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Isaac's Eye

Ensemble Studio Theatre & The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation present

Isaac's Eye by Lucas Hnath*

directed by Linsay Firman*

January 30 - March 10, 2013

"A quirky sendup of fusty historical dramas... funky, stylized, but distinctly contemporary. Isaac's Eye wins a whole mess of points for originality." - The New York Times

"A brilliant new play." -

One experiment young Isaac Newton tried boggles the mind. To understand light and optics better, Newton inserted a long needle “between my eye and the bone, as near to the backside of my eye as I could.” Why take such a risk? Lucas Hnath’s brilliant new play, Isaac’s Eye, reimagines the contentious, plague-ravaged world Newton inhabited as it explores the dreams and longings that drove the rural farm boy to become one of the greatest thinkers in modern science.

Cast & Creative

Featuring Jeff Biehl+, Kristen Bush*+, Haskell King*+ and Michael Louis Serafin-Wells*+

Production Stage Manager - Erin Maureen Koster+
Scenic Design - Nick Francone
Costume Design - Suzanne Chesney
Sound Design - Shane Rettig*
Lighting Design - Les Dickert
Special Effects Coordinator - Eric Walton
Technical Director- Derek F. Dickinson
Casting Director - Tom Rowan*
Technical Director - Derek Dickinson
Assistant Stage Manager - Eileen Lalley+
Assistant Production Manager - Artem Kreimer
Assistant Director - Kate Pressman
Assistant Lighting Designer - Isabella Byrd
Properties Master - Kate Lundell

*denotes EST Member +denotes AEA


"Aquirky sendup of fusty historical dramas... funky, stylized, but distinctly contemporary.Isaac's Eye wins a whole mess of points for originality." - The New York Times

"A thoroughly engaging, thought-provoking, and often very funny exchange of ideas between two titans of science. While some may quibble when playwrights take artistic liberties with the lives of famous scientists or other historical figues, it works when the playgoer comes away with an appreciation not just of the scientist in his time, but the scientist in his mind. Consider the case made for this engaging and thought-provoking look into the mind (and through the eye) of Isaac Newton." - The Scientist

"When you imagine the exploits of the young Isaac Newton, cartoon graphics of falling apples and a fortuitous knock on the noggin might come to mind. But Lucas Hnath’s eloquent Isaac’s Eye—now playing, in a sensitive production by Linsay Firman, strips away the Newtonian clichés to present a plainspoken fable about the loneliness of genius and the transforming power of the scientific gaze. - The Village Voice

"I strongly recommend Isaac's Eye, clearly Hnath is a talent to watch. The four-person cast and director Linsay Firman were perfectly in sync with his skill, which is exactly what happens when good actors combine with good writing." - Huffington Post

"[Lucas] Hnath’s script and director Linsay Firman’s excellent production mesh in these delightful Brechtianisms: Biehl introduces “white-haired” Newton while King sulks nearby under his ink-black mop top; the titular 17th-century wunderkind talks like a modern-day teen. “Am I up shit creek?” he asks Robert Hooke (deliciously sly Michael Louis Serafin-Wells), the older scientist he hopes will get him into the Royal Society. Springboarding from true tidbits—Hooke kept an ejaculation diary, Newton may have had Asperger’s—the talented Hnath creates a disorienting, ironic atmosphere, a kind of Rushmore plus calculus." - Time Out New York

"In this brilliant new play which is very aware of its own fictionality, we get some ideas about a pivotal time in Newton's life and spend some hair-raising time with the famous needle. Haskell King plays the self-absorbed young man very well. Kristen Bush completely nails the role of the powerful young woman druggist. Michael Louis Serafin-Wells is wonderful as the succesful older man who, like many, had a penchant for opium and being in love with his own niece.  Jeff Biehl remains calm throughout; an amazing feat which brings us back to reality." -



Isaac's Eye won the 2012 Whitfield Cook Prize, an annual award given by New Dramatists for an unproduced, unpublished play deemed worthiest by an outside panel of judges.

Lucas Hnath on Isaac Newton:

I write so frequently about science and technology because I'm interested in characters who take themselves to the very edge of human experience. Newton takes himself to the edge of what can be seen by our eyes — much as astronauts go to the edge of our world, or a swimmer who uses performance enhancing drugs takes himself to the edge of what the body can experience.

I perceived Newton as a kind of risk taker. But as I studied him more, I actually enjoyed what a difficult, argumentative person he was. He's probably not someone you would have wanted to hang around.

Robert Hooke is an especially exciting character because almost no one knows who he was. But he did so much that you've heard about but never knew came from him: the artificial respirator, the earliest telescopes, the plan-form map, the theory of elasticity. At the time he was called “London’s Leonardo.”  

I think with Newton and Hooke you have a man and his shadow. Hooke is this wretched figure: sinful, hedonistic, grotesque. Newton, by contrast, is deeply moral. And yet, these distinctions become a bit more complicated before the play reaches its end. You come to realize how vicious and brutal a person Newton could be.


Isaac’s Eye and The EST/Sloan Project process

Four years ago, Isaac’s Eye was but a few paragraphs Hnath submitted for funding to The EST/Sloan Project. He describes how the play developed:

When I submitted the idea to Sloan, I had no play. I had a one-page proposal. The proposal outlined much of the story, but still, it was highly tentative. The folks from Sloan gave some feedback, and I actually rewrote the proposal based on their comments. They had some concerns about the factual accuracy of the play. As a result, I added what has now become the play's primary theatrical metaphor: the writing of “what’s true” on the wall. Sloan's concerns about accuracy actually opened the door for me to explore the relationship between truth and fiction in our attempts to understand the world and one another.

After I was given the commission, EST allowed me to use their space during the off-season to workshop the play. I'd bring in rough pages and notes, and I'd have actors read the text. I'd listen. I'd make changes on the fly. These little workshops allow me to quickly write a first draft. Beyond the first, EST held a couple more workshops to give Linsay Firman and me a chance to try out the play on its feet.

After I had written a second draft, I had a conversation with Daniel Todes, a science historian and professor at Johns Hopkins. At the time I was using Newton's work with alchemy to create some dramatic stakes. Todes told me that Newton's work with theology was far more controversial, which led me to change his secret work from alchemy to theology. This enabled me to explore Newton's relationship with God.

Many drafts later, I met with Gabriel Cwilich who expanded my understanding of how Newton and Hooke represented two opposing ways of looking at the world, two fundamentally different scientific approaches. Newton focused on a limited number of topics and obsessively studied and tried to relate those few things. Hook, on the other hand, was all over the place. He studied voraciously anything and everything. The next draft sharpened the differences in how they practiced their disciplines into the conflict.

In the spring of 2012, another play by Lucas HnathDeath Tax, was produced at the 36th Annual Actors Theatre Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville to rave reviews. “This play is pure joy for thinkers,” exulted the reviewer for “Hnath expertly inserts enough ambiguities and layers to his characters to keep play analysis junkies occupied for months." Hnath’s other plays include Red Speedo, Hillary and Clinton, Sake Tasting with a Séance to Follow, The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith, Odile’s Ordeal, Tonguetied, and Three Attempts at Corrective Eye Surgery. A resident playwright at New Dramatists since 2011, Hnath’s work has also been produced at the University of Miami, The Culture Project, Target Margin and Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Besides EST, his plays have been developed at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and Cleveland Public Theatre. He has also enjoyed playwriting residencies with The Royal Court Theatre and 24Seven Lab and is currently working on two commissions for Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Linsay Firman, Associate Director of The EST/Sloan Project and Literary Manager at EST, directed the NY premiere of Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, reprised at the 2011 World Science Festival. Other NYC productions include Rachel Bond’s Anniversary, Garrett M. Brown’s Americana and Jose Rivera’s Flowers, all in the EST Marathon; Perdita by Pierre Diennet (Lion Theater), Joy Tomasko’s Unfold Me, Catherine Trieschmann’s Crooked, Heather Lynn MacDonald’sPink (all at Ariel Tepper’s Summer Play Festival); Anne Washburn’s Apparition (chashama) named one of Time Out New York’s ten best plays of 2003, Howard Barker’s The Power of the Dog and The Possibilities, Joe Orton’s Loot, and Peter Rose’s Snatch (Soho Rep). She began working in new play development as the Associate Director of Soho Rep, where she worked from 1998 – 2004.

The EST/Sloan Project: Fifteen years of acclaimed productions

The upcoming Mainstage Production of Isaac’s Eye continues a tradition that began in 1998 and continued last season with Patrick Link’s acclaimed play, Headstrong, a gripping family drama about concussions and sports which Stone Phillips found “funny, frightening, relevant, and enlightening.” Its 2011 predecessor, Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler, about the life and work of British scientist Rosalind Franklin and her role in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, was reprised for the 2011 World Science Festival and was a sold-out hit.

In previous years EST/Sloan has dramatized the travails of two Russian scientists charged with embalming Lenin’s corpse (Lenin’s Embalmers, 2010), the conflict of two generations of black scientists (Relativity, 2006), a solipsistic anthropologist coping with mothering an autistic child (Lucy, 2008), the last days of a tragically irradiated nuclear physicist (Louis Slotin Sonata. 2001), and the romantic resonance discoverable in string theory (String Fever, 2003), among other subjects. In the spring of 2009, Deb Laufer’s End Days brought together the Rapture and Stephen Hawking for what Backstage called “A serious comedy, and the best new play I’ve seen in a long time. Ferociously good.” In 2007 David Zellnik’s Serendib investigated how the dynamics of a group of primate field researchers mirrored the behavior of a troop of Sri Lankan temple monkeys. (“A great play” – NPR) The complete roster of mainstage productions below shows how impressive the range of scientific topics has been:

The people behind The EST/Sloan Project

Doron Weber, Vice President, Programs, The Public Understanding of Science and Technology at the Sloan Foundation
William Carden, Artistic Director at EST
Graeme Gillis, Program Director for EST/Sloan
Linsay FirmanAssociate Director for EST/Sloan

EST/Sloan Science Advisors

Darcy Kelley, professor of biological sciences and co-director of the Doctoral Subcommittee in Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University; editor of Journal of Neurobiology.

Stuart Firestein, professor of biological sciences, Columbia University and director of the Firestein Neurobiology lab.

Gabriel Cwilich, associate professor of physics, Yeshiva University


Join us after the Wednesday 2/20, 7pm performance of Isaac’s Eye for an eye-opening panel discussion of the life, work, and times of Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. The evening’s distinguished panel features Matthew L. JonesMatthew StanleyGabriel Cwilich & Isaac’s Eyeplaywright Lucas HnathClick here for more information.

After the Sunday 2/17 matinee of Isaac's Eye, Physics Support Specialist David Maiullo of Rutgers University gave a demonstration entitled, “What Newton Did – and Didn’t – Know” through 15 eye-popping experiments."

Earlier Event: January 6
The Brunch That Got Away...
Later Event: January 30
First Light Rough Cut