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.

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.