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

From left: Steve Mirsky, Deb Laufer, Mandë Holford, Lucas Hnath, Brian Greene

From left: Steve Mirsky, Deb Laufer, Mandë Holford, Lucas Hnath, Brian Greene

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. The annual event highlights the period during which playwrights are encouraged to submit proposals for funding by the EST/Sloan Project, a nineteen-year-old collaboration between the Sloan Foundation and the Ensemble Studio Theatre that has awarded more than $3 million to some 300 playwrights and theatrical companies “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.” The deadline for proposals is December 1.

This year physicist Brian Greene, biochemist Mandë Holford, and playwrights Deborah Zoe Laufer and Lucas Hnath joined moderator and science editor Steve Mirsky to dig into the mechanics of playwriting, what scientists actually do, common misconceptions about science, among many other topics. Two of Laufer’s plays, End Days (2009) and Informed Consent (2015), have received EST/Sloan funding and become EST mainstage productions. Hnath has received EST/Sloan funding for the EST mainstage production of Isaac’s Eye (2012 and for nightnight, his one-act contribution to Sleep Rock Thy Brain, a play produced at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky in 2013.

Some memorable excerpts from the 90-minute discussion follow (edits by Rich Kelley).

On dramatizing the drudgery of science — and the tenacity of scientists

Steve Mirsky

Steve Mirsky

Steve Mirsky: Much of what scientists do is boring and yet it’s an important part of what they do. In a film like Madame Curie a montage of scenes can show the two years of tenacious drudgery she spent combing through pitchblende. How do you communicate this aspect of science in a play?

Lucas Hnath: Each play has its own problems. For Isaac's Eye I centered the plot around an experiment where Newton was going to put a needle into his tear duct and use it to squish his eyeball. So that's kind of an interesting experiment to watch, but that's basically the second to the last scene of the play. The content of the play was about this character whose occupation in life is to try to figure out how the world works, and that objective is creating deeply personal problems for him. For most of the play, that's what you're watching. The story of his interpersonal problems stem from his objective, which is related to science.

Deb Laufer: Informed Consent is about an actual court case. So there was an automatic tremendous conflict in that. But I knew I couldn't just focus on the court case. I wanted the scientist to have a personal problem so I veered from the truth. My favorite teacher always said, "When you're stuck, write about the thing that terrifies you most." I knew I wanted to write about the genome. I like every one of my plays to be mired in moral ambiguity, and to have a big question that I can't answer by the end of the play. If I could answer the question, then it's not worth writing. So I knew that the thing that terrifies me most is Alzheimer's, because that's what my grandmother had.

Deb Laufer

Deb Laufer

My scientist has this big global problem about gaining blood samples from a tribe of indigenous people in the Grand Canyon, but I wanted to give her a personal problem that would create conflict at home as well. So I thought okay, I'll give her grandmother Alzheimer's, but that wasn’t hot enough, it didn't create conflict with her. So I said, okay, I'll make it her mother — still not hot enough. I'll make her mother have early onset Alzheimer's, and she's terrified she's going to have it, and it still wasn't enough. So I thought, okay, she knows her mother had early onset Alzheimer's, she knows she has the gene, and she and her husband have a four-year- old daughter and she wants to get the daughter tested. Then I knew I had a real conflict that she could bring home. She now had a global and a personal problem, and I could fight through those issues.

Steve Mirsky: And that question, whether or not to get tested and find out if you have a genetic propensity or something, is a really big issue right now.

Deb Laufer: It was. But that's not the central issue. The question of the play is really who are we, now that we can find out who we are genetically. Who are we, are we the sum of our code, or are we who we decide we are, are we our history, our stories? I found ways to challenge every one of those questions.

Brian Greene (far right) offering his take on science plays.

Brian Greene (far right) offering his take on science plays.

On whether “science plays” is a useful term

Brian Greene: I don't particularly see plays about science as being a special class of offering. It's just another story, and I think precisely the same challenges that you face in any subject are for the most part the challenges that you face if the characters and the subject matter swirl around science. It's rare that any work that purports to be a play about science actually explains any science. Take Proof , a great work. There is no mathematics in Proof. It just leverages the mystery of math to create intrigue, because if you were to take the main character in Proof who was an absent mathematician and make him an absent plumber, I don't think the play would have had the same emotional pull on people. It had nothing to do with explaining math or showing somebody working out equations. It's what you do in order to create a story that can pull people in and find it compelling and meaningful.

In November 1915, Einstein suddenly learns that somebody he thought was a friend and a colleague named David Hilbert is racing him to the finish line, trying to beat him to complete the equations of the general theory of relativity. All through that month they're sending postcards back and forth, each one trying to figure out what the other one is doing, and finally Hilbert writes to Einstein and says, "I've got the solution. Come here tomorrow on the train and I'll explain it to you." And Einstein writes back, "Sorry I'm a little busy, got a stomach ache, I can't make it."  Those moments are where the drama is, and the science in some sense is just coating the story.

On doing research and creating characters who can communicate the science

Deb Laufer: There’s always tension about how much of the science you can actually put in. Informed Consent started out about 300 pages, and wound up being like 90. I put everything, all my research, in there to start, and then you have to distill what needs to be known in order to tell your story, in order to propel it forward.

Lucas Hnath

Lucas Hnath

Lucas Hnath: You have a limited number of ways of communicating the research. One of which is making what happens accurate to how things really work. Another method is debate. If one person needs to convince the other person of something and there's something truly significant at stake, that person wants to get the other person to believe that he’s right but the other person has this other idea and he’s going to try to prove it — then you have this dialectical arrangement where you could actually communicate some of the science very eclectically.

Deb Laufer: For Informed Consent, I wanted the main character to sort of be an evangelical scientist who had a little bit fringy ideas. She believes that if everybody on Earth gave their blood, that we could very quickly figure out every part of the human genome, and we could all live to 200. This was her theory. I found a lot of Ted Talks where people think that. So a lot of what she does in her life is to give science talks to people to try to get them to give their blood. She has a goal, a dramatic goal in the talks she gives where at the end she says, "So that's why it's so important that we all give our blood." You can't get away with a lot of lecturing if there's not a dramatic goal at the end of it. I was probably pushing a little far, but yeah, your main character has to have a personal need for what they're doing.

On science stories that might make good plays

Steve Mirsky: Are there any science stories that haven’t gotten sufficient attention?

Brian Greene: A more fruitful way to frame the question might be: what do you do with the story in order to turn it into a great play? I think people really enjoy seeing the world through a different lens, through a radically different perspective than anything that they encounter in their day to day lives, and scientists have a very quirky way of looking at the world. So if you can get in the head of the right scientist and bring out this version of reality that most of us don't experience in day to day life, I think that could be deeply compelling.

Steve Mirsky: About twenty years ago there was a researcher named Joel Berger with the Wildlife Conservation Society who wanted to study moose. He couldn't get close enough to the moose to do what he needed to do. So he had a costume designer for the Star Wars movies build him a moose suit. It took two people. His wife, now his former wife, would get in the back, and he was in front, and that's how he got close enough to the moose to study what he needed to study. And the latest thing I heard about him is that he now dresses up as a musk oxen – a solo suit this time – to study them somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, because with climate change their whole diet is changing, and they're now prey for polar bears, which they never used to be, so he's got to be careful coming and going.

Mandë Holford

Mandë Holford

Mandë Holford: There are many science topics that now give you conflict and action. For example, Kiribati is this small island in the Indo-Pacific that will be one of the first victims of climate refugees because the island's basically going to disappear by 2030. Where do they go? What's their identity afterwards? How do you keep their culture alive? Fiji has offered some of them to come over and live there because there is no way of going back. Is it still a nation if it's under the sea? Is it still going to be recognized and will all of its governing laws go with it?

Similar things are going to happen with the native indigenous people in Guna Yala, this gorgeous archipelago off of Panama that is independent. It doesn't belong to the Panamanian government. You can't dive there without permission. You can't go there without permission. It's a very unique place. But it's also threatened with disappearing by 2030 or 2040. What do those indigenous people do? Where do they go, do they go do Panama, do they go to some other place, do they give up their culture altogether? How do they maintain their cultural identity when they no longer have a physical place to call home? I think that's an interesting story that's happening right now that could be dramatized.

On what makes a play work

Lucas Hnath: I think you need either an incredibly compelling problem or a really compelling action. Or maybe both. You can have a really intriguing action, like having someone stick a needle into his eye — why the hell would somebody do that? — and then you have to do the backwards work of the dramatic circumstances that lead a character to that action, and what's at stake in that moment and how it goes horribly wrong. Or perhaps what you’re describing is a really terrible dilemma your character has to sort through. And then you have the additional challenge of what's the problem and action that wants to live on stage as opposed to what works better on the screen. And that's a whole other matter entirely.

Deb Laufer: Right. Theater is something that you have to see to be believed, so there has to be a point of conflict in something happening right in front of you. So, even if you're in a lab, if there isn’t something that we can watch and grow before our very eyes, we need to find some other way to tell the story.

Deb Laufer (second from left) describing how to make the science in a play theatrical.

Deb Laufer (second from left) describing how to make the science in a play theatrical.

On making science theatrical

Deb Laufer: In my play End Days, there's a sixteen-year-old boy who is obsessed with the Large Hadron Collider. It's the most exciting thing to him, and he's obsessed with Stephen Hawking’s book, A Brief of History of Time. He sleeps with it basically, and he's in love with this sixteen-year-old girl and he can't get her to pay attention to him. He finally seduces her by talking about the things that excite him, about what you're going to find out when you bang things together. Then in the second act I put all the characters in a room, and they are just banging up against each other until we find out what they're made of. So I’m making my own little metaphor. He seduced her with the science, and then I played it out in the action. That made me happy.

Lucas Hnath: My plays are all kind of debate plays. I have people come into a room and argue with each other for a while, and have a lot at stake in convincing the other. They're like boxing matches almost in terms of one person trying to turn the other to their side.

Deb Laufer: Yeah, I'm going to compliment you. You created a tremendous amount of tension in Isaac's Eye, because you described this horrific thing that we knew he was going to do. And so we're watching him, we're crawling toward that event with a certain dread and tension.

Lucas Hnath: Yes, there's a little Grand Guignol there as you wait, expecting the moment of that needle going into the eye.

Steve Mirsky: But we're also really interested in the relationship, this stunted relationship Newton has with the woman. That's overlaying this business about whether he's going to stick himself in the eye.

Lucas Hnath: Yeah, his future, the possibility of his ever getting married to somebody, his legacy, are all at stake in that one experiment and that moment.

On the theatrical aspects of history and scale

Lucas Hnath and Brian Greene

Lucas Hnath and Brian Greene

Brian Greene: Sometimes, the history can give you the theatricality of the drama. When Einstein finally did complete his theory and used it to try to explain things in the world, he did a calculation having to do with the perception of the perihelion of Mercury. It's a technical calculation about Mercury's orbit. And, you know, it's not the hardest of ideas to get that a planet’s orbit can shift. The ideas are not particularly dramatic, but when Einstein does the calculation and you see him doing the calculation, and line by line by line he finally comes out with an answer that agrees with the observation, finally answering a question that had stumped everybody for fifty years, but more than that showing that a decade's worth of work had actually revealed how the universe works, he himself describes it as he got heart palpitations at that moment. So if you have a character like Einstein who's sitting there with palpitations of the heart because of a mathematical calculation, it makes that calculation hugely dramatic.

Mandë Holford: I think you can use scale too to make things theatrical. Like in the movie Hidden Figures, when Katherine Johnson, the character Taraji P. Henson plays, had to walk up to the slate board to write out all those math figures, I think that was really nice because it brought out all the science, even though who knows what the figures were saying. But the fact that she had to go up there and do all that math on the board in front of the whole audience of people who were sort of hostile to her being there to begin with, it dramatized and put the science on a pedestal. The science was above it all. So every time she climbs up the ladder she's sort of rising above her current situation to focus on the problem at hand. I don't know if that's what the filmmakers intended, but I thought that was a clever way of demonstrating how important the science was in this particular moment, even more than the social and personal stuff that was going on.

Mandë Holford (center) recalling when she decided to become a scientist.

Mandë Holford (center) recalling when she decided to become a scientist.

On what’s exciting about not knowing

Audience member: Could you share with us when you decided to become a scientist?

Mandë Holford: My turn to science came in college. I went to Brooklyn Tech High School. At the time science was taught as you know you know you know. We know all the planets, we know all the things in the cells, so the idea that there was still stuff to know, even though I went to a really good science high school here in the city, when I was going through it I didn't really think of it that way. I figured oh, this is all stuff we knew. But it was in City University of New York where I met Dr. Johnson and he asked me to work in his lab in the summer. He's a physical chemist, and he works with lasers and he was burning holes into molecules, and we were playing with liquid nitrogen and making liquid nitrogen ice cream, which I loved. I was like “You get paid for this?” This is what I want to do. That was my turning point right there. And he was phenomenal. He took me into the lab and just really exposed to me that science is a bunch of we don't know, and is a lot of ignorance, and it's good to be ignorant, and let's play, and that just sucked me in completely.

On how EST/Sloan decides what to produce

Audience member: EST/Sloan has produced so many different kinds of plays about science over the years. We’ve heard tonight about Isaac’s Eye and Informed Consent and this past year you produced SPILL about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. What drives how EST/Sloan decides which plays to produce?

[Linsay Firman, Associate Director of the EST/Sloan Project, came forward to address this question]

EST/Sloan Associate Director Linsay Firman fielding a question from the audience.

EST/Sloan Associate Director Linsay Firman fielding a question from the audience.

Linsay Firman:  In terms of the thinking behind the decision to take on a play like SPILL, we felt that Lee Fondakowski was approaching a relevant topic with a really complex lens. She was telling this story of how things went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon through a detailed examination of the evolution of the deep water oil industry, and how individual choices accumulate into the making of a disaster. Also how the technology evolved, and the industry evolved, and then how it affected people's lives, along with the complexity of the role of the oil industry in our society.      So the fact that she was looking at a topic that tends to get kind of bullet-pointed in our national debate and doing it through a multi-faceted lens was the reason that that play was something we were drawn to.

The EST/Sloan Project tries to talk about the science that exists in the world and the questions that we're dealing with right now, rather than a potentially fictional future. So we don't do sci-fi. Just to get that out.

Generally, if there is somebody who is a big science villain, there needs to be some story or some motivation or some complexity that makes that character dramatic or perhaps gives a new insight. Take the Nazi scientists who came over after World War II and worked in America. Those are standard villains, but then they became the people who made our space program. By addressing their contribution there you can get a multi-faceted look at something that might be easily portrayed in black and white. So those are the kinds of things we tend to evaluate as we're looking at proposals.

Audience member: Linsay, there tend to be a lot of stories about the tension between ambition and ethics when it comes to scientists. But what if the action is not in the past? Take patenting a living organism, for example. If I want to explore its ramifications, what doors could be opened, is that considered sci-fi?

Linsay Firman:   Well, there are gray areas, say, where we have a certain technology or we feel really confident that in five years we will have that technology, and then what will happen if we get it. That’s a gray area. I don't want to say, do that and you'll get a grant. Nor do I want to say do that and you won't. I think the approach makes a really big difference. Why are you patenting a living organism? What is that going to make happen? What are the limits of that patent? Are you writing about an evil corporation that's going to patent living organisms and is bad bad bad. Probably that falls into a kind of sci-fi — just, easy fear mongering that wouldn't be of interest. But what are the reasons that we might want a corporation to do that versus what are the reasons that we might not? What's an individual story within that larger framework? Those kinds of things are potentially acceptable as long as you're not taking huge leaps in terms of what the science can do.

[Read more about the EST/Sloan Project submission guidelines.]

Lucas Hnath (second from right) framing his answer about ethical questions and science plays.

Lucas Hnath (second from right) framing his answer about ethical questions and science plays.

On ethical questions and science plays

Audience member: What I'm hearing is: there can be a dialectical question, there can be a great personal motivation, or an origin story – those are three threads, which leads me to ask: is the basis of all science plays an ethical question?

Deb Laufer: At the base of all my plays is a big ethical question.

Lucas Hnath: Not necessarily an ethical one, but a very, very difficult question to answer is the basis of drama.  Or a problem that is incredibly difficult to reconcile or solve, or, you know, easily addressed without breaking something.

Mandë Holford: I agree. I don't think it has to be a moral question, but I do think a question would probably guide a science play, although I agree with Brian. I don't think that there's a science play, I think you just write a good play that might have scientific elements in it. But science itself is about asking questions, so you can't really do a science play if there's not a big question of some sort in there.

On common mistakes in science plays

Audience member: Are there problems or playwriting mistakes that are more common to science plays?

Lucas Hnath: One thing I've noticed: there seems to be an aversion to ever letting the scientist come up with the wrong idea. There's a kind of steely lesson, unassailability, where there's not a gray area. I think there’s also a risk of science becoming this rarefied object. These are people. They have things that they're trying to do, those things are difficult. They have a bad family life. Their stomach is sick.

Deb Laufer: That's great. And also, as much as you can — actually show something happening on stage. When I first drafted Informed Consent, I didn't have the scientist ever take blood on stage. And I realized that the play was still very theoretical, that she was taking their blood and she was using it for something they hadn't agreed to. So I added a scene where she actually takes their blood, and it became a pivotal moment of the play. I hadn't even thought of it at first. When you actually watch something happen, then that has a different kind of meaning than it had when it was just something she was going to do on paper.

Any more science stories?

Steve Mirsky: A hundred years ago, it used to be that the only way to confirm the general theory of relativity was to study the position of stars and eclipses, because the sun was out and you could see where things were, and the light got bent by the mass of the sun. So we had a big eclipse in 1878, and at the time, because of the eccentricities in Mercury's orbit, it was conjectured there was another planet within Mercury's orbit, and that's what was causing this little wobble. And so there was . . .

Brian Greene: Planet Vulcan.

Steve Mirsky: Right, so called because it would be so hot, right? So expeditions were mounted into the Rocky Mountains where you'd get some good shots and try to find that planet which otherwise you could never see because the sun's light would be too blinding and you'd never spot it. All they had back then were optical telescopes. So they looked for this planet, and not only did they find it, some of the astronomers found two more planets that were inside the orbit of Mercury. But these things don't exist. So here’s an object lesson for scientists: if you want to find something badly enough, you'll find it. And you'll use the current state of the art technology to find it and confirm that what you suspected was true.

Brian Greene

Brian Greene

Brian Greene: So following that is the reverse of it, that before Einstein made the prediction that you referred to being confirmed in the 1919 eclipse, he made an earlier prediction using an early version of his ideas, that they tried to confirm during the 1914 eclipse, which was in Russia. So a German astronomer crosses over into Russia with all this equipment in order to do the observation while WWI was going on, and he was stopped and asked what this equipment is, and tries to explain “Oh, it's just for astronomical observations, that's all it’s for.” The authorities don't buy it, and he gets put in jail, and thankfully so, because Einstein's prediction was wrong at that time. Had the eclipse measurement been taken then it would have refuted Einstein.

On why snails may be the key to solving the opioid epidemic

Mandë Holford: I work with snails. They don't move very fast but they can hunt something as fast as fish because their venom cocktail is made up of all these different components that work really well to shut down the function of the prey. It’s sort of like a cluster bomb, which is one big thing but it's all the little things inside that do the damage. There are several peptides in the venom. Each of these peptides has a way of targeting channels which are like gates to your cells, and the channels manipulate how things go in and out of a cell and they also manipulate the signaling related to that

In our lab, we found that some of the peptides in the venom control signaling that pertains to pain and signaling that pertains to cancer. What happens when you have chronic pain is you have this firing of neurons that won't stop. We found peptides in the venom that could block those neurons so you stop the pain. What's really a nice story is right now we're in the middle of this opioid epidemic. Everyone's trying to figure out how do we fix this, how do we deal with addiction. But there's already a drug from venomous snails on the market that can do that. Ziconotide is used to treat chronic pain. It doesn't work on opioid receptors, so it doesn't have the addiction component. Unfortunately, it has a very nasty delivery. It has to be delivered by spinal tap. Unlike morphine, which goes into in the blood stream — give me more, give me more, very easy to access — most doctors won't prescribe ziconotide because it requires this invasive surgery. So the challenge is: how do we deliver this pain drug that we already know exists that can help in the opioid epidemic in a more effective way. This is one of the things we're looking at in my lab.

On what the public doesn’t get about science

Audience member: Is there something that you scientists feel the public is not getting that a play should be written about?

Brian Greene: I think it's very important for people to realize that all opinions are not created equal. And there's this sense, and not in this beautiful little group here, but there's a sense in the wider world that that's just one more opinion. And it's not.

Moderator Steve Mirsky (left) keeping the discussion lively.

Moderator Steve Mirsky (left) keeping the discussion lively.

More about the EST/Sloan Project

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. Read more about the EST/Sloan Project.