It was actually two planet hunters, as I’m sure you learned—including Kian Jek—who helped discover PH1. I decided to name the character in the play Kian J. Chung since he is his own man, really a total creation beyond age, first name, and hometown.

I don’t see any scientist named Neema Otieno involved in the Planet Hunters program. Is she your own creation?

Planet Hunters was actually launched in 2012 by a team led by Debra Fischer, a professor of astronomy at Yale. I invented Neema because I wanted to write about a woman of color in STEM, specifically a brilliant astronomer who struggles with imposter syndrome in the face of creating a truly unique program (i.e., Planet Hunters).  

A slide from astronomer Meg Schwambe’s press briefing (October 18, 2012) announcing the “Discovery and Confirmation of PH1: a Circumbinary Planet in a Four-Star System”

A slide from astronomer Meg Schwambe’s press briefing (October 18, 2012) announcing the “Discovery and Confirmation of PH1: a Circumbinary Planet in a Four-Star System”

Did you interview any scientists actually involved in planet hunting as part of your research?

I interviewed Dr. Sarbani Basu, head of Yale’s Astronomy Department. When I reached out, she responded to me within the hour. Unlike Dr. Williams in CITIZEN SCIENTIST, Dr. Basu is one of the most delightful academics I have ever spoken to! She’s a real trailblazer and her insights hugely informed revisions, particularly straightening many of my question marks about the day-to-day of an academic astronomer. 

The two lead characters in CITIZEN SCIENTIST share the trauma of having lost someone close. Loss of memory, of identity is also the subject of your recent play Azul. Does loss have a special meaning for you?

To be honest, all of my writing circles the themes of loneliness, identity, and the unexpected paths of connection we mine through both. I sat down to write the first draft of CITIZEN SCIENTIST six months after the loss of my father, and the experience was incredibly cathartic. This play has helped me heal in ways I never expected.

Artist Dirk Terrell's vision of what sunset with four stars would look like on PH1.

Artist Dirk Terrell's vision of what sunset with four stars would look like on PH1.

The travails and anxieties of Neema as a minority scientist seeking tenure in a major university feel earned. Have you experienced these kinds of issues yourself? What research did you do into the plight of aspiring scientists in academia?

I worked as program staff in the Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities program at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for several years. This experience taught me a great deal about the increasingly cutthroat world of academia, particularly PhDs and post-docs at major research universities. I also did a lot of pointed research on the experience of women of color on faculty in astronomy departments, and STEM departments more generally.  

So much is being made these days about machine learning and artificial intelligence. Yet, what the citizen scientists involved in Planet Hunters are demonstrating is that there remains an important role for human intelligence and participation. Is that what drew you to this topic?

Yes! That’s exactly what drew me to the topic. There have been many more planets and multiple papers published thanks to the good work of many citizen scientists. I encourage you and anyone reading this to hop onto the Planet Hunters website and do some planet hunting! Maybe you’ll discover a new world?

NASA's shoutout to Citizen Scientists in its 2013 Roadmap for the Next 30 Years

NASA's shoutout to Citizen Scientists in its 2013 Roadmap for the Next 30 Years

Thanks for the prompt. I just downloaded the Zooniverse app. What do you want the audience to take away from CITIZEN SCIENTIST?

I hope they’re hopeful—that, like Kian, you can make a fresh start at any age, and that fighting for something that you believe in—though never easy—is ultimately worth something, even if it’s something inexplicable.

The play has a major role for a character resembling the forward on a woman’s basketball team. I’m wondering if you share Kian’s love for women’s college basketball?

You caught me. I am a serious UConn Huskies fan, thanks to one of my dearest friends who got me hooked in college. Every year we take a pilgrimage to the Women’s Final Four together—and Stanford is no stranger to the competition! Is this a spoiler alert? Yes, our planet is a basketball player. 

You’ve been a member of EST’s Youngblood program. Has that played any role in the creation of CITIZEN SCIENTIST?

EST/Youngblood has been vital to the creation of this play. I completed much of the first draft during our summer retreat and workshopped a later version in our meeting early this year. I’ve been lucky to have such an attentive and talented crew to help me shepherd this play into the world!

Have you written other plays about science?

Poster for Peppercorn Theatre production of Flor to Somewhere.

Poster for Peppercorn Theatre production of Flor to Somewhere.

I have a play called Three Thousand Seizures about a woman named Petra who struggles with her debilitating epilepsy symptoms and whether to proceed with neurosurgery, and a TYA piece called Flor to Somewhere about a young Latina who dreams of becoming the greatest aerospace engineer in the history of the world.

What do you think are the particular difficulties of writing a play about science?

I think it all comes down to striking the balance between heart and science, which can sometimes be tricky.

In addition to being a playwright, you are also a published poet. Do you find that your poetry informs your playwriting? Or are they parallel but separate worlds?

Well, now that you’ve read the play, I wonder about your answer to this question! I think all my writing across genre informs each other, but the genesis of each piece is singular.

I have yet to read your poetry but yes, I do find the writing in CITIZEN SCIENTIST wonderfully rich in texture and tone. What’s next for Christina Quintana?

A brand new play of mine, Mr. San Man, will have a Studio Retreat at the Lark with public readings on Monday, March 26th at 7pm and Tuesday, March 27th at 7pm.

My play Azul will have a reading as part of the Playwrights Realm INK’D Festival of Readings on Monday, April 16th. The times are being confirmed, but there will be an afternoon and evening reading. Also, the other plays are wonderful and you should check out the full fest!

Keep an eye out for a brand new interdisciplinary reading series (poetry, prose, plays) called BESPOKE at the Bureau of General Services Queer Division. I’ll be co-curating with poets and writers Jerome Murphy and Tim Murphy! More to come.

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

C. Denby Swanson

C. Denby Swanson

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 the first Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University and began hosting seminars and dinners with police detectives.  Those interactions with investigators led her to create a unique new forensic learning tool: the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” a series of 19 meticulously-crafted miniature crime scenes.  But let’s have our playwright tell us more:

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

How did you come to write NUTSHELL?

Frances Glessner Lee at her work desk in New Hampshire

Frances Glessner Lee at her work desk in New Hampshire

In 2015, my friend Elissa Goetschius, a director and dramaturg, posted an article on Facebook about the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” She lived in Baltimore at the time and had gone to see them at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, where they now reside. Another friend made sure I saw the post, and I was immediately entranced. I knew there was a science play in there. And a play about women’s forgotten history. And a play that invited theatricality.

Frances Glessner Lee is such a larger-than-life character. What kind of research went into the writing of NUTSHELL?

Parsonage Parlor Nutshell

Parsonage Parlor Nutshell

On my trip to Baltimore, Elissa and I spent a couple of days with the Nutshell Studies. Even more importantly, we got to spend time with Bruce Goldfarb, who is in charge of the exhibit at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He gave us a tremendous amount of background information on Frances, and walked us through the accessible parts of the building. After that, I flew to Chicago to see the Glessner family home, a Chicago landmark and now a museum, and the miniature rooms created by her contemporary, the artist and heiress Narcissa Niblack Thorne, which are on permanent exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Bedroom of Three-Room Dwelling Nutshell

Bedroom of Three-Room Dwelling Nutshell

There’s no biography yet published about Frances – one is in the works – but I read every piece of writing about her that I could get my hands on – articles, books, blog posts. I watched the wonderful 2012 documentary by Susan Marks, Of Dolls and Murder. I also found books on forensic science, on Chicago architecture, on the medical examiner system, on the privileged social class that Frances was born into. My writing room at home is wallpapered now like a crime investigation with photographs of her, quotes, highlighted text.

In NUTSHELL we experience Lee as she gives a closing lecture to the weeklong seminar she initiated in the forties, the Harvard Associates in Police Science (HAPS), a series of seminars that actually continues today under the auspices of the Chief Medical Examiner in Maryland. How did you decide this was the best way to present Lee theatrically?

Kathleen Chalfant as Dr. Vivian Bearing in Wit (1998; Photo by Susan Krulwich)

Kathleen Chalfant as Dr. Vivian Bearing in Wit (1998; Photo by Susan Krulwich)

Historically, who was invited to speak at these homicide seminars? Detectives. Investigators. Who was not invited to speak? Frances. She was the funder, the hostess. She held the celebratory dinner afterwards, on $8,000 china. It was important to me that the play NUTSHELL be a vehicle for Frances to speak. Her voice was very important to me. I kept thinking of Margaret Edson’s play, Wit, about the John Donne scholar who dies of ovarian cancer, and how her character, Dr. Vivian Bearing, is vibrant, irascible, intensely smart, and emotionally complex. That’s a play that deeply affected me and continues to have a significant influence on my work.

Lee envisioned her miniatures as being useful in teaching detectives how to observe a crime scene. Are the crime scenes Lee’s own concoctions or are they based on actual crimes? Are they meant to be solvable?

Frances Glessner Lee working on "Dark Bathroom" (c. 1944-1948)

Frances Glessner Lee working on "Dark Bathroom" (c. 1944-1948)

Frances created “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” as training tools for detectives. Her goal was to elevate the profession. She based her scenes on real cases, composites of actual crime scenes. The point of the Nutshells, however, isn’t a solution. Frances intended them as educational tools to train detectives how to look. They can be an infuriating experience – we’re used to Law & Order. Can you imagine what a TV audience’s response would be if every crime show episode, or every season, ended without a definitive answer? The mysteries without that narrative culmination? The point of those shows is to know. Knowing satisfies the audience. The point of the Nutshells is to challenge you to look, to improve the process of investigation. Her goal, she said, was to train investigators to "convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell."

“The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” are not usually available to the public but all 19 were recently on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. in the “Murder Is Her Hobby” exhibit (and still viewable online in VR). Have you had the chance to see any of them? What struck you most about seeing them in person?

Dark Bathroom Nutshell

Dark Bathroom Nutshell

Because of the funding from the Sloan commission, I was able to make a trip to Baltimore when I first started writing, back in 2016. As I mentioned, I arranged to get access to the Nutshells through Bruce Goldfarb, the special assistant to the Medical Examiner who is in charge of the Nutshells and an expert on them and on Frances. Unfortunately, I was not able to get to the Smithsonian exhibit, but it’s so wonderful that the people’s museum could expand access to this national treasure.

The Nutshells are incredible, weird and obsessive and beautiful and fascinating. After time in their presence, you start seeing the world in a whole new way. There’s a shift in perspective, a shift of scale. They are invocations. They create magic spells. I could have looked at them for weeks and weeks. The important thing for me is that they express the genius of Frances Glessner Lee. In their permanent space at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, framed pictures of her are on the walls, alongside her porcelain bullet wound studies. People are justifiably enamored of the Nutshells, but forget that they came from her, they contain her – she put her own life into them.

The Nutshell studies are painstaking and often grisly miniatures created on a scale of one inch to one foot. Lee hired carpenters to build the sets but hand-stitched the clothing for the dolls herself and produced just two a year for ten years. How do you imagine a production of your play could reproduce them – or their impact – onstage for an audience?

Kitchen Nutshell

Kitchen Nutshell

That was the question at the beginning of this writing process. How could a theater audience participate in the Nutshell Studies, which are so small? Theater has the power of words, and it has the power of transformation. So every Shakespeare play starts out with someone saying, “Oh here we are in the city of Verona!” And boom, the audience is in Verona. Frances said – and this is in the play – that to fully experience her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”, you just have to imagine yourself six inches tall. So we do. And then the space continues to transform. Frances had a lot of experience in the theater herself. She understood how objects are magical, how space is magical.

The play ends with your introduction of a contemporary crime scene. Why did you choose to end the play that way?

Barn Nutshell

Barn Nutshell

Frances was committed to evidence-based investigation, without the involvement of politics, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore ferociously continues that commitment. We were talking early on in developing this play, “Why now? Why does Frances, who has been dead for 60 years, speak now?”

During our visit, Bruce Goldfarb took Elissa and me to the room where they set up practice crime scenes. It’s called “The Most Dangerous Room in Baltimore” – because they stage these pretend homicides in there and then use them to train forensic investigators. So it’s a life-size Nutshell Study room. It’s amazing. And I was just like, “Oh my god, Frances is here.” I really felt like she was in the room, in the building. She’s still waiting for truth to lead to justice.

Lee was a rich heiress but most of the Nutshell studies concern the fate of poor, lower class members of society, although always white. Was there a social agenda behind Lee’s creations?

I can’t say what her interest was in social justice issues. But I do think she purposefully made her victims so that investigators would have to pay attention to people they might otherwise overlook. Over 80% of her figures are female. She’s definitely saying something.

University of Maryland criminology professor Thomas Mauriello created six miniature crime dioramas for his students, which he turned into the book The Dollhouse Murders. Visual artist Abigail Goldman sells her miniature “die-o-ramas” online for thousands of dollars. Performance artist Cynthia Van Buhler has used miniature dollhouse scenes to investigate the murder of her grandfather. And Guillermo del Toro, director of the acclaimed The Shape of Water, has optioned Corinne May Botz’s lavish book of photographs, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, for a series of crime dramas for HBO in which a woman investigator uses dollhouse recreations to solve crimes. What do you think is behind this current fascination with dollhouse miniatures as investigative tools?

Cynthia van Buhler's recreation of the murder of her grandfather in Dollhouse Speakeasy

Cynthia van Buhler's recreation of the murder of her grandfather in Dollhouse Speakeasy

Oh, I don’t think it’s simply a current fascination. I mean, we’ve been fascinated by miniatures for thousands of years. Pharaohs used miniatures to provide for themselves in the afterlife. Before the advent of photography, door to door salesmen used miniatures to sell furniture. Frances wanted the crime scene miniatures to be small enough that the viewers could see inside a life. Miniatures are like a kind of social autopsy – you get a look at yourself from a new perspective.

Have you written any other plays about science?

The cast of Everything So Far

The cast of Everything So Far

In 2002, I was an artist in residence at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, here in Austin, working with an ensemble of high school students to adapt the ninth grade biology textbook into a play. We collaborated with Doug Rand, a playwright and one of the co-founders of the publishing house Playscripts, who, surprisingly, also has an advanced degree in evolutionary biology from Harvard. (What?! Really. Who knew?) The project resulted in a play called Everything So Far, which the students toured around Central Texas, and which is now published by Playscripts.

I’ve written about Mary Toft, an English woman who gave birth to rabbits. I’ve written about a famous blues club in my hometown of Austin. And I’ve written about my dad, a mathematics professor, and the theory of relativity in my play Relative.

I’m working on a commission of a new full-length play for teens, about vaccines, so that will be my third science play.

What’s next for C. Denby Swanson?

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The folks at NYC-based The Drilling Company are producing my play Gabriel: A Polemic, about faith, sisterhood, and free will. Directed by Hamilton Clancy. It opens March 9 and runs through March 26.

I’m also writing a memoir about my first year as a foster parent. I fostered four children over five years and adopted my son in 2014.

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

Marc Acito

Marc Acito

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 has been leading the development of American rocket technology in Huntsville, Alabama, first with the Army, then, in 1960, as NASA’s first director of the new Marshall Space Flight Center there . . . but let’s have our playwright take the story from here. (Interview by Rich Kelley)

What inspired you to write MAN IN THE MOON?

In order to “win” the arms race, the U.S. military recruited Nazi war criminals and enabled them to escape justice. Our rockets to the moon were fueled with the blood of thousands. Those victims deserve justice. And the corruption of American exceptionalism demands examination.

Why this play? Why now?

Wernher von Braun with President John F. Kennedy at Cape Canaveral, 1963. NASA's deputy administrator, Robert Seamans is behind von Braun.

Wernher von Braun with President John F. Kennedy at Cape Canaveral, 1963. NASA's deputy administrator, Robert Seamans is behind von Braun.

With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in 2019, I expect to see a lot of misinformation from parties with competing agendas. Polls show that 7% of Americans don’t believe we landed on the moon, along with 40% of Russians and 52% of Britons. The future of democracy depends on bringing the truth to light, particularly when the veracity of verifiable information suffers daily assaults.

Many historians claim that America could never have put a man on the moon without the vision, knowledge, and inventiveness of Wernher von Braun. Yet many also question how truthful he was in describing his involvement with the Nazi war effort during World War II, especially the use of prisoner slave labor to build the German rockets. How do you want the audience to feel about him?

Rocket engineer Wernher von Braun (back row, second from right) and members of his Peenemunde rocket team are congratulated by Gen. Erich Fellgiebel (left), head of the German Army Information Service during WWII, for a successful V-2 rocket test in October 1942.

Rocket engineer Wernher von Braun (back row, second from right) and members of his Peenemunde rocket team are congratulated by Gen. Erich Fellgiebel (left), head of the German Army Information Service during WWII, for a successful V-2 rocket test in October 1942.

Von Braun’s complicity with evil led to one of humankind’s most sublime achievements. I want the audience to discuss and decide among itself: What should the U.S. government have done? Are some minds too essential to execute? What happens when the advancement of knowledge collides with human ethics? These questions don’t yield easy answers, but hopefully they’ll inspire some enlightening post-show discussions.

The play shows sides of Wernher von Braun that audiences may be unfamiliar with: that besides being the world’s foremost rocket scientist, that he was quite the ladies’ man, a skilled musician and music lover, and that late in his life he had a religious conversion to Evangelical Christianity. Did anything you discovered as part of your research about him surprise you?

Actually, von Braun was only 35 when he converted, a fact crucial to understanding his actions in America. He also married then. While he was sexually charismatic, I believe the moon was his only mistress.

What surprised me most was the dramatic unity and irony of von Braun’s experiences; I don’t want to give away any plot twists, but suffice it to say if I wrote them as fiction, you’d say they were implausible. Von Braun’s life suits dramatization because there’s just enough historical record to see the man’s dimensions but not too much to impede speculation. His story has the scope of a Greek tragedy, operatic and Shakespearean in its proportions.

Scene from a film depicting prison laborers working on the V2 rockets at Mittelwerk

Scene from a film depicting prison laborers working on the V2 rockets at Mittelwerk

One of the more chilling characters in MAN IN THE MOON is Dolf Baumgarten, a survivor of the Mittelwerk prison camp where the German V-2 rockets were built. Is he based on a historic person?

Dolf is a fictional composite based on the accounts of survivors. The harrowing events he relates are all true.

You wrote the book for the acclaimed 2015 musical Allegiance, which was based on George Takei’s experiences in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. How did your work on that play inform your writing about Mittelwerk, the German camp where prisoners built the V-2 rockets?

Prior to Allegiance, I had only written comedy. Being asked to join that team took me into the realm of tragedy, which was uncharted territory for me. I wouldn’t have had the courage to explore the horrors of Mittelwerk otherwise.

Creating Asian characters with Asian collaborators also emboldened me to write other characters of color, so long as that perspective is represented on the creative team. So I’m grateful to have Timothy Douglas, winner of the 2017 Lloyd Richards Award, direct this reading. He brings a first-hand understanding of black culture I don’t possess along with a shared metaphysical perspective on the human experience that unites us.

Alabama Governor George Wallace with von Braun and NASA Administrator James Webb (right) at Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, 1965

Alabama Governor George Wallace with von Braun and NASA Administrator James Webb (right) at Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, 1965

The action of the play takes place in Huntsville, Alabama in 1967-1968 when Von Braun was director of the Marshall Space Center there. Have you spent any time in Alabama as part of your research? Did any of your experiences there contribute to MAN IN THE MOON?

The fact that von Braun ended up in the crucible of George Wallace’s Alabama staggers the imagination. As we witnessed with the recent Senate election, Alabama’s history casts long shadows. So far, the only time I’ve spent there is between the pages of memoirs and biographies, but my first-hand experiences in Tennessee and Georgia gave me a reference.

MAN IN THE MOON interweaves the story of Wernher von Braun with the lives of Glory and Fix Watson. Fix is a black engineer native to Huntsville; Glory, his journalist wife, is a native of Chicago.  Were these characters based on anyone who actually worked with Von Braun? If you invented them, why?

Morgan Watson, NASA’s first African American engineer (left), speaking at a panel at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in 2010 with (from left) Julius Montgomery, the first African American hired as a professional at Cape Canaveral, and astronauts Leland Melvin and Mae Jemison. Photo by Eric Long.

Morgan Watson, NASA’s first African American engineer (left), speaking at a panel at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in 2010 with (from left) Julius Montgomery, the first African American hired as a professional at Cape Canaveral, and astronauts Leland Melvin and Mae Jemison. Photo by Eric Long.

Like Dolf, Fix is a fictional composite of the black pioneers at NASA, including Morgan Watson, who graciously allowed me to interview him. Given von Braun’s documented support of integration, I felt comfortable inventing his relationship with Fix in the absence of any account. Glory is completely fictional, though her offstage activities are with real people—the activists Dr. John Cashin and Clyde Foster.

You incorporate some serious science into the play with discussion of the “pogo oscillation” of the rockets and the “Giant Impact Hypothesis” about the moon’s creation. How did you decide how much science to include in the play?

What excites me most about a narrative that requires science are the metaphors. Science allows us to understand the physical world, but its institutional language puts up a barrier best breached by poetry. In our Disinformation Age, dramatists have a moral obligation to provide and facilitate an accessible forum for ideas. Luckily, theatergoers seem to welcome an intellectual meal if it’s well-prepared.

Von Braun with his wife Maria at a picnic in Huntsville celebrating the successful flight of Apollo 11 in 1969. 

Von Braun with his wife Maria at a picnic in Huntsville celebrating the successful flight of Apollo 11 in 1969. 

People may be most familiar with your name through the many musicals you’ve worked on:  Allegiance, Chasing Rainbows, A Room with a View, and, most recently, Bastard Jones. MAN IN THE MOON has a good deal of incidental music. Were you ever tempted to make this a musical?

I considered it, then jettisoned the idea because of the time constraints of mounting a musical. Plays take less time to develop, so in order to participate in the cultural conversation in 2019, I needed to create a piece with a shorter developmental process.

But I don’t really make a distinction between plays and musicals because mine all plumb the subconscious. I reject naturalism because it fails to capture the ongoing parade of thoughts and images that dominate our psyches and define our perception of ourselves and the world. All of my work is musical theater if you use the word “musical” as an adjective rather than a noun.

How great is it that there is a German song about Alabama? At what point in the writing of MAN IN THE MOON did you realize how you were going to use the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill song “Moon over Alabama” (aka “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)”)?  

The idea came very late in the process, which I find astonishing considering I did my college thesis on Weill. I wrote the play while listening to Wagner, occasionally switching to Haydn’s Creation. When I got the idea to begin the play with “Fly Me to the Moon” in Russian, I instantly thought of using “Moon Over Alabama” and “Stars Fell on Alabama.”

You’ve developed plays and musicals with many different theatrical organizations. How is the EST/Sloan Project play development process different?

As someone who coaches writers, I’m shocked at how rude and insensitive some theater professionals can be when giving notes. Linsay Firman and Graeme Gillis do it right. They organize their thoughts into a digestible size; they ask legitimate questions rather than question-shaped opinions; they focus on what resonates for them as much as what eludes; and they truly seem to hold writers in high esteem.

You’ve been an actor, an opera singer, a novelist (author of two acclaimed novels), a writer of comedic plays, monologues, and the book and lyrics to several musicals. Last year you directed the musical Bastard Jones, which you also wrote. Now you’ve written this very moving play, MAN IN THE MOON, infused with themes of historical accountability, civil rights, and some serious science. Do you see these different achievements as you evolving or has each been part of the polymorphous person who is Marc Acito and you can tap into any one of them as needed?

I’m an “and” person more than an “or.” So while I see this play as an evolution toward deeper, more serious storytelling, I see the connection to my lighter comic work, which I also create for social change. I’m inspired by the example of multi-hyphenate polymath Michael Frayn; it’s hard to believe that Noises Off and Copenhagen sprang from the same brain. That’s a high bar to clear, but I’m also inspired by the 400,000 people who got us to the moon in just eight years using computers less sophisticated than our smart phones.

Have you written other plays that deal with science? How is writing a play about science different?

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THE MAN IN THE MOON is part of a troika of plays I’m writing about science and ethics. The first, The Secrets of the Universe (and Other Songs), examines the real-life relationship of Albert Einstein and Marian Anderson. It premieres this July at the Hub Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia.

The difference between writing about science and other subjects is that it deepens my understanding about the world’s operating system. I find power and solace in that knowledge.

What’s next for Marc Acito?

I’m in the planning stages to direct Bastard Jones as a micro-budget independent film.

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 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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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.

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.