plays about science

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

Susan Bernfield

Susan Bernfield

This weekend, on Friday March 1 and Saturday March 2, the 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature two workshop performances of Susan Bernfield ’s sparkling new play SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY, a drama about Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the first female engineer to work in NASA’s Mission Control. SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY had its first public reading in January 2017 as part of that year’s First Light Festival. A child of the sixties herself, Susan has lots to say about Poppy.

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY is your new play about Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the first woman engineer who worked in Mission Control at NASA and who played a critical role in configuring flight trajectories for Apollo 8 and other Apollo missions. What prompted you to write this play?

Flipping through channels one night (so old fashioned!) I landed on an episode of the MAKERS documentary series that was about women in space.  Poppy Northcutt was in it, along with these awesome pictures of her during her time at NASA.  She helped Apollo 13 get down, but she sure wasn’t in the movie!   I’ve always been obsessed with the space program; I think most people who were little kids in the late ‘60s are.  My standing image, of course, was row after row of uniform-looking guys: the glasses, the white shirts, the pocket protectors.  Poppy – not just a woman but a young and super-fashionable woman – utterly disrupted that image for me.  Even consciously inhabiting a feminine stereotype, she still could break all the stereotypes at once.  I had this near-Robert-Wilson-style vision, a long line of identical guys with Poppy in her headset suddenly entering their line. The play has grown around that image. 

Poppy Northcutt at NASA (from MAKERS: Women in Space)

Poppy Northcutt at NASA (from MAKERS: Women in Space)

What kind of research did you do to prepare to write the play? There’s some serious math involved in calculating orbital trajectories. How deep a dive did you take into Northcutt’s work product?

Apollo 8 Lunar Orbital Plan

Apollo 8 Lunar Orbital Plan

Thanks for liking my math! It’s probably pretty surface-y, though I did read many (simple) articles about orbital mechanics, Fortran, early computers.  I didn’t understand much but I loved using the vocabulary, I find it delicious and oddly lyrical. Mainly, I dove into the organizational systems and work culture at Mission Control, which is central to the play and, as I discovered, a secret of NASA’s success. The NASA website has an incredible trove of oral histories with engineers, supervisors, employees, and I read dozens of them. Actually, first I watched on YouTube some really stylish films made to promote the Apollo program. Their look and sound has influenced the play a lot, but more importantly there was one that described what I took to be Poppy’s division, so I looked up the division chief featured in the film and read his oral history.  When he mentioned other people – I’d go read their oral histories, too, and so on, following a trail of names through these documents, occasionally hitting on a fact or anecdote that helped me piece things together. I also watched documentaries and read many sources on Apollo 8. There was so much I didn’t know about it, certainly how fast it was planned and prepped, and it has so much poetic value – the “saving” of 1968 on the cusp of a changing world, earthrise.  And the first thing I read was an oral history Poppy did for the Houston Public Library, it’s the source of the core ideas in the piece but had limited details, sending me on the goose chase described above.

Northcutt got a lot of press attention in 1968 and thereafter as the “lithesome blonde” who sported miniskirts even while she held her own among the nerdy NASA engineers. In later years, after earning a law degree, she actively worked with the National Organization for Women to defend women’s rights. Is it your sense that she was a feminist from day one or did her consciousness evolve on women’s issues?

Frances "Poppy" Northcutt at her terminal.

Frances "Poppy" Northcutt at her terminal.

She’s said that her time at NASA was her consciousness raising and the play tracks that evolution.  She didn’t want any woman to ever have to be the only woman again, so she got involved.  She was very honest about using what we’d now probably call her privilege. She figured she had a good income, she was prominent, she wasn’t going to be fired, so she could safely put herself out there for women for whom activism was risky, but who needed the progress the women’s movement promised.  I love that. 

In your script you include many specific references to artifacts of the time – chairs, computer screens, lamps. How important are these elements to establishing the context for the world Northcutt inhabited?

A visual excerpt from the script for SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY

A visual excerpt from the script for SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY

It’s a very visual play.  As I said, it started with an image, it repeats that image and builds in more.  I see just a few iconic items on stage, and I’ve tried to activate them: the swivel chairs, for example, produce a kind of dance.  In addition to establishing the world, for me these items are a clue to the theatricality, it’s a memory play and a non-naturalistic play, and picking a few iconic items and images lets me pull ideas into focus.  At some point I started inserting pictures of objects into the text on the page:  “it looks like this.” Having them right there inspired me, once I could see the chair or the lamp I could inhabit what was happening around it.  Then I decided I wanted EVERY reader to see them. It put me right in it, wouldn’t it be the same for others?  I had such a great time writing this play, I felt freer than I ever had before, so I just figured, why not, and I loved how it made my page come alive.  

Sound and music, especially jazz, play a significant role in the play. Will the workshop be doing anything special with sound?

Space and the ‘60s are both so sonically cool. The sounds, specifically integrated with the text, also assist the spare and iconic theatricality I’m looking for. It was amazing, and frankly just the right move, for the EST folks to invite me to include sound design in this workshop.  Sound designer Kate Marvin and I got together in September to play around with some of the bigger sound moments in the play (well, more than we expected to, once we got going we just wanted to have at more of ‘em!). We had such a great time. There’s a big dream of sound in this text, I just heard soundscape throughout when I was writing it, sometimes it’s something literal and existing, and sometimes in stage directions I tried to articulate the FEELING or the acceleration or emotional underpinning the sound should convey. What Kate came up with, the sounds we explored together and then she constructed into sequences, concurred with and often improved on what I’d been dreaming. There’s one spot where I’d tried to describe the feeling of a piece of music in words, and she showed up with the exact piece I’d been thinking about! Plus mainly we giggled. Including when we came in to play Linsay and Graeme what we’d been up to. And now, being in this workshop week with Kate’s work to play with and for the actors to respond to… it really is an essential element, it’s illuminating and is punctuating the play just as intended, and it’s just really exciting. 

Katherine Johnson (left), the "computer" portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the movie Hidden Figures.

Katherine Johnson (left), the "computer" portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the movie Hidden Figures.

In 2016 we had a cascade of books – and one noteworthy film – about women who worked on the ground in the space program: The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly (in 2017 a popular and critically acclaimed film), and Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt. What do you think accounts for this sudden interest in these women behind the space program? If you’ve read any of these books, how do the stories told in them compare with Poppy Northcutt’s? If you saw it, what did you think of the movie Hidden Figures?

Wow, I didn’t know about those other books, both were published after I handed my play in last year!  I’m not surprised these stories have become popular, with so much interest in technology now I’m sure there’s curiosity from all possible angles.  I did see the movie, Hidden Figures, it’s so good, and I’m thrilled that it became, what, the number one movie in America several weeks running? 

Because she invented the math, as the movie says, Katherine Johnson came up a lot in my research. It was amazing to discover her. Poppy did many remarkable things, but hundreds of men at NASA had similar functions, and the play is about the experience of being alone in that crowd. Obviously, being African-American in Virginia adds an immeasurable layer of difficulty.  Poppy was a native Texan in Houston, she presented very assertively, and from what I could tell pretty much spoke her mind. Once she proved she could do the job there weren’t many outward obstacles; like in the movie, they needed all the smart people they could get. But she was always, in her words, a curiosity. I did all this fascinating research, but pulling a story out of it, trying to find the drama in some pretty subtle slights and pressures, was challenging, I was stumped for a while. Can she penetrate the men’s camaraderie? Seems like a small question, but in a work environment in which teamwork is the established mode of productivity, and the results are life and death, the stakes are pretty high.  Or I hope so!

Poppy Northcutt in a 1969 ad in Time Magazine for her contractor, TRW.

Poppy Northcutt in a 1969 ad in Time Magazine for her contractor, TRW.

Northcutt played a critical role in another Apollo mission, when an explosion aboard Apollo 13 forced the astronauts to abort the lunar landing and put their return in jeopardy. Can you explain what NASA called upon her to do?

She calculated new return-to-earth trajectories – among other things, the explosion put Apollo off course, so hundreds of thousands of new trajectories had to be run in order to get the astronauts home. 

In addition to EST/Sloan, you have developed and produced plays at New Harmony Project, People's Light & Theatre, Huntington Theatre Company, Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, The Lark, and many other venues. How does the play development process at EST/Sloan compare with or differ from these other organizations?

I’ve gotten so much out of every opportunity, but they were always for existing plays.  I usually make time for and incentivize writing myself, and it’s usually the last thing I get to with so much else going on. So this commission has meant a lot to me. A deadline! I took it very seriously, and I couldn’t believe how different that felt or how productive that made me. I worked more consistently than I ever have on a play, I planned my time out, I created task lists, I did all this research, I forced myself to keep going when it felt overwhelming or dead end. I sent it in at 3 pm on the deadline day we’d set and I was ridiculously pumped, so excited. It’s great to know Linsay and Graeme will read it, to have their feedback. They invited me to SPACE on Ryder Farm in the summer of 2016 to turn the first draft into a second one, so productive. After shepherding so many science plays, their advice is unique and specific. When I was stumped, Graeme said, your characters are working. Just let them do their work. And I did. And that’s how I figured it out.

Portions of this interview appeared previously on this blog as part of the 2017 First Light Festival.

The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 2 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through March 10. Tickets can be purchased here. 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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Dominic Taylor on African American scientists in the 1920s, gender and power dynamics, class, experimental risks, and THE BIOLOGY OF THE SURFACE

Dominic Taylor

Dominic Taylor

On Tuesday, February 19, as part of the 2019 First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project is presenting the first public reading of THE BIOLOGY OF THE SURFACE by Dominic Taylor. The play dramatizes the working relationship -- and romance – over some ten years in the 1920s and 1930s between the pioneering African American biologist Ernest Everett Just and one of his students, Roger Arliner Young, who went on to become the first African American women to earn a doctorate in zoology. The playwright uses this relationship to mine rich themes about eugenics and racism in the sciences during that time, power dynamics in academia and scientific publishing, the design of experiments, and the costly unknowns of some technology. But let’s hear more from the creator.  

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

What moved you to write THE BIOLOGY OF THE SURFACE?

I knew something about Ernest Everett Just but not a lot. I knew that he was the first African American graduate of Dartmouth College. I knew that he was a major thinker in biology at the beginning of the twentieth century. As I researched him, I learned that he worked for a long time with a graduate assistant Roger Arliner Young. When I discovered that Roger Young was a woman, I become more intrigued, especially in that she is not mentioned in his seminal text The Biology of the Cell Surface.

Why this play? Why now?

Ernest Everett Just in his lab at Howard University

Ernest Everett Just in his lab at Howard University

There are a few reasons. The first has to do with class. Class in the African American community is never examined. People often assume that there is no way that a black woman could earn a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in the 1930s. Young did. The nature of the African American poor or working-class woman and man is replete in many works. This play allowed me to address many questions: class, gender, mentor-mentee relationships, and academic life. These areas are seldom examined in any African American context.

What research did you do to write your play?

Primarily, I read texts. Black Apollo of Science, by Kenneth Manning, is the primary biography of Just. One of the things I noticed was that it did not examine the collaborative nature of scientific study. This is where I met Roger Young. How could this young woman be a research assistant for seven years prior to the publishing of The Biology of the Cell Surface but not be mentioned in the book at all? I have a background in the sciences. My undergraduate degree is in engineering, not biology, but I think it helped my understanding of the play. I adopted a different type of three-act structure: a hypothesis, an experiment and then data analysis.  

The action of the play takes place at Howard University in D.C. and at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts in the twenties and thirties. What should the audience know about the environment in which Just and Young were doing research at that time?

Roger Arliner Young (c. 1927-1929)

Roger Arliner Young (c. 1927-1929)

There are so many things, but perhaps the most significant might be how different African American life was in the 1920s and 1930s. The 1920s was a period when with the end of WWI and the Great Migration, black life changed. It was the time of the Harlem Renaissance and the birth of the work of Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes. It was also a time when Ida B. Wells was writing every day about the lynching of African Americans. Lynching was legal into the 1940s. Additionally, the 1930s was a time when after the Great Depression, the limited economic gains of African Americans had been pushed back.

In the play one matter of contention between Just and Young is how much she contributed to his most famous work, The Biology of the Cell Surface (1939). Is there evidence he failed to acknowledge her contribution?

This is a fact. There is no mention of this woman in anything referencing this book. Not in a foreword or an acknowledgement page. There is no indication of her contribution anywhere. Additionally, she was removed from Howard University’s faculty just before the book was published. The reasoning offered in Black Apollo of Science was that Just wanted to stand alone alongside other singular scientists. Percy Julian and Charles Drew on Howard’s faculty are also notable in this regard, but this was true of all scientists at the time. Who was Thomas Alva Edison’s assistant or Alexander Graham Bell’s? Scientists at the time believed they must stand alone as singular titans of brilliance.

Your play has three sections that take place in 1926, 1929 and 1936. Quite a lot has changed between the two characters between 1929 and 1936. Young has failed her dissertation defense with Just’s mentor, Frank R. Lillie, at the University of Chicago. Her eyesight has become damaged from her work with ultraviolet radiation in Just’s experiments. Just is about to get married for the second time, to a white German woman, and there is evidence that at this point both have been actively engaged in sabotaging the other’s career. Is it likely such a scene ever happened? How did everything go so wrong?

Black Apollo cover.jpg

One of the fun things about research is putting puzzle pieces together. Reading about Young, (a good text to start was Black Women Scientists in the United States by Wini Warren) I learned that her vision did deteriorate over time. The ultraviolet lamps she used for Just’s experiments were unsafe. The knowledge of light therapy and early X-ray technology was limited and no one knew the complete damage. Black Apollo of Science also tells us that Just wanted to get his new would-be-wife a job at Howard. Howard’s president, Mordecai Johnson, was appalled at what he heard about the behavior of both Just and another scientist Percy Julian while they were in Europe. Both men were married but engaged in inappropriate behavior abroad. Johnson needed to rein in this behavior.

Stephen Jay Gould has written about his obsession with the photo of Just at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, where Just worked for some twenty summers. Gould describes the photo: “The man it depicted was singularly handsome, with a pervasive look of sadness that touched me across half a century.” He goes on to characterize Just as “fascinating, complex, and ambiguous,” “If he had fit the mold of an acceptable black scientist, he might have survived in the hypocritical world of white liberalism in his time. A man like George Washington Carver, who upheld Booker T. Washington’s doctrine of slow and humble self-help for blacks, who dressed in his agricultural work clothes, and who spent his life in the practical task of helping black farmers find more uses for peanuts, was paraded as a paragon of proper black science. But Just preferred fancy suits, good wines, classical music, and women of all colors.” What’s your take on Just?

Gould is accurate in how I saw Just as well. Just did not want to be constrained by teaching only at Howard. He applied for positions at Brown and Dartmouth and was rejected by both. He wrote about wanting to teach at a major research institution. At the time this was a euphemism for a white institution. Gould’s description of him not willing to sublimate himself is apt. In my reading of him, he was a very complex modern man, and I hope I show that complexity in the play.

What do you want the audience to take away from THE BIOLOGY OF THE SURFACE?

Percy Julian in his chemistry lab at Howard University

Percy Julian in his chemistry lab at Howard University

First, I want them to meet these two titans of science. Second, I want them to consider how they should have interacted. On the surface, a brilliant black man and a brilliant black woman should have helped each other achieve degrees of success. The fact that each had success in his and her own right is good to know, but the success could have been exponential. How did race or pressure around race, science and the academy hinder this understanding? I also want the audience to consider the mentor/mentee relationship. How it operated on and beneath the surface.

Just was ahead of his time in viewing the organisms he studied as part of an ecosystem and that the cell surface represented an organizational complexity that could not be reduced to the sum of its parts. Do you see a connection between Just’s “holistic” ideas and the way he behaves in his relationship with Young?

I think he could not see the relationship completely. He had a blind spot. A bad analogy might be Louis CK championing women comedians, yet engaging in behavior that was inappropriate. If he could have seen her contribution as part of his ecosystem, he could have helped her in a series of career ways that he chose not to do. The personal relationship presented in the play is speculative, but we know he did not buoy her career and he could have. He was looking at a tree and not the complete ecosystem.

Young’s work with Just impaired her vision for the rest of her life. When she failed her defense of her PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago, Frank Lillie (who had been Just’s mentor) would no longer work with her and Just effectively abandoned her and eventually got her fired from Howard. Young never married. After she left Howard, Young struggled to find work and later checked herself into a mental institution and died impoverished. In this #MeToo era, can’t the case be made that Just was a monster who used and destroyed his mentee Young?

Not necessarily. After being fired from Howard, Young went on to get her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania (1940). She taught at North Carolina College for Negroes in the 1940s. In 1944 she helped the NAACP register voters. Her activism got her blacklisted from teaching in North Carolina. She had to go to Jackson State in Mississippi to teach after that. She committed herself in 1962, more than 20 years after Just died. After leaving the mental institution, she went on to teach at Shaw University in Louisiana.

The fact that she died in poverty was an outgrowth of her bad health and a series of additional events in her life that I do not dramatize.

I guess that the case could be made that Just was a monster, but I am hoping that the audience leaves with a more complex view. We knew so little about the effects of UV light in the 1930s.

The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 1 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through March 10. Tickets can be purchased here. 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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Anchuli Felicia King on doing research, then throwing it out, moral ambiguity, semiotic misfires, and GOLDEN SHIELD

Anchuli Felicia King

Anchuli Felicia King

This weekend, on February 15 and 16, the EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature two workshop performances of GOLDEN SHIELD, Anchuli Felicia King’s head-spinning, globe-spanning drama about the ethics of working for repressive regimes, the entanglements of language, the risks of legal showdowns, and the brittleness of family ties. Beginning in 2006, the play dramatizes the efforts of two Chinese-American sisters to sue an American technology giant for helping China build its Internet firewall – part of its Golden Shield Project – in a way that enables the government to identify and crack down on dissidents. But let’s have the playwright tell us more.

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

What inspired you to write GOLDEN SHIELD?

As a playwright, I have an ongoing obsession with the intersection of globalism and technology, and I'm always looking for potent metaphors for that intersection. Most of my plays start with me reading something in the news or hearing about an event that piques my interest, which is how GOLDEN SHIELD started. I can't really remember the first piece of journalism I read about the Yahoo or Cisco cases but I discovered them in early 2016 and instantly started researching them, without fully knowing what form that research was going to take. 

Your play is chockablock with technical terms from software and network development to legal precedents and procedures. What kind of research did you do??

Shi Tao, Chinese journalist sentenced to ten years in jail for “illegally divulging state secrets.” When charged with supplying information to Chinese authorities used to convict him, Yahoo settled out of court.

Shi Tao, Chinese journalist sentenced to ten years in jail for “illegally divulging state secrets.” When charged with supplying information to Chinese authorities used to convict him, Yahoo settled out of court.

My first port of call is always to just research a ton on my own. I read public documentation on the litigation the play's based on, I read additional transcripts from civil trials, I read theses on the structure of the firewall in China, I did lots of research on different kinds of digital filtering. Basically once I feel I've done my due diligence (which is usually a couple months of research), I throw it all out and try to write a compelling piece of drama. But I'm also very lucky that my friends and family are international lawyers and software engineers for massive companies, so I can float drafts by them as I'm writing to keep checking back in about whether things sound accurate. 

Your play calls for several actors to speak Mandarin with the Translator simultaneously translating what they say into English. Why is this important to you? How did you become fluent in Chinese?

I'm absolutely not fluent in Mandarin! I studied Mandarin for around a decade but quickly lost proficiency at it when I went to college, so now I'd say it's conversational Mandarin at best. This means that the Mandarin in this draft has been a real process of collaborating with different translators and native Mandarin speaking actors. Actually, it's been fascinating because every time we've workshopped this play, we keep discovering little regionalisms that affect our Mandarin text – the difference between Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese idioms, for example. 

The play concerns litigation in Texas by an American human rights lawyer suing an American software developer on behalf of mainland Chinese dissidents because the company helped the Chinese government build its Internet firewall in a way that allowed them to identify domestic subversives.  The story reminds me of two cases that the World Organization for Human Rights brought in the  United States, one against Yahoo, the other against Cisco, both accusing the companies of helping the Chinese government identify subversive Chinese. How much of your play mirrors actual cases and how much is your own invention?

Slide from a leaked internal 2002 Cisco presentation.  Read more in Wired article.

Slide from a leaked internal 2002 Cisco presentation. Read more in Wired article.

The play mirrors some of the details of the actual cases brought against Cisco and Yahoo and the claims of their plaintiffs, particularly their legal grounds and precedent. But I wanted to heavily fictionalize it – for the simple reason that I wanted to create more moral ambiguity. The biggest departure from reality is what OSCIS actually does for the CCP, and the fact that Marshall single-handedly invents the multi-tiered firewall in China, which is actually a process of refinement that the Chinese government has been engaged in for decades.  

Much of the drama – and humor – in the play concerns the friction between the two Asian-American sisters, one a lawyer, the other a translator.  I understand you have an identical twin sister who happens to be a human rights lawyer. How well do you get along? How did your relationship with her inform the writing of GOLDEN SHIELD?

I have to clarify that my sister is not a human rights lawyer! Tash is an international trade lawyer. She works at the World Trade Organization in Geneva. But she's deeply invested in humanitarian issues (she worked with Muslim Advocates and Lawyers without Borders) and how you can arbitrate them through international commercial mechanisms. The relationship of the sisters in this play is actually the polar opposite of our relationship! With Julie and Eva, I wanted to find a useful mechanism to talk about inherited cultural trauma, through two characters who are grappling with their liminal status as Chinese-Americans. 

You have created a character, The Translator, who is very much the fulcrum of the play. A rich theme in the play is the difficulty of translating between languages, in this case, between Chinese and English, especially when comparable expressions don’t exist. You show this not only in the exchanges between the lawyer and the dissident but also between the American software executive and the Chinese government official. Do the problems the play confronts originate in different cultures not being able to understand and communicate with each other?

For me, the play is really about our failures to communicate effectively on all fronts not only between different languages and cultures, but between technologies, judicial systems, family members, lovers. This is why the Translator not only translates literal text but also subtext and context, to reveal the total sum of semiotic misfires that can happen when two parties try to bridge a communicative chasm. I really hope that what people take away from the play is that the attempt to translate, as fraught as it is, is what really counts that as multivalent and impossible as communication is, we have to keep trying because it's the best mechanism we have. 

Golden Shield MTC cr.jpg

Subsequent to this first public reading of GOLDEN SHIELD this week, there will be a full production of the play at the Melbourne Theatre Company this summer. How do you envision the EST public reading affecting the production later this year?

Hugely! The draft that comes out of the EST reading is the draft I'm about to take to Australia to workshop for the production. The EST workshop is an invaluable part of getting this play primed for production getting to dive into the characters in more detail, refine the translation and the mechanics of the play. 

Have you written other plays on a scientific or technological subject? What tips do you have for playwrights attempting to write such a play?

Basically, all my plays are on technological subjects! My advice would be to acknowledge the complexity of the issue but don't feel beholden to it. I find my first drafts are always stuffed with research but that I end up throwing that out and searching for more useful figurative devices. The best way to unpack the complexity of a given technology is to map it onto the complexity of human beings. 

What’s next for Anchuli Felicia King?

White Pearl opens at the Royal Court Theatre in London on May 10 and runs through June 15

Golden Shield will get its world premiere at the Melbourne Theatre Company on August 12 and run through September 14.

Slaughterhouse will be produced as part of the 25A Downstairs Series at the Belvoir Theatre Company in Sydney from October 16 to November 2

White Pearl will receive a production in Sydney as a co-production of the Sydney Theatre Company and Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta from October 24 to November 9.

The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 1 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of  BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through March 10. Tickets can be purchased here. 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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Julie McKee on New Zealand during WWII, Maori culture, women scientists, and THE SECRET LIFE OF SEAWEED

Julie McKee

Julie McKee

This year the EST/Sloan First Light Festival is featuring THE SECRET LIFE OF SEAWEED by Julie McKee as a satellite event at HB Playwrights Theatre, a co-production of Collider Theater and HB Studio. Performances of the production directed by Jean Randich began February 2 and run through February 16. Tickets are free and can be reserved here. Set in New Zealand in 1941, the play follows the quest of botanist Louise MacGregor and her sixteen-year-old assistant to find Pterocladia Lucida, a species of seaweed critical to the war effort. The playwright explains . . .
(Interview by Rich Kelley)

What inspired you to write THE SECRET LIFE OF SEAWEED?

I have a book called The Book of New Zealand Women: Ko Kui Ma Te Kaupapa and in it there is a photo taken in 1935 of Lucy B. Moore, a prominent scientist and botanist wearing boys’ shorts. Among her many achievements, she was tasked during the Second World War, to travel around parts of the NZ coast in search of Pterocladia Lucida, a seaweed needed for biomedical research. In order to succeed, she needed support from the children of the native schools of the East Coast. I thought, what an adventure that must have been.

What kind of research did you do to write your play?

Lucy B. Moore (center) with fellow botanists Harry Howard Barton Allan (left) and G. F. Papenfuss (right) in Auckland, 1949.

Lucy B. Moore (center) with fellow botanists Harry Howard Barton Allan (left) and G. F. Papenfuss (right) in Auckland, 1949.

A ton. I found all my research about seaweed on the Internet. The history of New Zealand during WW2 was from film, documentary, books and the Internet. I grew up in New Zealand, so the Pakeha culture is second nature. Since my dad served in the Pacific, I've always been fascinated with that era. Growing up in New Zealand when I did, most of us Pakeha were horribly ignorant of the Māori experience and culture. I did a lot of homework. As Dr. Ella Henry, one of our Māori advisers put it, "I thought the dialogue accurately reflected the casual racism about Māori issues and people for the era." She and Rangimoana Taylor, actor/director and storyteller, also pointed me in the right direction regarding Māori specific matters and pronunciation. They were very helpful and I am grateful for their enthusiastic support. While on holiday in New Zealand, I followed in Lucy's footsteps from Te Kaha to Gisborne.  Of course, I was in a car, stayed in motels along the way, and conducted interviews about the history of the area when I could. She did it on foot, or in a horse-drawn cream cart and the occasional service car.  It's a remote area even today but a gorgeous trek. The coastline is stunning. 

The route from Te Kaha to Gisborne.

The route from Te Kaha to Gisborne.

Why did you decide to fictionalize Moore as your character Louise MacGregor?

I fictionalized her private life as there was little I could find on her personal life.  The adventures along the way are also fictionalized; however, the purpose of the mission is actual.

Moore frequently worked with the botanical illustrator, Nancy Adams, who began working for New Zealand’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (D.S.I.R.) in 1942 at the age of 16, much like Louise’s assistant, May Smith. How much of Smith is based on Adams?

Botanical artist Nancy Adams at work

Botanical artist Nancy Adams at work

Nancy Adams did indeed accompany Lucy on this wartime journey at 16, as does May. She was a talented botanical artist and worked for the D.S.I.R. as does May. But I was not able to find much about Nancy's personal life or her relationship to Lucy except that they remained lifelong friends and frequently worked together after this mission. Fact and fiction intertwine. 

The play is quite steeped in Māori culture. Was this also part of Lucy Moore’s story?

The majority of the play takes place in a predominantly Māori area. The success of the mission depended upon the participation of the local population. I couldn't tell the story without their presence.

How did THE SECRET LIFE OF SEAWEED became a satellite event of the EST/Sloan First Light Festival with numerous performances at HB Studio?

The play began as an EST/Sloan Project Commission.  Then as the play developed through the EST Playwright Unit and the HB Rehearsal Lab Project, ten performances were offered via Edith Meeks and the HB Performance Lab, directed by Jean Randich, and funded in part by Collider Theater and the EST/Sloan Project. It’s been such an opportunity. We took three short weeks to test it on its feet with a wonderful and dedicated group of artists led by the gifted Jean Randich and assisted by stage manager extraordinaire Colton Robertson. So "hold on to your hats" cries Archie as he hurtles downhill with no brakes.  

Playwrights who work on science-themed plays often find that their research turns up things both surprising and delightful that they are pleased to include in their plays. Did that happen for you in researching THE SECRET LIFE OF SEAWEED?

Pterocladia Lucida  , the red seaweed used for making agar.

Pterocladia Lucida , the red seaweed used for making agar.

I was surprised to find that seaweed is the food source of the future, easily farmed, easily sustained, as long as the oceans remain healthy.  It was the first species to have sex. The etymology of the Butterfly Pea. Many things!

What do you want the audience to take away from THE SECRET LIFE OF SEAWEED?

What connected me to writing this story were the enormous adjustments and sacrifices that ordinary women make during the extraordinary times of war.  How shame and repression of grief brought on by society can warp a person's character and the choices they make. 

Other plays you’ve written have been part of the EST/Sloan First Light Festival. What was Fringe Benefits about?

Fringe Benefits is about a Reno showgirl who is approaching a certain age, the effects of gravity, and her efforts to understand the science behind it.

You also teach playwriting. What do playwrights need to know about how to write a good science-themed play? 

Develop your characters and their personal journey too, but then again, it depends on the kind of play you're writing.

School girls from Raukōkore Native School, Bay of Plenty, hanging out agar seaweed to dry in 1941.

School girls from Raukōkore Native School, Bay of Plenty, hanging out agar seaweed to dry in 1941.

What’s next for Julie McKee?

Will Sacrifice. New York 1996.  A mature couple's search for home, and each other during the real estate boom in the lower Catskill Mountains.  A comedy.

The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 1 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through March 10. Tickets can be purchased here. 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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Marc Acito on Wernher von Braun, Alabama in the sixties, Wagner, surrealism, the ethics and dreams of America’s Apollo program, and THE SPACE RACE

Marc Acito

Marc Acito

On Thursday, January 31, as part of this year’s First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project will host a public reading of THE SPACE RACE: An American Dream by Marc Acito.  THE SPACE RACE had its first reading during last year’s First Light Festival when it had the title MAN IN THE MOON. 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 this makes it sound like a straightforward story and THE SPACE RACE is anything but that. So let’s hear the playwright’s take.

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

What inspired you to write THE SPACE RACE?

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?

Space Race logo.jpeg

With the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing this year, 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.

THE SPACE RACE had its first public reading last February as part of the 2018 First Light Festival when its title was Man in the Moon. Why the title change? What’s changed in the play? What were you aiming to do in the new version?

I chose the title Man in the Moon as a reference to Wernher von Braun, with the idea that the play was about this man who got us to the moon. But when I heard the play for the first time last year, I realized it was about much more than Von Braun. The title change reflects the widening lens.

The other big takeaway from last year’s reading was how the surreal aspects didn’t have the impact of the real. Getting those elements to register has been the bulk of my work.

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?

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

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 in America he had a religious conversion to Evangelical Christianity. Did anything you discovered as part of your research about him surprise you?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Morgan Watson

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.

We have so many new characters in THE SPACE RACE compared with MAN IN THE MOON: Glory now has two friends, Joan and Myrna; Maria, von Braun’s wife, is now a character; an engineering whistleblower, Thomas Baron, only briefly mentioned before, now takes the stage; and two characters, the mysterious Professor Mannfeldt and Friede, seem to have stepped out of the screen of the 1923 Fritz Lang film Woman in the Moon. And we finally have a true Wagnerian character in Erda, goddess of the Earth. What prompted you to add so many characters? Can you still work with just five actors?

We’re up to six actors now. The addition of all those roles reflects my effort to root the surreal aspects in the psychological reality of the characters. I credit Tony Kushner, who read my rewrite and encouraged me to locate the surreal landscape in the dream world of the characters.

For me this version tackles the same sobering issues as the last: von Braun’s complicity in using slave labor to build the first V-2 rockets under the Nazis; his charming, complex character; the dilemma of the black couple in considering exposing him; but the treatment, the presentation here struck me as more boldly theatrical with more music, more characters, more effects, more flights of fancy, and could there even be more Wagnerian elements in it? Was this as much fun to rework as it reads?

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

Welcome to my world. I reject naturalism as an artist because it doesn’t fully express my experience of life. Countless images and sounds course through our consciousness in every moment, so to see a play that only portrays people from the outside feels incomplete to me. So, yes, it is more Wagnerian—not only in its use of his operatic material, but in its conception as a gesantkuntswerk.

You incorporate some serious science into the play with discussion of the “sympathetic vibration” of the rocket and fuel tube and von Braun’s description of the “genesis of the moon.” 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.

Secrets of the Universe.jpg

A lot has been going in with you in the past year. Your play The Secrets of the Universe (and Other Songs) about the relationship between Albert Einstein and Marian Anderson had a full production at the Hub Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia last July. Did that live up to your expectations? Did anything about that production inform your revisions to THE SPACE RACE?

That production emboldened me as a surrealist. What was so enlightening was how audiences embraced the weird and esoteric from the very moment the play hopped out of naturalism and into the psyches of the characters. The first tier critics didn’t understand it, so they were hostile, which made me realize I need to do a better job communicating my mission as an artist. What was most gratifying was the response of black audiences. As a gay, white man I’m highly sensitive to the perils of writing about the intersectionality of oppressed minorities. So I was thrilled when, during a talkback, a black man in the audience said he was surprised to discover I was white.

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.

What’s next for Marc Acito?

A complete departure. I’m back to comedy roots directing a staged concert at the York Theater of the little-known Lerner and Loewe musical The Day Before Spring, which I adapted. It’s like a Doris Day/Rock Hudson romcom—February 9 through 17—the perfect date night for Valentine’s Day.

The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 1 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through March 10. Tickets can be purchased here. 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. 

Portions of this interview appeared on this blog previously when MAN IN THE MOON had a reading during the 2018 First Light Festival.

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Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder on what photographs miss, Rochester in 1963, finding a voice, and WHAT LOOKS LIKE PRETTY

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder

On Monday, January 28, as part of the 2019 First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project is presenting the first public reading of WHAT LOOKS LIKE PRETTY, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s new play about the intersection of race, the science of capturing images, and business ethics. When an African-American girl goes missing in 1963, colleagues Gloria and Charlie struggle to get a photograph the police can use, and begin to question who gets seen and who is invisible. 

As she traveled east from Tennessee, where she is the Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-Residence at Sewanee: The University of the South, Elyzabeth stopped a few moments to answers our questions.    

 What inspired you to write WHAT LOOKS LIKE PRETTY? 

A Kodak “Shirley” card from the 1960s

A Kodak “Shirley” card from the 1960s

Several years ago, I read an article about the Kodak Shirley cards which had been used for color correction in the labs. The photograph was always of a fair-skinned white woman and across the bottom of the photograph they would stamp "NORMAL". It made me think about how visual representations of beauty and "normalcy" shape our perceptions and control the narrative that is created about those who might not fit within that norm.

 What research did you do to prepare to write the play? Did you work with a technical consultant to get the scientific details right?

 In the fall of 2017 I received a research grant to travel to Rochester to view the Kodak archives. It turned out to be a terrifying experience, because the more I read, the more I realized just how complicated the issue actually was. You have the racial bias that influenced what was created in the lab, but you also have to consider how light functions and how our eyes process color and light. I left feeling overwhelmed. 

 OK, that covers research on the science. How about research on the characters?

 I was really struggling to find Gloria's voice in this play; then I was asked to participate in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's State of the South tour. We put four playwrights, the artistic director, and a filmmaker in a van and spent 10 days touring the Southeast, cities and tiny towns, across Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, hosting town hall discussions about the changing face of Southern identity. American Theatre did an article on our trip. I heard so many people talk about feeling invisible in their community and the efforts being made to be seen.  Those conversations really got to the heart of Gloria's struggle. You can watch many of these interviews in the video we created afterward: “The State of the South.”

 You set your play in 1963? Why that year?

The Kodak Instamatic 100 from 1963

The Kodak Instamatic 100 from 1963

I really struggled with deciding on the time period. The Shirley cards have been used for years.  However, the Kodak Instamatics were first released in the early 60s and that’s when color photography started to become the norm. The technology was becoming increasingly common and accessible. It was also such a volatile time in our country in terms of race relations. I thought that made for a powerful backdrop. The African-American community was fighting not just for equality, but for visibility, and here you had this new technology that was working against that.  It was also a pivotal time for race relations in Rochester. The African-American population was growing and the city was increasingly divided. The following year all of that tension erupted in the biggest race riot in the city's history.   

You seem to have tapped a rich thematic vein in writing a play about how photography has shaped how we see – and don’t see – each other. And how we remember. Has writing this play changed how you look at photographs? At cameras? 

The way we consume photography has changed dramatically since color photography became mainstream.  It is instant, it is abundant, and it can be manipulated more than ever. Now that everyone has a camera on their phone, we are seeing stories unfold from multiple angles. It's a reminder that a photo can capture an image, but it doesn't necessarily tell the whole story.

Have you written any other plays on scientific subjects?

New startup Hyperlive claims it has an algorithm that can predict hits. See Hyperlive.fm

New startup Hyperlive claims it has an algorithm that can predict hits. See Hyperlive.fm

My play, A Requiem for August Moon, was my first experience writing a play based on a scientific theory. By focusing on a Ph.D. student who develops an algorithm for predicting a hit song, it explores the relationship between art and science.

 Do you have any special advice to give to someone writing a science-themed play?

 The biggest challenge I always face is finding a way to blend the science with the personal. An audience isn't going to be able to invest emotionally in the science, but they will invest in a character who is wrestling with its consequences.  

 When did you know you were a playwright?

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 I spent a lot of time as a kid writing monologues and short plays. I started doing local theatre in the fourth grade and fell in love with it. I always knew I wanted to work in the theatre, but I think I was always aware that I wasn't really an actor. I saw Madeleine George's "The Most Massive Woman Wins" at the Young Playwrights Festival at the Public when I was 17 and that's when I realized that maybe I could write plays, too. Wendy Wasserstein was there that day. I worked up the nerve to talk to her and after I poured my heart out, she told me to go home and write a play. So I did.

 What’s next for Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder?

 I'm working on another play, The Light of the World, which explores our relationship with Confederate iconography.  I'm also researching a new play about service workers at the Atlanta airport and the exploitation of minimum wage employees.

 The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 1 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through February 10.  Tickets can be purchased here. 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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Historian Deirdre Cooper Owens, Gynecologist Nerys Benfield and Director Colette Robert join Actor/Scholar Naomi Lorrain to discuss slavery, the birth of gynecology in America, and BEHIND THE SHEET

From left: Professor Deirdre Cooper Owens, Dr. Nerys Benfield, Colette Robert, Naomi Lorrain

From left: Professor Deirdre Cooper Owens, Dr. Nerys Benfield, Colette Robert, Naomi Lorrain

On January 26, following the 2:00 pm matinee performance of BEHIND THE SHEET, the powerful new drama by Charly Evon Simpson, everyone is encouraged to stay for what promises to be a provocative discussion of the many issues the play addresses, especially the history of gynecological surgical techniques, the rights of enslaved women to be used for experiments, race and gender relations in nineteenth-century America, and much more. Joining the play’s director Colette Robert will be Deirdre Cooper Owens, Associate Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY, and author of Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, and Nerys Benfield, Associate Professor and the Director of Family Planning in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Women’s Health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine for a conversation moderated by actor and research scholar Naomi Lorrain (Philomena in the play).

BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. In 1840s Alabama, Philomena assists a doctor—her owner—as he performs experimental surgeries on her fellow slave women, trying to find a treatment for the painful post-childbirth complications known as fistulas. Reframing the origin story of modern gynecology, the play dramatizes how these women supported each other, and questions who, and what, history remembers.

The World Premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET is this year’s mainstage production of the EST/Sloan Project, EST's partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to develop new plays "exploring the worlds of science and technology," an initiative now in its twentieth year.

About the Panelists

Professor Deirdre Cooper Owens

Professor Deirdre Cooper Owens

Professor Deirdre Cooper Owens is Associate Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY in Queens, New York and an Organization of American Historians’ (OAH) Distinguished Lecturer.  She has served as an American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology Fellow in Washington, D.C. and is a board member for the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. Her first book, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology (UGA Press, 2017) won the 2018 Darlene Clark Hine Book Award from the OAH as the best book written in African American women’s and gender history. Professor Cooper Owens is also the Director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the country’s oldest cultural institution. In the fall of 2019, she will join the University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s Department of History as the inaugural Linda & Charles Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine and the Director of the Humanities in Medicine Program. Copies of Medical Bondage will be available for saleand signing by the authorfollowing the talkback.

Dr. Nerys Benfield

Dr. Nerys Benfield

Dr. Nerys C. Benfield is an Associate Professor and the Director of Family Planning, the Fellowship in Family Planning, and the Global Women's Health Program at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine. She is a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist in Bronx, New York and is affiliated with Montefiore Medical Center. Her research interests include the integration of contraceptive counseling, access, and distribution into medical care for high-risk women both domestically and internationally, uro-genital fistula, and clinical training and health technologies in low-resource settings. Dr. Benfield has worked in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since 2008 where she has developed an academic collaborative research and clinical training program with research interests that include the integration of contraceptive counseling, access, and distribution into medical care for high-risk women, uro-genital fistula, and methods to optimize evidence-based clinical training and the use of health technologies such as information and communication technologies (ICT) and ultrasound in low-resource settings.

Colette Robert

Colette Robert

Colette Robert is the director of the world premiere production of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson (New York Times Critic’s Pick) at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Her recent directing credits include: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (NYU Grad Acting), Mary’s Wedding (Chester Theatre Company), Big Love (Sarah Lawrence College), How My Grandparents Fell in Love (EST, New York Times Critic's Pick), What Every Girl Should Know (NYU/Stella Adler Studio), Hottentotted (The Tank, Ars Nova/ANT Fest), The Mountaintop (Chester Theatre Company), Icons/Idols (The New Ohio/Ice Factory Festival), Flops, Failures, and Fiascos (The Civilians), and When Last We Flew (Diversionary Theatre and FringeNYC, GLAAD Media Award). As a playwright, her play The Harriet Holland Social Club Presents the 84th Annual Star-Burst Cotillion in the Grand Ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel has been developed with Fuller Road Artist Residency, New Georges, Mabou Mines, and The Drama League. Colette is a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre, a co-facilitator of the New Georges Jam, and an adjunct lecturer in the Humanities department at Hunter College. 

About the Moderator

Naomi Lorrain (Photo: Stan Demidoff)

Naomi Lorrain (Photo: Stan Demidoff)

Naomi Lorrain plays Philomena in the world premiere production of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Naomi is a New York City-based actor, playwright and scholar. She received her B.A. in the History of Science, History of Medicine and African American Studies from Yale University and her M.F.A. in Acting from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She works part-time as a Scholars-in-Residence Research Assistant at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Her plays include A Trojan Woman’s Tale (Villa La Pietra), The Queen of Macon County (The National Black Theatre), Shelfies (The 52nd Street Project), The Big O (Villa La Pietra), and Rigor Mortis (NYU Tisch). Recent theater credits include What to Send Up When It Goes Down (Movement Theatre Company), Stained (The Amoralist), Song for a Future Generation (Williamstown Theatre Festival), Restoration Comedy (The Flea), and Daughter of Lot (Edinburgh Fringe Festival). TV: “Orange Is the New Black” (Netflix), “Elementary” (CBS), “The Good Fight” (CBS), “Madam Secretary” (CBS). As a Scholars-in-Residence Research Assistant, she has worked on several books, including Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive by Marisa J. Fuentes.

BEHIND THE SHEET began previews on January 9 and runs through February 10 at EST. You can purchase tickets here.

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A Note on the Scientific & Historical Context of BEHIND THE SHEET

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In the spirit of the EST/Sloan Project’s commitment to “challenge and broaden the public’s understanding of science and technology and their impact in our lives,” we offer this essay on some of the scientific and historical background to BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson, the 2019 EST/Sloan mainstage production. BEHIND THE SHEET begins previews on January 9 and runs through March 10. You can purchase tickets here.

Background essay by Rich Kelley

The first Women’s Hospital in America is thought to be the four-story, 20-bed institution that used to stand at Madison Avenue and 29th Street in New York City, founded by Dr. J. Marion Sims in 1855 where he operated on ailing white women. That claim, however, ignores the two-story, eight-bed “sick house” Sims had set up on a small slave farm in Mount Meigs, Alabama, where from 1844 through 1849 he performed surgical experiments on between 10 and 17 enslaved women, most of them suffering from what we now call obstetric fistulas. 

Left, First Woman’s Hospital in New York City, 1857; Right, Dr. Sims’ first women’s hospital, Montgomery, Alabama (photographed in 1895 by Edward Souchon. Courtesy of the Reynolds Historical Library at the University of Alabama at Birmingham)

Left, First Woman’s Hospital in New York City, 1857; Right, Dr. Sims’ first women’s hospital, Montgomery, Alabama (photographed in 1895 by Edward Souchon. Courtesy of the Reynolds Historical Library at the University of Alabama at Birmingham)

Dr. Sims had come to Alabama in 1840, at the age of 27, to open a new medical practice. He had closed his first practice in South Carolina after his first two patients, infants, had died, probably from cholera. Sims quickly developed a reputation as a skilled surgeon. In those days bleeding to death was a constant danger during surgery and Sims describes in his memoirs how he relied on speed in the surgical area to save his patients.

Sims’ speculum

Sims’ speculum

While widely known as the “Father of Modern Gynecology,” Dr. J. Marion Sims was quite frank in his memoirs about his initial distaste for the field: “If there was anything I hated, it was investigating the organs of the female pelvis.” Little was known of female anatomy at the time and, frustrated by what he couldn’t see in 1845 during his first case of an obstetric fistula, Sims turned a pewter spoon into a kind of duck-billed retractor. Describing the first use of the “Sims speculum,” he wrote, “I saw everything as no man had ever seen before. The fistula was as plain as the nose on a man’s face.” 

What he saw led Sims to believe he could find a way to repair a devastating condition that had plagued women for centuries. “I said at once, ‘Why cannot these things be cured?’” The case at hand involved the pregnancy of Anarcha, a seventeen-year-old slave girl who had been in labor for three days when Sims was called. He was not able to save the baby, and, days later, he observed that she had developed both kinds of obstetric fistulas: a vesico-vaginal fistula and a rectal-vaginal fistula. These can occur during long, obstructed labors when the infant’s head is too large to pass through the pelvic canal. The infant’s head traps the soft tissues of the pelvis up against the pelvic bone, cutting off the blood supply. When labor continues for several days, the tissues die. In a vesico-vaginal fistula, the wall between the bladder and the vagina breaks down and creates a hole, leading to uncontrollable urine leakage. In a rectal-vaginal fistula, the wall between the rectum and the vagina breaks, causing fecal leakage. The ensuing incontinence often produces infections, strong odors, and, over time, the painful inflammation and scarring of the inner legs. Fistula patients quite often become ostracized from family and friends, depressed recluses, unable to live in their homes.

“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.

To test his idea, Sims needed more patients with the same condition. We know from his records the names of two others, Betsey and Lucy. As Sims writes, “I made this proposition to the owners of the negroes: If you will give me Anarcha and Betsey for experiment, I agree to perform no experiment or operation on either of them to endanger their lives, and will not charge a cent for keeping them, but you must pay their taxes and clothe them.”

He kept them for five years. Each had a fistula and was experimented on several times, Anarcha perhaps as many as thirty times. When two years passed without a breakthrough, the white colleagues who had assisted Sims drifted away and he had to train his slaves to assist him in the experiments, including restraining patients during surgery, which was performed without anesthetic. Many became addicted to the opium he gave them to ease their pain.

Illustration from a contemporary medical textbook shows patient in “Sims position”

Illustration from a contemporary medical textbook shows patient in “Sims position”

By continually operating on these women, Sims perfected many of his techniques. To improve his ability to visualize the fistula, he invented the “Sims position,” when the patient lies on her left side with her left leg straight but flexing her right knee and hip, pulling the right leg up.

Sims eventually realized he needed something stronger to hold the repair. On June 21, 1849, he used fine silver wire on Anarcha for the first time. On day seven after the operation he re-examined her and found that the fistula had healed perfectly. Sims was ebullient: “I realized that in fact at last my efforts had been blessed with success and that I had made perhaps one of the most important discoveries of the age for the relief of suffering humanity.”

Sims would go on to a storied career as a surgeon in New York and Europe, but questions continue to rage about his contention that his patients consented to his experiments. Sims defenders make the case that these women had much to gain from these operations given the crippling effects of fistula and that no other treatment existed.

In Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, historian Deirdre Cooper Owens presses the case that we understand Sims in his historical context:

“Gynecological surgeons during the early and mid-nineteenth century were neither exceptionally cruel nor sadistic physicians who enjoyed butchering black women’s bodies, as some scholars have argued. They were elite white men who lived in an era when scientific racism flourished. Ideas about black inferiority were established and widely believed, as was the underlying assumption about black people’s intelligence. Black women, particularly those who were enslaved, were a vulnerable population that doctors used because of easy accessibility to their bodies. Further, the value of black women’s reproductive labor demanded that it be “fixed” when it was seen as “broken” by those who depended on their labor.”

Many question why Sims did not use any anesthetic in his operations on slave women but later did so in New York when his clientele were mostly white women. Some contend that Sims believed that African American women had a higher tolerance for pain. Additionally, when he began his experiments in the 1840s, Sims may not have had full knowledge of what anesthetics were available. The first public lectures about nitrous oxide and diethyl ether did not take place until 1845 in Boston and their use did not become common in surgical practice until the 1850s. But even in the 1850s, Sims remained skeptical about the use of anesthesia. In a lecture to The New York Academy of Medicine in 1857, Sims remarked that the Sims position “permits the use of anesthetics if desired, but I never resort to them in these operations, because they are not painful enough to justify the trouble. “

Owens’ book presents an even-handed account, but importantly, much of the book turns our attention and appreciation to the unheralded experiences and contributions of the women Sims and others experimented on:

“Beginning with those nearly ten black bondwomen who labored under Sims as leased chattel, patients, and nurses, they serve as the counter to Sims’s designation as ’father’. They are the rightful ‘mothers’ of this branch of medicine.  . . . Their bodies enabled the research that yielded the data for white doctors to write medical articles about gynecological illnesses, pharmacology, treatment, and cures.”

The statue

The Sims statue when it stood on Fifth Avenue outside Central Park

The Sims statue when it stood on Fifth Avenue outside Central Park

Sims was the first medical professional to have a statue in his honor in New York City in 1894. It was first in Bryant Park and then moved to Central Park where it stood outside the New York Academy of Medicine on Fifth Avenue. In response to protests about the statue during the summer of 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio charged the Public Design Commission with determining what should be done. In its January 2018 report, the commission was quite scathing in its recommendation that the statue be moved.

“In short, especially in its current location, the Sims monument has come to represent a legacy of oppressive and abusive practice on bodies that were seen as subjugated, subordinate, and exploitable in service to his fame. To confront this legacy in accordance with the principle of Historical Understanding, the Commission feels that the City must take significant action to reframe the narrative presented in the monument.” The status has been relocated to Greenwood Cemetery, where Sims is buried, and there are plans to add in both locations a plaque adding the names of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey along with a description of the roles they played in Sims’s life.

The state of obstetric fistulas today

In the developed world, ready access to obstetrical care, and especially caesarean section, have virtually eliminated the problem. However, fistulas remain an urgent problem in the developing world. The World Health Organization reports that more than two million young women live with obstetric fistulas in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa and 50,000 to 100,000 new cases occur each year.  When those afflicted are able to get timely access to quality obstetrical care, 80% to 95% of them can be repaired surgically.

BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson, the 2019 EST/Sloan mainstage production, begins previews on January 9 and runs through March 10. Tickets are available here.

Recommended Reading

 Books

 Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington (Doubleday, 2007)

 Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology by Deirdre Cooper Owens (University of Georgia Press, 2017) Note: the opening to this essay was inspired by the opening of the introduction to Medical Bondage

 The Story of My Life by J. Marion Sims (D. Appleton & Co., 1884) 

 Journal Articles

 The medical ethics of Dr J Marion Sims: A fresh look at the historical record” by Lewis Wall in Journal of Medical Ethics, June 2006.

 “J. Marion Sims, the Father of Gynecology: Hero or Villain?” by Jeffrey S. Sartin, MD in Southern Medical Journal, May 2004.

 “A History of Obstetric Vesicovaginal Fistula” by Robert F. Zacharin in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, June 2008.

 “On the Treatment of Vesico-Vaginal Fistula” by J. Marion Sims in The American Journal of Medical Sciences, 1852. Reprinted in International Urogynecology Journal, 1998.

 “The medical ethics of the ‘father of gynaecology’, Dr J Marion Sims” by Durrenda Ojanuga in Journal of Medical Ethics, March 1993.

 Radio shows/Podcasts

 “Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology” on an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain, February 7, 2017

 “The Controversial Figure of J. Marion Sims” Episode 51 of Legends of Surgery

 Websites

 J. Marion Sims in the online Encyclopedia of Alabama

 J. Marion Sims in Wikipedia

A Dr. J. Marion Sims Dossier at the University of Illinois – poets on J. Marion Sims

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“WHAT MAKES A GREAT PLAY ABOUT SCIENCE?” Four playwrights and three scientists join Doron Weber on November 19 for a special 20th anniversary EST/Sloan Artist Cultivation Event

Clockwise, from top left: Lucas Hnath, Cassandra Medley, Charly Evon Simpson, Anna Ziegler, Darcy Kelley, Stuart Firestein, Gabriel Cwilich, Doron Weber.

Clockwise, from top left: Lucas Hnath, Cassandra Medley, Charly Evon Simpson, Anna Ziegler, Darcy Kelley, Stuart Firestein, Gabriel Cwilich, Doron Weber.

To celebrate its landmark twentieth anniversary, the EST/Sloan Project is bringing together on November 19 many of the people who have been critical to the program’s success. Joining Sloan Program Director Doron Weber to discuss “what makes a great play about science?” will be playwrights Cassandra Medley, Lucas Hnath, Charly Evon Simpson, and Anna Ziegler, all of whom have had (or will soon have) EST/Sloan mainstage productions. Also participating will be EST/Sloan’s three veteran scientist/consultants: Gabriel Cwilich, Stuart Firestein and Darcy Kelley.

The 2018 Fall Artist Cultivation Event will take place at EST on Monday, November 19 at 8 PM (with a reception beginning at 7:30 PM). The event is free and any playwright interested in developing a play about science or technology is encouraged to attend. Expect a free-wheeling and far-ranging discussion about science, storytelling, and what makes plays work.  Reservations recommended. Reserve your ticket here.

“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 20 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 webpage and submission guidelines here).

Two related events culminate each EST/Sloan season: 1) The First Light Festival is a series of readings and workshops that showcase plays in development—this season’s festival will take place in January-February, 2019—and 2) a full mainstage production of at least one work. This season’s mainstage production will be BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson, which will begin previews on January 9 and run through February 3. Previous mainstage productions have included BUMP by Chiara Atik (2018) on pregnancy and childbirth, 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 Lucas Hnath on scientific method and rivalry, and Headstrong (2012) by Patrick Link on sports and concussions.

The 2018 20th Anniversary Artist Cultivation Event panel features:

Doron Weber

Doron Weber

Doron Weber, Vice President, Programs and Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, helps the President oversee and improve all aspects of the foundation’s programs and plays a leadership role in Sloan’s broader philanthropic efforts with the foundation community. For the past 20 years, Doron has run the program for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology & Economics at Sloan, which uses diverse media—books, radio, television, film, theater, opera and new media—to bridge the “two cultures” of science and the humanities and to educate and engage the public. He helped start Radiolab, Tribeca Film Institute, and World Science Festival; supports Emmy-winning television on American Experience, NOVA, and National Geographic, award-winning plays at not just the Ensemble Studio Theatre, but also the Manhattan Theatre Club, and London’s National Theatre, and Oscar-winning films via film schools and film festivals at Sundance, Tribeca, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. He started the EST/Sloan Project with a grant for Arthur Giron’s Flight in 1996. Doron’s published works include the acclaimed Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir (2012) and three works of nonfiction. On November 14, the National Book Foundation presented Doron with the 2018 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, which is given to an individual for a lifetime of achievement in expanding the audience for books and reading. Under Doron’s leadership, Sloan has helped ensure the publication of numerous groundbreaking and acclaimed books such as Hedy’s Folly by National Book Award Winner Richard Rhodes, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter, Carl Zimmer’s She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Jared Diamond’s Collapse, Stuart Firestein’s Ignorance, and Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory.

The Playwrights

Lucas Hnath

Lucas Hnath

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 in 2017 and closed 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 new play, From the Words and Writings of Dana H., will receive its world premiere at the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles in May, 2019. His 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.

Cassandra Medley

Cassandra Medley

 Cassandra Medley*’s play Relativity, about the conflict of two generations of black scientists and melanin research, was the 2006 EST/Sloan Mainstage Production. Coming Up for Air, her play about fracking and climate change, was part of the 2016 EST/Sloan First Light Festival. Recently produced plays include: American Slavery Project (NYC), Cell (Molelo Theater, CA, and Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon 2011, NYC), Daughter (Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon 2009, NYC), and Noon Day Sun (Diverse City Theatre Company, NYC). Cassandra has the received the 2004 “Going to the River Writers” Life Achievement Award, the 2002 Ensemble Studio Theatre 25th Anniversary Award for Theatre Excellence, the 2001 Theatrefest Regional Playwriting Award for Best Play, the 1995 New Professional Theatre Award, and the 1995 Marilyn Simpson Award. She teaches playwriting at Sarah Lawrence College, has taught at New York University, and has also served as guest artist at Columbia University, the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop and Seattle University.

Charly Evon Simpson (Photo: JMA Photography)

Charly Evon Simpson (Photo: JMA Photography)

Charly Evon Simpson’s play BEHIND THE SHEET, about the untold stories behind the rise of modern gynecology, will be this year’s EST/Sloan mainstage production and will begin previews at EST on January 9, 2019. Her other plays include Jump, Behind the Sheet, Scratching the Surface, form of a girl unknown, it’s not a trip it’s a journey, and more. Her work has been seen and/or developed with Ensemble Studio Theatre, Ars Nova, Chautauqua Theater Company, Salt Lake Acting Company, The Flea, P73’s Summer Residency, National New Play Network through its NNPN/Kennedy Center MFA Playwrights Workshop and National Showcase of New Plays, and others. Jump will receive an NNPN Rolling World Premiere, with productions at Playmaker’s Rep (Chapel Hill, NC), Actor’s Express (Atlanta) and Milagro Theatre (Portland, OR) in 2019-20.  She’s currently a member of WP Theater’s 2018-2020 Lab, The New Georges Jam, The Amoralists 18/19 ‘Wright Club and she’s The Pack’s current playwright-in-residence. Charly is a former member of SPACE on Ryder Farm’s The Working Farm, Clubbed Thumb’s 17/18 Early Career Writers’ Group, Ensemble Studio Theatre's Youngblood, and Pipeline Theatre Company’s PlayLab. She is currently an adjunct lecturer at SUNY Purchase and an engager at The Engaging Educator.

Anna Ziegler

Anna Ziegler

Anna Ziegler*'s widely produced play about Rosalind Franklin, Photograph 51, was the 2010 EST/Sloan mainstage production. It has been or will be produced in Germany, Latvia, Sweden, Italy, India, Japan, and Australia, among many other countries. When it was produced on London’s West End in 2016 (starring Nicole Kidman, winner of the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress), Photograph 51 won the WhatsOnStage award for Best New Play. Her play Boy was an EST/Sloan mainstage production in 2016 (co-produced with Keen Company) and was nominated for the 2016 John Gassner Award by the Outer Critics Circle. In 2017, The Williamstown Theatre Festival, The Manhattan Theatre Club and The Geffen Playhouse premiered her play Actually (winner of the Ovation Award in Los Angeles for Playwriting of an Original Play), and The Roundabout Theatre Company produced The Last Match. Her work has also been produced at The Old Globe, Seattle Rep, The Magic Theatre, Playwrights Realm, City Theatre, and many more, and developed at the Sundance Theatre Lab, The O’Neill Playwrights Conference, NY Stage & Film, Soho Rep and the Cape Cod Theatre Project, among others. Anna is developing a television series with Michael Showalter for HBO based on Actually and a screenplay for Scott Free Productions. Oberon Books has published a collection of her work entitled Anna Ziegler: Plays One.

The Scientist/Consultants

Gabriel Cwilich

Gabriel Cwilich

Gabriel Cwilich is a condensed-matter-theory/statistical physicist in the Physics Department of Yeshiva University. He works on the physics of disordered media, including at the nanoscale, and has a strong interest in the physics of complexity and computer simulations. He has also explored the connections between the origins of classical physics and the cultural world of the renaissance, and periodically brings American students to Italy to teach them about that. He has been lecturing in the US and in Latin America on the connection between science and theater and has been collaborating and advising several theater groups and foundations in NYC (among them the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Epic Theater Ensemble) in projects that bring the world and ideas of science to the stage. He is also the Division Coordinator of Natural and Mathematical Sciences and Director of the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program at Yeshiva University.

Stuart Firestein

Stuart Firestein

Stuart Firestein is the former Chair of Columbia University's Department of Biological Sciences where his laboratory studies the vertebrate olfactory system, possibly the best chemical detector on the face of the planet. Aside from its molecular detection capabilities, the olfactory system serves as a model for investigating general principles and mechanisms of signaling and perception in the brain. His laboratory seeks to answer that fundamental human question: How do I smell? Dedicated to promoting the accessibility of science to a public audience, Firestein serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program for the Public Understanding of Science.  He is the author of Failure: Why Science Is So Successful (2015) and Ignorance: How It Drives Science (2012).

Darcy Kelley

Darcy Kelley

Darcy Kelley is the Harold Weintraub and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University. Her research interest is the neurobiology of voice—the subtle acoustic cues in vocal signals essential for social communication.  She and her colleagues study this question in Xenopus, a group of frogs that returned to the water from land about 180 million years ago, and invented a new way of creating and shaping the vocal signals that rule their social system. Her laboratory has defined the neural circuits that produce these underwater songs and determined how voice is decoded by auditory neurons. She is a longtime scientific advisor to the EST/Sloan Project and, for her pains, served as the model for the amphibian biologist played by Gina Gershon in Claudia Myers’ movie, Kettle of Fish (2006).

*Denotes EST Member Artist

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Jorge Odón, Mario Merialdi, David Milestone, Claudia Weill, Chiara Atik, and Sonia Epstein on car mechanics, birthing technology, the Odón device, and BUMP

From left: Sonia Shechet Epstein, Chiara Atik, Claudia Weill, Jorge Odón, Mario Merialdi, translator Rosa Rivera, and David Milestone

From left: Sonia Shechet Epstein, Chiara Atik, Claudia Weill, Jorge Odón, Mario Merialdi, translator Rosa Rivera, and David Milestone

An amazing thing happened during the last weekend run of BUMP, the new comedy by Chiara Atik that was this year’s EST/Sloan Mainstage Production. The idea for the play began when Chiara discovered the story of Jorge Odón, an Argentine garage mechanic who saw a YouTube video about a cork getting removed from a wine bottle – and that video inspired him to invent a revolutionary new device to help in the late stages of childbirth delivery. A fictionalized version of Odón’s story became, in Chiara’s hands, one of three storylines in BUMP. Odón still lives in Argentina but on Thursday, May 31, three days before the play was due to close, the EST office got a call that Jorge Odón himself was flying in to attend the Saturday matinee performance . . . and yes, he would be happy to participate in a talkback after the performance. Odón arrived with his wife and with Mario Merialdi, the former World Health Organization executive who was critical in helping Odón turn his idea into a product that has gone on to be clinically tested in Iowa, South Africa, and Argentina and may start going into use in 2020.

Joining Odón and Merialdi for this remarkable talkback on June 2 were the playwright Chiara Atik, the director Claudia Weill, translator Rosa Rivera, and David Milestone, the Acting Director of the USAID’s Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact, an organization that also played a key role in funding the development of the Odón device. Sonia Shechet Epstein, Executive Editor of Sloan Science and Film at the Museum of the Moving Image, moderated the discussion.

A lively comedy about childbirth, BUMP explores women’s evolving understanding of and control over the birthing process through three stories: a young first-time mother giving birth in colonial New England with the help of an experienced and peppery midwife; five women sharing quips, gripes and observations on an online message board; and a grandfather-to-be getting inspired to invent a device that could revolutionize how infants in difficulty get delivered (this is the storyline inspired by the experiences of Jorge Odón).

Some of the highlights of the June 2 discussion follow: (Recap by Rich Kelley)

Sonia Shechet Epstein: Chiara, in BUMP there are characters who give birth in a range of ways. Why was it important for you to present that range?

Chiara Atik: The play is not trying to say that there is a correct or incorrect way to give birth. My hope was that by offering an assortment of examples of what giving birth is like, that the audience could take what it wants from the different experiences. The play ends with the colonial girl looking at her future. That’s where I wanted the focus to be.

What Jorge Odón thought after seeing BUMP

Sonia: Jorge, what is your reaction to seeing your invention dramatized? 

Jorge (translated by Mario Merialdi): The play is great and he is still surprised about his invention and how it has been interpreted. . . . This invention actually took him around the world to meet many important people. He met Princess Caroline in Monaco. He met Pope Francis. The device got on the front page of The New York Times. Seeing this play was really a surprise for him.

When he was seeing the play he could see and feel very much of what had happened in reality. He was spending hours on this device. His wife Marcella, who is here with him today. She actually did sew parts of it . . . He congratulates Chiara the playwright and all the actors who interpreted his story.

Sonia: And what do you have there?

Jorge (translated by Mario): [shows prototype for Odón device] This is a simulator of the uterus that he uses for demonstrations of the Odón device. The first prototype of the device is what he is showing here. He’s a car mechanic. He’s not a doctor. He needed to learn how the baby exists inside the uterus. This part was used the first time to insert the device. It was difficult for the doctor to use it and to position the device correctly. This is the inserter. The gauge indicates when the device has been inserted properly.

From left: Chiara Atik, Claudia Weill, Jorge Odón, Mario Merialdi

From left: Chiara Atik, Claudia Weill, Jorge Odón, Mario Merialdi

It’s been fourteen years since he had the original idea. This is the bag we use now. Now he is going to fill it with air. This is not hard to do. The device immediately deflates once the baby is removed. You have now seen in just a few minutes the evolution of the device over fourteen years. Imagine what happened in between. Jorge was actually very afraid of seeing blood. Because of his passion, he was able to attend 48 deliveries. In these 48 deliveries he was able to deploy the device. Without the help of his family, his friends, and everyone who believed in him, he would not have been able to develop the device. Without them it would not have been possible for a big company like Becton Dickinson to pick up his idea and take it to the next level. It first was his family that supported him, then it was CEMIC, the Center for Medical Education and Clinical Research in Buenos Aires; then it was me [Mario Merialdi] who was shown this device and fifteen weeks later Jorge and I were together in a hospital in Des Moines, Iowa, a very specialized advanced center testing the device. . . . I didn’t mention that I’m actually his friend.

How the Odón device went from an idea to a product

From left: Sonia Shechet Epstein, Chiara Atik, Claudia Weill, Jorge Odón, Mario Merialdi

From left: Sonia Shechet Epstein, Chiara Atik, Claudia Weill, Jorge Odón, Mario Merialdi

Sonia: Mario, you’ve been instrumental in the development of Jorge’s device. I’m curious about two things: first, what about the Odón device stood out for you when you first saw it and second, how aware were you of the need for innovation in obstetrics before the device?

Mario: Someone mentioned in the play that there had been no innovation in the instruments used for childbirth deliveries for centuries. There was definitely a gap there. I remember I was working at the time at the World Health Organization. I was leaving to go from Geneva to Buenos Aires for a meeting. I got a call in the evening from a colleague in Argentina telling me about a crazy doctor at a hospital working with an even crazier mechanic who had a new device for assisted vaginal delivery. I was very skeptical but at the same time I was intrigued because of the unmet need for new devices both in developed and developing countries. So I said I will be at this meeting and will be able to give him ten minutes. I met with Jorge who showed me the device. The moment I saw that this was something new in the field I was intrigued. The reason why it’s so appealing is that forceps and suction are all lifesaving procedures but they require professionals and they are not available everywhere in the world, especially in the area where most of the world lives. Seeing this device that is potentially easier to use and potentially safer was very, very promising and pushed me to invest and to develop a research plan.

How USAID innovates new medical solutions — and helped develop the Odón device

Sonia: Dave, I know that you and USAID also helped develop the device. What are some of the criteria you were using to decide which innovations to support?

From left: Jorge Odón, Mario Merialdi, Rosa Rivera, David Milestone

From left: Jorge Odón, Mario Merialdi, Rosa Rivera, David Milestone

David Milestone: I’m with the Global Health Bureau of the US Agency for International Development, the part of the State department that works on economic development and humanitarian assistance primarily in places with low resources. Think Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia. We’ve made a lot of progress in global health. For example, we cut child mortality in half in the last few decades. We still have a long way to go to reach what we call sustainable development goals that the United Nations targets around maternal newborn mortality. One of the things we recognize is that we need to start working and thinking in different ways if we’re going to have any chance of reaching those targets. Part of that is casting a wider net to different nontraditional problem solvers.

Over the last several years we’ve run programs called “Grand Challenges,” which are open innovation competitions around maternal and newborn health, like Saving Lives at Birth, and around the Ebola and Zika grand challenges to help us be better prepared for the next outbreak. [Note: The Odón device received funding in Round 5 of the Saving Lives at Birth challenge in 2015]. What we’ve found is that great ideas can come from anywhere, from Buenos Aires to just up the street at Columbia University where a group of students developed a type of colorized bleach to be used in decontamination settings during the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. It’s now being used in the current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What’s exciting about that is that was a group of students at Columbia. They now have a business, they’re making money and it’s sustainable. That was only three or four years ago, in 2014.

Traditionally, in global health it can take 30 to 40 years for a product to go from an idea in the garage to scale. This can really accelerate the progress. There’s a saying that vision without execution is hallucination. It takes a village to execute. Jorge delivered the vision. It took us as a government agency to take the risk and invest in this device and it took the World Health Organization to be supportive of it and to get it to scale. We look for products that are potentially game changers, that can leapfrog existing technology and address the leading killers of newborns and mothers.

Sonia: Were there any other innovations that you awarded that also address these needs?

David: Yes, over the course of the eight years that we have run the Saving Lives at Birth Grand Challenge we have awarded some 120 different awards to innovators. Some awards were as low as $250,000. Some as high as two million dollars in order to be catalytic. Yes, we’ve seen a whole host of ideas. About 15% of these will transition through development and get to scale. That doesn’t sound like a lot but when you’re looking for new approaches to reach what we call the last mile in real rural settings, it’s proven to be a pretty successful model. We’re going to be seeing more of it.

Claudia Weill on directing BUMP

From left: Sonia Shechet Epstein, Chiara Atik, Claudia Weill

From left: Sonia Shechet Epstein, Chiara Atik, Claudia Weill

Sonia: Claudia, one of my favorite storylines in the play is during colonial times when you see and feel the terror of giving birth without the aid of technology or community. What was it like directing that scene?

Claudia Weill: We were very lucky. We found an amazing group of actors who really brought the play to life. The two actors in that scene (Lucy DeVito and Jenny O’Hara) were fantastic in making it come to life. When Chiara writes “1690” she writes it almost as a contemporary scene. It’s not like “Ye ole . . .” It’s very hip and edgy. That made it very easy to direct and easy to connect it with the other material.

Sonia: Claudia, can you tell us about the creation of the set and the development of the prototype for the device?  

Claudia: I wasn’t so much involved in developing the prototype. We had wonderful prop people who were.  In terms of the set, we worked with this wonderful woman Kristen Robinson. Early on, we realized we had to create the world of the Internet and to bring it onstage in some alternate space. She came up with this wonderful idea of this window. Everything that happens in the window is somehow connected with the Internet, whether it’s a YouTube video or a chat room or whatever. I thought that was a marvelous visual concept, a visual metaphor for what Chiara is doing in the play. One of the things Chiara is writing about is that we are more intimate with our devices and with what’s happening on the Internet than we are with the person next to us in bed. It’s as if that person in the device is in the room. It’s not a remote thing. The set brings that home.

Why outsiders may be key to medical innovation

From left: Sonia Shechet Epstein, Chiara Atik, Claudia Weill, Jorge Odón, Mario Merialdi

From left: Sonia Shechet Epstein, Chiara Atik, Claudia Weill, Jorge Odón, Mario Merialdi

Sonia: Jorge, another question. How do you think your experience as a car mechanic helped you to think about the problem that your device solved?

Jorge (through Mario): He has several patents related to automotive mechanics. When he was having issues with mechanics in his garage, he used to go to bed with the problem and woke up with the solution. This time when he had the idea his wife was not pregnant. He thanks God for giving him this idea. He wants to congratulate the actor who portrayed him on stage. He has only one complaint. In the program he is not described as an Argentine mechanic but simply as a grandfather inventing the device.

Sonia: I have a question for any of the panelists. Forceps were invented in the seventeenth century. I’m surprised there haven’t been more innovations in this area. Do any of you have ideas on why that is?

Mario: There have been many attempts to improve the forceps and the vacuum extractor. There are at least one thousand different kinds of forceps. Obstetricians have typically tried to improve on what’s already existing. Being a car mechanic, Jorge looked at the problem from a different perspective. Speaking as an obstetrician, I know we often refer to labor and delivery as a biological process, but mostly it’s a mechanical process. The baby has to go down the birth canal and navigate different diameters, taking different positions as it is being pushed by the mother. It has always struck me that Jorge has a better understanding of the dynamics of delivery than a physician. He always says he’s a car mechanic. He’s not a doctor, so he doesn’t have any kind of biological background. This always brings to mind for me the saying that sometimes imagination is more important than knowledge. What you need sometimes is someone who takes a totally different view who has a lot of creative imagination. It’s great that there are now platforms available for innovation. Innovation can come from totally different backgrounds. This is my view. This is why there has not been so much innovation. We had to wait for Jorge.

David: I’d add that it’s very expensive to develop new medical technologies. For a good reason. We want to make sure that they’re safe. So they often require these randomized controlled trials which are very expensive. If you’re a medical device company like Becton Dickinson, you want to make sure that the devices you’re developing and testing will allow you to make more of those and make a profit. Often In these low resource settings . . . in northern Nigeria, for example, women often will give birth by themselves by tradition. These are completely different markets with different user needs than are available in more developed places. There is not necessarily an incentive for innovation in these low resource stings. Fortunately, Becton Dickinson is very progressive in moving into these emerging markets – the fastest growing markets in the world – Africa and Southeast Asia – so we’ll likely see more of this innovation coming sooner than later.

How the testing process for a new medical device works

Question from audience: The play makes a point of the difficulty of moving from testing a device on dummies to clinical trials on people. How does that process work? How are the first human testers chosen?

Jorge (through Mario): There is a process you have to go through in order to get a device approved. There is an ethics committee that has to approve it. In this case, there actually was a first woman to test the device that had never been used before in the world. Jorge was involved in approaching the women. Jorge is really grateful to the first woman. We have to remember that the women in Argentina were going to have a normal delivery. They would not actually need the device. They needed to start with women who were going to deliver anyway. So the first women who agreed to participate were doing it for science. When you do research of this kind there is a very detailed form the women have to read and discuss with their family. Reading the two or three pages describing all the possible risks could have been very scary. Despite that, the women decided to participate. Another requirement of the ethics committee was that the first test had to be conducted with women who had advanced education, a university degree.  They wanted a population of women who could not be interpreted as being disadvantaged or who might consent without properly understanding what they were consenting to.

What inspired  BUMP

From left: Sonia Shechet Epstein and Chiara Atik

From left: Sonia Shechet Epstein and Chiara Atik

Question from the audience: Chiara, what was it about Jorge’s story that made you want to write a play about him?

Chiara: I read this article and I just loved the idea of a man, a mechanic, someone not in the medical field, someone just completely out of it in this very female experience and I thought this was a funny juxtaposition. The idea of someone with a plastic uterus in his garage just seemed lovely.

The 2018 EST/Sloan Mainstage Production, BUMP by Chiara Atik began previews at the Ensemble Studio Theatre on May 9 and completed its run on June 3, 2018.

Read more about BUMP

Interview with Chiara Atik about BUMP: Chiara Atik on new mom message boards, ALT lines, science stories, and BUMP

Background on the science behind BUMP: Childbirth’s “Grinding Pirouette,” a Colonial Midwife, the Odón Device: Some Background to BUMP

May 26 talkback panel on BUMP: Rebecca Tannenbaum, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, Chiara Atik and Robin Marantz Henig on Midwives, Doulas, Colonial Home Births, Birthing Positions, Medical Devices, and BUMP

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Rebecca Tannenbaum, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, Chiara Atik and Robin Marantz Henig on Midwives, Doulas, Colonial Home Births, Birthing Positions, Medical Devices, and BUMP

From left: Robin Marantz Henig, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, Rebecca Tannenbaum, Chiara Atik

From left: Robin Marantz Henig, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, Rebecca Tannenbaum, Chiara Atik

Following the May 26 matinee performance of BUMP, Chiara Atik's lively new comedy, EST/Sloan assembled a panel to discuss several of the compelling issues about childbirth the play addresses. Joining playwright Chiara Atik for this discussion were Rebecca Tannenbaum, Senior Lecturer in History from Yale University, and doula trainer Debra Pascali-Bonaro. Journalist Robin Marantz Henig moderated the talkback.

BUMP explores women’s evolving understanding of and control over the birthing process through three stories: a young first-time mother giving birth in colonial New England with the help of an experienced and peppery midwife; five women sharing quips, gripes and observations on an online message board; and a grandfather-to-be getting inspired to invent a device that could revolutionize how infants in difficulty get delivered (a storyline inspired by the experiences of Jorge Odón).

What follows are some of the highlights from the discussion. (Recap by Rich Kelley)

On the inspiration for the play

Robin Marantz Henig: What I love about this play is that you chose this emotional topic. It was very moving and very beautifully done.  What made you want to write about this?

Chiara Atik: Pregnancy and childbirth are things that a lot of my friends are going through right now. I'm at the age where people are starting to have kids or certainly starting to think about having kids, so it's a topic that comes up a lot. I was inspired by the article in The New York Times in 2013 about Jorge Odón, the real-life inspiration for Luis in the play. Odón invented this fabulous machine to assist mothers in deliveries. I thought that would make a great Sloan play — Sloan supports plays about science — then I incorporated the other stories.

Robin: What about the colonial story? Did you put that in there to give us a longer view of the history of childbirth?

Chiara Atik

Chiara Atik

Chiara: For me, it was an exercise in imagining what it would be like to be pregnant without Google, without a message board, without constant information at your fingertips, or even, in the case of our story, family support, which I think was rare even for the time ... In those days, most people likely had a lot of family, had big support systems; Mary doesn't. I wanted to show the opposite extreme. The Internet really influences the other two storylines and, thematically, just how much information you have: whether you have too much, whether you have too little, how it influences the experience.

Robin: So, Chiara, the message board: How did that come to you? Did you want all good feelings, or sort of a combination of old wives' tales and natural information?

Chiara: Yeah, definitely a combination. The message board, it's less about the specific kernels of information, which sometimes can be helpful and sometimes can be the least helpful thing in the world, and more about the feeling of community and feeling like you're not in this alone. You're a team: They're going through this experience at the exact same rate at the exact same time and I think that even pre-Internet groups like that were very helpful. I wanted a sort of a Greek chorus of the whole experience, or aspects of the experience. So, again, it's less about "Well, I got this information," and more about other people.

Robin: Sharing

Chiara: Sharing, yeah.

On the historical accuracy of the colonial storyline

Robin: Rebecca, is that how the birth would have gone in colonial times? The character had so little information: she thought she was going to have a pain and then have a baby. And she had no interaction with her midwife before she arrived that night... It was interesting that she was sitting in a chair when she was actually giving birth.

Rebecca Tannenbaum: Yeah, I thought that was actually quite accurate. We have this image of the woman today — many of us who have given birth did it this way ourselves — you lie on a table on your back, but that's not how women have given birth for a long time.  Certainly, in the colonial period, many midwives had birthing stools: special chairs with a hollowed-out seat and a lower seat for the midwife to sit on and catch the baby. Giving birth upright would've been the standard practice for that time and right up until the nineteenth century when physicians started performing a lot of births.

Rebecca Tannenbaum and Chiara Atik

Rebecca Tannenbaum and Chiara Atik

Another thing that struck me as very accurate was the walking because the walking was definitely something that midwives would encourage women to do: to keep moving; to not lie still because movement helps encourage the contractions as well. But one of the things about birthing in the colonial period, which came out in the play as well, was this idea that it was meant to be painful; that women were meant to suffer in birth. The biblical references that the midwife gave to Mary were very much the way birth was understood in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: that this is part of woman's lot for being a daughter of Eve and that the fear and pain was just something you had to accept as punishment for Original Sin.

Robin: Was it typical to bring a midwife in? Because the way she said, "We're paying you a lot for this; why are you going away?" almost seemed like it was a mark of being different from her neighbors.

Rebecca: Women certainly counted on having a midwife there: someone who was experienced; someone who could help them. So, it wouldn't have been unusual at all. What would've been unusual would've been having a male physician attend the birth. And as time passed, and as you got into the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, having a male physician actually became a status symbol. You start to see it first in urban areas among wealthy clientele. Part of it was just, like, "I have this doctor who was trained in Europe," and that's better news, but part of it also was that it was true that, beginning around the 1780s, 1790s, physicians could offer technology, like the forceps, that midwives could not. The fear the mother in the play showed was also pretty accurate for the colonial period, so having the reassurance that you had a practitioner who could offer this new technology that could pull a baby out without danger to the baby or the mother was something that people who could afford it really wanted.

Robin: Did this midwife pull out forceps?

Rebecca: Yes, I know noticed that she had forceps.

Chiara:  Yes.

Robin:   Why did she ... Was she really going to use it on the baby?

Chiara:  Yeah, they were there as a measure. And that was more of a dramatic choice than . . .

Robin:   But perhaps not historically accurate?

Rebecca: Yeah, not historically accurate. It would have been a formally-trained physician who used forceps.

Chiara:  Right.

Rebecca: It became kind of controversial, whether you would allow a man in the birthing room, seeing a woman in this intimate way, and one of the titles of one of the pamphlets that was actually advocating for midwife birth was "Hands of Flesh vs Hands of Iron."  "What do you want touching you: hands of flesh or hands of iron?"

Chiara:  Wow.

From left: Robin Marantz Henig, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, Rebecca Tannenbaum, Chiara Atik

From left: Robin Marantz Henig, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, Rebecca Tannenbaum, Chiara Atik

On the evolution of how babies are delivered

Adriana Sananes (who plays Maria in the play and who joined the audience for the talkback): Did I hear correctly that when physicians started doing the births, that's when women started lying down?

Rebecca: Yes, because it's easier for them to see what's happening ... easier for them to use their forceps ...

Adriana:  And that's more or less what time?

Rebecca: The late eighteenth, early nineteenth century, so between 1780 and 1820.

Debra Pascali-Bonaro:   Isn't that phenomenal to know? Whose comfort? The doctor’s? Not the person giving birth. How crazy is that? And that we have all the data to say it's actually harmful to lay down and push your baby out, and yet we're still doing it against the best science.

Adriana: That’s the reason for my question. I went through 27 hours of intense contractions in labor. And a lot of the time, I was laying down with all these things and the doctor kept telling me, "The baby's fine. The baby's fine." And it's like, "But I'm the one ..."  [laughter] So I was wondering when that whole aspect of the physician telling me ...

Rebecca: Well, the reason you had to be lying down is because you had all the monitors attached.

Adriana:  Exactly, exactly. I wasn't dilating, but still, it was incredible to just ... Your instinct is to walk. Breathe and walk and breathe and walk.

On home births, birth centers, and hospitals

Audience member: In the play the colonial mother has a home birth and Claudia wants to have a home birth. What is your feeling about having home births today?

Debra: I attend many home births in the New York/New Jersey area, and we have wonderful qualified licensed midwives for home birth. I think home birth is growing, and there is misinformation out there, but home birth for low-risk women is quite safe, and that's the midwife's role: to keep that safe and transfer, when needed, to a hospital. So as long as you're here in New York you're always thirty minutes from a hospital, but as long as you can transfer in time if you need extra care, home birth is very safe.

Robin:   And how about birthing centers? Is that a big midway thing?

Debra:  They are wonderful. The sad thing here in New York is we don't have many of them. Due to different regulations and licensing. But other states do have more birth centers, and birth centers are growing around the U.S. In the U.K. they have many birth centers. Good home birth rate, birth centers ... ultimately, that's what we need so people have the choice of where you feel safe, whether that's home, birth center, or hospital.

Audience member: What do you recommend women do in a hospital scenario?

Debra Pascali-Bonaro

Debra Pascali-Bonaro

Debra:  First, have a doula because a doula is really trained to navigate that, and doulas facilitate communication between the person giving birth and the team. We don't speak for anyone, but we amplify their voice. So we don't let anyone do anything that isn't really engaging them and ultimately, we need to bring home birth into the hospital. I teach at medical schools and midwifery schools, and I'm teaching bringing back the wisdom of our great grandmothers that knew how to do all these comfort measures. We've got to overhaul the system so that this is available. But in the short term where our system is still dysfunctional, bring a doula with you and get educated! A lot of people, like the message board, are passing some good information, but also some misinformation. And a lot of people that think they know a lot about birth that are pregnant actually don't always know what they think they know. I’m an advocate that, especially first-time mothers, get into a really good childbirth class ... not in most hospitals though, because hospital classes ... Sorry, I'm biased, but I think a lot of them are for patient compliance: They really teach you what they want you to do to be a good patient, and they don't really teach you your options. Then again, you're being led onto the assembly line of industrialized childbirth, and it's not about you. It's about getting you through the system.

On the difference between a doula and a midwife

Robin: Debra, you’re a doula, not a midwife. Can you explain what the difference is?

Debra:  Chiara, you mentioned "doula" in the play. I loved that. I lit up. So looking "herstorically," women had other women that were around them.  A doula really is reconnecting that circle of support of females. Sadly, we don't attend each other's births anymore. We would've known how to do that back then, but now we have to go to a workshop and relearn those skills. So a "doula" isn't really new; it's really rediscovering the role of women supporting women. Just like women's menstrual cycles come together when they live or work together, we're starting to learn that women have a physiology among each other. And the studies show that even the most wonderful, loving male, sorry to say, but he doesn't make labor any easier or less of an intervention.

When you bring another woman, who's trained in the natural comfort ways, labor actually is shorter and with less interventions. A doula is just offering that emotional, physical support. If there's religious or spiritual practices, they're integrating them, but doulas don't do any medical skills. And the midwife is really the keeper of that, making sure mother and baby are healthy and well. A doula is really like a sister, your best friend, being at the birth with you.

On the potential usefulness of the Odón Device  

Robin: Debra, can you talk a little bit about this device that sort of yanks the baby out?

Robin Marantz Henig and Debra Pascali-Bonaro

Robin Marantz Henig and Debra Pascali-Bonaro

Debra: I have this double-edged kind of look at it: On one side, I think that we've gone so far that we just keep making mothers lie down today to give birth. We have a fascination with getting the baby out in positions that don't work, so we are doing too much assisted birth. I'd hate to see us, now, create another technology that just again indulges our fascination with how we can get a baby out without physiology. But I am kind of interested in it because it sounds like it's gentler than the alternative, if we use it appropriately.

Audience member: Debra, I hear your reservations about the Odón device. But you've had so much experience in attending so many childbirths around the world ... Do you think something that's as low-tech as the Odón device could make a difference in low-resource environments?

Debra:  Oh, I do. And that's why I said it's double-edged: I think when you truly have a baby that's having trouble getting out you need to change positions a lot ...  A baby being born is — it may be a bad analogy but it may help explain — it’s like a lock and key. If you put the key in upside-down, it doesn't matter how long you push: you won't open the door. You'll eventually cut the door down. So all around the world, we always say "four to five pushes in a position" and if we're not making movement, we change again. In some places in the world, we're moving and moving and moving, because you move the mother, and it moves the baby. And we get all the babies out! So when we put people in a hospital and put them on their back, and then we're going to randomize a trial, you are going to have babies that are going to get stuck because we're not using gravity and we're not moving the mother, then I think we are just using more technology without really needing to. But if really just use it in the rare cases, then I think it's valuable.

Audience member: And you could envision a doula or a midwife doing this?

Debra:  Not a doula. Let’s remain historic. Doulas don't do any medical care.

Audience member: Not even that. Okay.

Debra: That’s the question. Around the world where if you're in really low-resource areas where we don't have access to doctors, will they then train the midwives in that? Although the midwives who use lots of positions will have a very, very, very low rate of babies that get stuck.

The panel taking questions from the audience (including members of the cast).

The panel taking questions from the audience (including members of the cast).

The 2018 EST/Sloan Mainstage Production, BUMP by Chiara Atik began previews at the Ensemble Studio Theatre on May 9 and completed its run on June 3, 2018.

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Inventor Jorge Odón, Global Health Experts Mario Merialdi and David Milestone, and Director Claudia Weill join Playwright Chiara Atik and Editor Sonia Epstein to discuss Birthing Technology and BUMP

Clockwise from top left: Jorge Odón. Mario Merialdi, David Milestone, Sonia Shechet Epstein, Chiara Atik, Claudia Weill

Clockwise from top left: Jorge Odón. Mario Merialdi, David Milestone, Sonia Shechet Epstein, Chiara Atik, Claudia Weill

On June 2, following the 2:00 pm matinee performance of BUMP, the lively new comedy by Chiara Atik, audience members are encouraged to stay for an extensive discussion of many of the issues the play addresses, especially current birthing technology, devices for instrumental vaginal delivery  (IVD), the Odón device, and how medical devices get approved for clinical use. Joining playwright Chiara Atik  and director Claudia Weill will be Jorge Odón, the inventor of the Odón device, Mario Merialdi, Senior Director of Global Health at Becton Dickinson, and David Milestone, Acting Director for the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact, USAID, for a conversation moderated by Sonia Shechet Epstein, Executive Editor of Sloan Science & Film at the Museum of the Moving Image.

BUMP is the exuberant exploration of the evolution of women's understanding about and control over the childbirth process through the  stories of three separate quests for knowledge: a young expectant mother in colonial New England getting coached through her first pregnancy by a peppery midwife (inspired by the diary of Martha Ballard); a contemporary message board where new pregnant moms swap gripes, quips, and observations; and a grandfather/mechanic's invention of a device that could revolutionize how babies in distress could be safely delivered (the last inspired by the story of Argentine mechanic and inventor Jorge Odón). 

The World Premiere of BUMP is this year’s mainstage production of the EST/Sloan Project, EST's partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to develop new plays "exploring the worlds of science and technology," an initiative now in its twentieth year.

About the Panelists

Jorge Odón

Jorge Odón

Jorge Odón is the inventor of the Odón device. For more than thirty years, he operated the El Rayel S.A. automobile alignment and wheel balancing service center in Lanús, Argentina. During that time he patented several products relating to car parts. In 2005, he had an idea for facilitating childbirths after seeing a YouTube video about how to pull a cork from an empty wine bottle. After developing several device prototypes, Odón’s big breakthrough came in 2008 when he presented his device to Dr. Mario Merialdi, then director of Reproductive Health at the World Health Organization. That meeting led to both traveling that December to the birth simulation center at Des Moines University in Iowa for a successful series of tests. The WHO then agreed to conduct a series of hospital-based tests of the device in three phases in Argentina and South Africa. In 2013, Becton Dickinson and Company (BD) licensed the development rights of the Odón device and developed a new prototype based on their pre-clinical studies. In March 2018, BD and WHO announced the results of the latest round of tests. The report concludes: “Delivery using the Odón device is therefore considered to be feasible.” BD will next pursue a randomized pivotal clinical trial before potential introduction in clinical practice.

Odón has won recognition for his invention that includes finalist in the First WHO Forum on Medical Devices in Thailand (October 2009); winner of one of the 19 awards in the international contest Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development, in Washington (July 2011); recognition at world congresses and athenaeums in gynecology and obstetrics; first prize from INNOVAR 2011, and the gold medal from IMPI as best inventor of 2012.

Dr. Mario Merialdi

Dr. Mario Merialdi

Mario Merialdi, MPH, MD, is Senior Director of Global Health at Becton Dickinson (BD), with a special interest in Maternal and Newborn Health. Prior to joining BD, Dr. Merialdi served as the coordinator of Human Reproduction and as a Medical Officer in the Maternal and Perinatal Health Research Unit at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. He worked in the design, implementation and coordination of large multinational epidemiological studies involving research institutions in developed and developing countries. Dr. Merialdi’s research interests have been focused on issues related to the reduction of maternal and newborn mortality worldwide. He is a strong supporter of the need to foster international research collaborations between researchers from developing and developed countries.

David Milestone

David Milestone

David Milestone is Acting Director of USAID Bureau for Global Health's Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact (CII). CII applies business-minded approaches to the development, introduction and scale-up of health innovations. Since 2011, USAID, CII, and its partners have cultivated a pipeline of over 150 innovations and supported them on their path to deliver health impact—from improved maternal and newborn health to enhanced outbreak response for diseases like Ebola and Zika to strengthened health supply chains. David has also held various strategic marketing roles at Stryker, an $11B medical device company, where he led innovation and strategy initiatives in India.

Claudia Weill

Claudia Weill

Claudia Weill is a film, television, and theatre director. After graduating Harvard in 1969, she made 30 short films for Sesame Street (still on the air) and directed documentaries, notably This is the Home of Mrs. Levant Graham (Kennedy Journalism Award) and The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir, with Shirley MacLaine, released theatrically in 1975 (Academy Award Nomination). She produced and directed her first feature, Girlfriends, in 1979, which she sold to Warner Brothers after winning multiple awards at Cannes, Filmex, and Sundance. Next she directed It’s My Turn for Columbia Pictures, winning the Donatello (European Oscar) for Best New Director.

She directed mostly new plays at Williamstown, The O’Neill, Sundance, ACT, Empty Space and in New York at MTC, the Public and Circle Rep among others. In 1984, she was nominated for the Drama Desk Best Director Award for the premiere of Donald Margulies’ Found a Peanut, produced by Joe Papp at the Public Theatre. Moving to Los Angeles in 1985, she began working in television, directing episodic, cable movies and pilots. She is most well-known for multiple episodes of Thirtysomething (Humanitas and Emmy Awards), My So-Called Life, Chicago Hope (Reynolds Award), Once and Again, and TV movies, including Johnny Bull and Face of a Stranger (Gena Rowlands, Emmy Best Actress). Returning to theatre in the last few years, she directed the West Coast Premiere of Pulitzer Prize winner, Doubt, at the Pasadena Playhouse; Tape, Memory House, and End Days at the Vineyard Playhouse, Archy and Mehitabel at the Yard; Huck and Holden at the Black Dahlia; La Bella Famiglia at ACT; Twelfth Night, Act a Lady and Sweet Mercy at Antaeus; Melancholy Play and The Shore at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Chiara Atik

Chiara Atik

Chiara Atik is a graduate of the Obie Award-winning EST/Youngblood program, and a portion of BUMP had its origins as a short play written for Youngblood's monthly Sunday Brunch series, specifically its annual crossover with the EST/Sloan Project, the Youngblood Science Brunch. Her plays include I Gained Five PoundsWomen (a mashup of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and HBO’s Girls) and Five Times in One Night, which was first produced at EST. She is the author of numerous articles for Cosmopolitan Magazine, Glamour Magazine, Refinery29, and New York, as well as the book, Modern Dating: A Field Guide. Her screenplay, Fairy Godmother, was on the 2016 Blacklist. Helen Estabrook (Whiplash) and Cassidy Lange will produce for MGM, which won the rights in a bidding war. Television: NBC’s Superstore.

About the Moderator

Sonia Shechet Epstein

Sonia Shechet Epstein

Sonia Shechet Epstein works at the intersection of science and culture. As Executive Editor of the Museum of the Moving Image’s website Sloan Science & Film, she produces all of its content. At the Museum, she also curates the ongoing series “Science on Screen” which pairs rarely screened films with discussions between scientists and filmmakers. Since 2014, she has been a mentor at NEW INC—the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s incubator for practitioners in art and technology.

BUMP began previews at the Ensemble Studio Theatre on May 9 and runs through June 3. You can purchase tickets here.

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Historian Rebecca Tannenbaum, Doula Trainer Debra Pascali-Bonaro, and Playwright Chiara Atik join Journalist Robin Marantz Henig on May 26 to discuss Midwives, Birthing Technology, and BUMP

From left, Rebecca Tannenbaum, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, Chiara Atik, Robin Marantz Henig

From left, Rebecca Tannenbaum, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, Chiara Atik, Robin Marantz Henig

On May 26, following the 2:00 pm matinee performance of BUMP, the spirited new comedy by Chiara Atik, audiences are invited to stay for a far-ranging discussion about how the experience and technology of childbirth — from how a child is delivered to how much the mother understands and controls — has changed over the past two hundred and fifty years. Joining playwright Atik will be Rebecca Tannenbaum, Senior Lecturer in History at Yale University, and Debra Pascali-Bonaro, childbirth educator, doula trainer, and Chair of the International MotherBaby Childbirth Organization, for a conversation and Q&A moderated by journalist Robin Marantz Henig.

BUMP is the exuberant exploration of the evolution of women's understanding about and control over the childbirth process through the  stories of three separate quests for knowledge: a young expectant mother in colonial New England getting coached through her first pregnancy by a peppery midwife (inspired by the diary of Martha Ballard); a contemporary message board where new pregnant moms swap observations and complaints; and a grandfather/mechanic's invention of a device that could revolutionize how babies in distress could be safely delivered (the last inspired by the story of Argentinian mechanic and inventor Jorge Odon). 

The World Premiere of BUMP is this year’s mainstage production of the EST/Sloan Project, EST's partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to develop new plays "exploring the worlds of science and technology," an initiative now in its twentieth year.

About the Panelists

Rebecca Tannenbaum

Rebecca Tannenbaum

Rebecca Tannenbaum is Senior Lecturer in History at Yale University and Yale NUS Fellow in International Affairs. Her research is focused on Colonial America, especially women’s history and the history of medicine, history of women’s health, as well as history of the family. She is currently working on a cultural history of biological motherhood in America, from the Colonial period through the mid-nineteenth century. Nancy Tomes hailed her book, The Healer’s Calling: Women and Medicine in Colonial New England (Cornell University Press, 2002), as “a masterful account of women's healing practices in colonial New England. . . . a major contribution to the history of medicine and to the history of early American culture.”

Debra Pascali-Bonaro

Debra Pascali-Bonaro

Debra Pascali-Bonaro has trained thousands of doulas and birth professionals around the world in the practices of gentle birth support. Debra is Chair of the International MotherBaby Childbirth Organization, member of the White Ribbon Alliance, Lamaze International childbirth educator, birth and postpartum doula trainer with DONA International, and co-author of the book Orgasmic Birth, Your Guide to a Safe, Satisfying and Pleasurable Birth Experience. Creator and director of Orgasmic Birth, an award-winning documentary that examines the intimate nature of birth, Debra has been featured on ABC’s 20/20, Good Morning Russia, The NBC Today Show, Discovery Health, in The New York Times, The LA Times, The UK Times as well as numerous Parenting and Health Magazines around the world.

Chiara Atik

Chiara Atik

Chiara Atik is a graduate of the Obie Award-winning EST/Youngblood program, and a portion of BUMP had its origins as a short play written for Youngblood's monthly Sunday Brunch series, specifically its annual crossover with the EST/Sloan Project, the Youngblood Science Brunch. Her plays include I Gained Five PoundsWomen (a mashup of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and HBO’s Girls) and Five Times in One Night, which was first produced at EST. She is the author of numerous articles for Cosmopolitan Magazine, Glamour Magazine, Refinery29, and New York, as well as the book, Modern Dating: A Field Guide. Her screenplay, Fairy Godmother, was on the 2016 Blacklist. Helen Estabrook (Whiplash) and Cassidy Lange will produce for MGM, which won the rights in a bidding war. Television: NBC’s Superstore.

About the Moderator

Robin Marantz Henig

Robin Marantz Henig

Journalist and science writer Robin Marantz Henig is the author of nine science books. A contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, Robin has also written for Scientific American, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and numerous women’s magazines. Her book on the first test-tube baby, Pandora’s Baby (2004), won the Outstanding Book Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Most recently, Robin collaborated with her daughter Samantha Henig to write Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? (2014).

BUMP began previews at the Ensemble Studio Theatre on May 9 and runs through June 3. You can purchase tickets here.

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Childbirth’s “Grinding Pirouette,” a Colonial Midwife, the Odon Device: Some Background to BUMP

In the spirit of the EST/Sloan Project’s commitment to “challenge and broaden the public’s understanding of science and technology and their impact in our lives,” we offer this essay on some of the scientific and historical background to BUMP by Chiara Atik, the current EST/Sloan mainstage production. BUMP begins previews on May 9 and runs through June 3. You can purchase tickets here.

Background essay by Rich Kelley

Apes and chimpanzees give birth in one to two hours. Human moms average ten to twenty. Why does our labor take so long?  

Blame our large brains. And our preference for walking upright. We are the only mammal to walk on two legs. That comes at some cost. In 1960, physical anthropologist Sherwood Washburn identified “the obstetrical dilemma.” Evolution, it seems, sometimes involves tradeoffs.  Some seven million years ago, walking upright offered our ancestors an advantage. Our arms could reach higher branches, our hands became free to carry food and to make tools. Walking on two legs uses less energy to cross long stretches of grassland. And we could run.

Diagram relates the size of the maternal pelvic inlet (outline) and the size of the neonatal head (dark circles) in selected primate species

Diagram relates the size of the maternal pelvic inlet (outline) and the size of the neonatal head (dark circles) in selected primate species

But to walk upright our pelvis needed to change its size, shape and positioning. And this changed how human females gave birth. Non-human primates have pelvises and birth canals that resemble a ring or a hoop.  The primate infant’s head is usually smaller than the birth canal, which is positioned forward on the body. This makes birthing simpler. Delivery can take one to two hours and the baby emerges face up, guided out by the hands of the mothers to immediately begin nursing. Primate mothers can manage this by themselves and usually give birth away from others, in seclusion.

Midwife's view of the birth canal in a chimpanzee ( P. troglodytes ),  A. afarensis  (A.L. 288–1, ‘Lucy’) and a modern human female. Note the necessary rotation of the head in the human female.

Midwife's view of the birth canal in a chimpanzee (P. troglodytes), A. afarensis (A.L. 288–1, ‘Lucy’) and a modern human female. Note the necessary rotation of the head in the human female.

Our human pelvis has to solve a tricky problem. For us to walk it needs to be narrow; but our brains are large and the female pelvis needs to be able to deliver the newborn’s head. As Tina Cassidy describes it in Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born:

“Today, the upper opening of the pelvis is wide from side to side . . . the lower pelvis, however, the baby’s exit, is widest from front to back. And therein lies the problem . . . human birth is, quite literally, a twisted process. In order to pass through the birth canal, the baby’s head—the largest part of its body—must rotate as it descends in a grinding pirouette. . . . Assuming the baby is not breech—being born feet or buttocks first—its head must enter the pelvis facing up toward the pubic bone, with the widest part of the head—ear to ear—lining up with the widest part of the pelvis—hip to hip. But that has to change quickly. The baby must begin to turn sideways, as much as forty-five to ninety degrees, in order to align its body with the widest pelvis outlet, its head emerging face down rather than face up.”

Sequential changes in the position of the child during labor.

Sequential changes in the position of the child during labor.

But why is labor so painful?  The chimpanzee brain is about one-third the size of the human brain. Because of the human infant’s large head, the cervix of the human female must dilate three times as much as other primates. Chimpanzee mothers dilate 3.3 centimeters before delivery. Human mothers must dilate 10 centimeters, which takes more time, and is significantly more painful. According to the Mayo Clinic, mothers describe the last three centimeters as being the most painful part of giving birth.

Because of the difficulties of human delivery—and the care the child needs during its second nine months—anthropologists Karen Rosenberg and Wenda Trevathan have argued that “assisted childbirth” is probably as old as bipedalism:

“Because the human fetus emerges from the birth canal facing in the opposite direction from its mother, it is difficult for the mother, whatever her position, to reach down, as non-human primate mothers often do, to clear a breathing passage for the infant or to remove the umbilical cord from around its neck. If a human mother tries to assist in delivery by guiding the infant from the birth canal, she risks pulling it against the body’s angle of flexion, possibly damaging the infant’s spinal cord, brachial nerves, and muscles.”   

In a survey of 296 cultural groups, Rosenerg and Trevathan found that “assisted birth comes close to being universal.”

woodcut childbirth.jpg

For most of human history, those assisting at births were exclusively women. Until about a hundred years ago, delivery occurred in the home, in the bedroom or around the hearth. In Europe and early America, these attendants were called “God’s siblings,” later shortened to “gossip,” their chatter the basis for the word’s current meaning. After a successful birth, the gossips would organize “a groaning party,” a feast for midwife, mother and the assembled women, its name recalling the sounds of labor. Men penetrated the birthing sanctum at their peril. In 1522, a German physician, Dr. Wert, eager to learn more directly about the birthing process, disguised himself as a woman to try to enter a delivery room. He was discovered and reportedly burnt at the stake.

A Midwife’s Tale: Martha Ballard

Martha Ballard, a midwife in colonial Maine, kept a detailed daily account of her activities from 1785 until a few months before her death in 1812. Over those twenty-seven years she delivered 814 babies. Her mortality rate (excluding stillbirths) was 2.5 per 100—very impressive for that time. Being a midwife then involved canoeing down rivers and trudging through snow, sometimes delivering two or more babies within twenty-four hours in houses miles apart. 

A page from Martha Ballard's diary, February 3 - 12, 1800.

A page from Martha Ballard's diary, February 3 - 12, 1800.

Laura Ulrich Thacher notes, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Ballard, “In Martha’s diary, it is doctors, not midwives, who seem marginal.”  One poignant entry records Ballard’s reaction when a new young doctor does not defer to her years of experience but rather “chooses” to participate himself in the birthing. From ancient times, male physicians were usually called in only for emergencies, when the life of the child or the mother was at risk, hence the adage, “When a man comes, one or both must necessarily die.” In those instances, the life of the mother was paramount. From the Hippocratic Writings we learn that the earliest medical tools related to childbirth were not tools to ease delivery but rather tools for the extraction of the dead fetus. Caesarian sections in ancient times were mostly performed so that the child and mother could be buried separately. The first record of a mother surviving a C-section was not until the 1580s in Switzerland (her husband, a professional pig gelder, performed the operation).

Forceps: A Family Secret

Peter Chamberlen the Third

Peter Chamberlen the Third

When obstetrical forceps first appeared in seventeenth-century Europe, only members of the all-male barber-surgeon guild could legally use them. The invention is credited to Peter Chamberlen the elder, a French inventor and surgeon. He and his surgeon brother gained fame for delivering babies in difficult cases because of their use of a secret instrument. For 150 years, through several generations of man-midwives, the Chamberlen family kept secret exactly how that instrument worked. Due to etiquette, man-midwives had to operate within severe constraints. A large sheet covered the expectant mother, one end wrapped around her, the other tied around the man’s neck. Without looking beneath the sheet, the man-midwife was expected to deliver the baby by feel.

The Chamberlen forceps

The Chamberlen forceps

The Chamberlens had a knack for theater. Two men would lug a large elegantly carved lined box into the delivery room.  They then cleared the room and blindfolded the mother before slipping their device under the sheet. During its use, they would clang bells, hammers, and chains to cause further misdirection. It wasn’t until 1813 when some of Peter Chamberlen’s tools were discovered in an attic of a house that the ingenuity of his invention became clear. His forceps used hinged blades that allowed each to be positioned independently around the head of the infant, something not possible with tweezers.

In the 1950s, Swedish professor Tage Malmstrom developed the ventouse, or Malmstrom extractor. In its current version this device involves placing a suction cup onto the head of the baby. The doctor uses a handheld pump to gently apply suction and the suction draws the skin from the scalp into the cup. Handles on the device enable the doctor to pull the baby out.   Over the last few decades, caesarean section and vacuum extractors have replaced forceps as the preferred means of delivery. Since 1985, the World Health Organization has maintained that the ideal rate of caesarean sections is between 10% and 15% of live births. Beyond 10% there is no added improvement in the maternal or newborn mortality rate. Yet from 1996 to 2014, the rate of caesarean sections of all births in the U.S. has risen 55%, from 21% in 1996 to 32.5% in 2014. A recent study by the British Medical Journal found that “C-section rates were lower among poorer women and increased with rising economic status.” High caesarean rates can result in negative outcomes: infection, hemorrhages, and surgical complications.

The Odon Device: Inspired by YouTube

In 2005, Jorge Odon, an Argentinian garage mechanic, bet a friend he could extract a cork from an empty wine bottle without breaking it. He won the bet thanks to a YouTube video he had seen that showed how to do this by inflating a plastic bag inside the bottle until it gripped the cork and then pulling both out. Odon then had the inspiration that this same technique could be used to deliver babies in distress. Having already patented several auto-related inventions, he set to work to realize his idea using a glass jar for the womb, one of his daughter’s dolls for the baby, and a fabric bag and sleeve sewn by his wife as the extraction device. Successful demonstrations to local obstetricians (always starting with the cork and bottle trick) led to consultations with doctors at CEMIC, the Center for Medical Education and Clinical Research in Buenos Aires. At first they thought he was pranking them, but eventually they responded positively and even recommended changes: doing away with the bag that surrounded the baby’s body and just having one bag to surround the baby’s head.

Jorge Odon demonstrating his device

Jorge Odon demonstrating his device

Odon’s big breakthrough came in 2008 when he was granted ten minutes at a conference in Argentina to present his device to Dr. Mario Merialdi, director of Reproductive Health at the World Health Organization. Merialdi deemed the device “fantastic.” Their ten minute meeting stretched to two hours and led to both traveling that December to the birth simulation center at Des Moines University in Iowa for a successful series of tests. The WHO then agreed to conduct a series of hospital-based tests of the device in three phases in Argentina and South Africa. In 2013, Becton Dickinson and Company (BD) licensed the development rights of the Odon device and developed a new prototype based on their pre-clinical studies. The Odon Device now consists of two main components: a plastic sleeve and an inserter. The sleeve contains an air chamber that is inflated around the fetal head by a manually operated bulb pump. Once the sleeve has surrounded the baby’s head, air is hand pumped into the inner surface of the sleeve until the sleeve has a secure grasp of head. The inserter is then removed and the baby is pulled out. The simplicity and low cost of the device make it potentially revolutionary in reducing mortality in instances of prolonged labor in low-resource settings. Caesarean sections, by contrast, require expensive surgical theaters.

The sequences of an Odon Device extraction

The sequences of an Odon Device extraction

In 2017, the WHO and BD conducted the third phase of testing. They prioritized three criteria: safe for mothers and babies, easy for different cadres of skilled birth attendants to use, cost-effective, and affordable in low resource settings. In March 2018, they announced the results of the latest round of tests. The Odon device was inserted successfully in 46 of 49 women (93%), and successful delivery with expulsion of the fetal head after one-time application of the Odon device was achieved in 35 women (71%). The report concludes: “Delivery using the Odon device is therefore considered to be feasible.” BD will next pursue a randomized pivotal clinical trial before potential introduction in clinical practice.

Gadding online

In her diary Martha Ballard identifies herself as a “gadder,” that is, someone who frequently visits neighbors to chat and exchange news, recipes, plant medicines, and stories. Today, what gadding goes on among mothers is more likely to happen online via message boards, forums, parenting networks, blogs, and Facebook, Yahoo, Google and Meetup groups. Many of these groups are centered around a physical community so that they can help a new mom find local resources, whether a Nanny, a doula, an OB/GYN or a great deal on strollers. The Bump, one of the largest and oldest (now ten years) online communities for new and expecting mothers, reports that 80% of working mothers use message boards or forums, with 75% naming them as one of the top two most valued resources for information, second only to talking to mothers face to face.    

You can read more about BUMP and the brilliant playwright who wrote it in our interview with Chiara Atik

The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funded BUMP in part because of the compelling nature of one of the stories that inspired it: Jorge Odon's invention of the Odon Device. Its support for the play should not be construed as endorsing the device or any of the products or services mentioned in the play or in this essay.

Chiara Atik on new mom message boards, ALT lines, science stories, and BUMP

Chiara Atik

Chiara Atik

This year’s EST/Sloan Mainstage Production is the world premiere of BUMP, written by Chiara Atik and directed by Claudia Weill. Previews start May 9 and the show runs through June 4 at EST. BUMP is the exuberant exploration of the evolution of women's understanding about and control over the childbirth process through the  stories of three separate quests for knowledge: a young expectant mother in colonial New England getting coached through her first pregnancy by a peppery midwife (inspired by the diary of Martha Ballard); a contemporary message board where new pregnant moms swap gripes, quips, and observations; and a grandfather/mechanic's invention of a device that could revolutionize how babies in distress could be safely delivered (the last inspired by the story of Argentinian mechanic and inventor Jorge Odon).  We interviewed Chiara a year ago when, as Midwife/Mechanic, her play received a workshop production as part of the 2017 First Light Festival. This year we have even more questions.  

 (Interview by Rich Kelley)

 BUMP consists of three distinct and compelling story lines, all about the childbirth process. How did you decide that these were the three story lines you liked the most and wanted to pursue? Were there other story lines you tried and abandoned?

It’s been these three stories since the beginning! The Sloan Commission came from the story of a car mechanic who happened to invent a birthing device – though my account of it is largely fictionalized. The next part was inspired by some old obstetrics tools I saw in a museum. I started thinking about midwives, and what birth was like before modern medicine. And then the third came from my friend Rachel, who had recently had a baby and regaled me with all the stories from her “Birth month message board.” So these became the three stories!

how to remove a cork from inside a bottle

The YouTube video (or one like it) that inspired the Odon Device

It was just about a year ago that BUMP received a workshop production as part of the 2017 EST/Sloan First Light Festival. How has the play changed since those workshops?

A lot. It’s still changing! I’d say the midwife storyline is largely untouched but the story of the mechanic and his family has hopefully developed considerably since last year.

How many different pregnancy message boards did you sample as part of your research for BUMP? Did you find much difference in the community or the comments from board to board?  Which was the most informative? The most fun?

Hundreds. I love them. I’m obsessed with them. They’re such a peek into other people’s lives. Pregnancy message boards are especially tight-knit: here are other women who are going through exactly what you’re going through, at the exact same time, and unlike your friends, coworkers, family, they will never get tired of discussing symptoms, or test results, or maternity clothes, or ultrasound pictures.

I’ve read so many boards over the two years I’ve worked on this play, and what’s kind of fun/crazy is that every month...there’s a new one! Every month a new group of women gets pregnant, a new board is created, and people start to post.

A page from Martha Ballard's diary, February 3 - 12, 1800.

A page from Martha Ballard's diary, February 3 - 12, 1800.

The wildest thing I came across in my research (though honestly, it’s beyond research now. The play is written. I’m just addicted!) is a month board that somehow – I think through just the detective work of some of the suspicious members – discovered that someone who had been regularly posting to the board was not actually pregnant. This was months into the pregnancies, when people had been posting to the board every day for so long, and had really gotten to know each other. So people were shocked and scandalized, and even women on the other boards were gossiping about what happened on the NOVEMBER board (or whatever it was).

You have now spent more than a year immersed in the world of pregnant mothers, both contemporary and colonial. What new things have you learned? How has this changed your perspective on childbirth?

Oh, honestly, I wish the Odon device were already available! It’s not quite yet, they’re still doing clinical trials, though very confident it will be on the market soon. I would so happily offer to test it. It’s impressed me so much, I absolutely believe in it, and if something so uninvasive can effectively get a baby out in so few pushes, I’d almost hate to give birth without it.

I know that the producers at EST emphatically insist that EST/Sloan plays have to work as a play and yet have substantive science content. What have you found is trickiest about writing a play about science?

Well, there’s a lot of information you have to impart to the audience when you’re doing a science play. In real life, when you get information, you’re probably reading something, or watching something, or noticing something – none of these things are active or dramatic! They’re all quiet and internal.

So figuring out how to impart information in a way that feels natural and true to the characters and in the dramatic arc of the play, AND making those moments entertaining, is very difficult!

Jorge Odon demonstrating the Odon Device.

Jorge Odon demonstrating the Odon Device.

I find it very very hard to dramatize a moment of scientific or creative discovery – the actual Eureka! Moment – so I just skipped it in this play, focusing instead on the inspiration, and then the aftermath.

You mentioned once that you get impatient with theater that doesn’t take into account the audience experience. How does BUMP deal with the audience experience? What do you want the audience to take away from BUMP?

It’s funny, it’s very easy to have lots of opinions on this when you’re in the writing process (or in the audience of another play) but it feels so vulnerable to talk about when you’re in production, because you’re so aware of the possibility of falling short!!! But what we hope is that the play is entertaining, and funny, and warm, and that the audience enjoys spending the time with these characters as much as we do. And we’ve been pretty strict about pacing, and when the play needs to race to the finish line.

I love being at home. I think most people love being at home! Most people enjoy not having to trek to midtown. So I guess, when it comes to the audience, I hope that the experience of watching the play is ultimately worth not being at home.

You’ve been part of the writing team for the hit TV show Superstore (IMDB says you’ve written eight episodes so far!). Congrats on that. How is writing for a sitcom different from writing for the theater? I know that soap opera writers have to write to beats. Do you need to get a laugh every three minutes? Do you find that writing for Superstore has informed or changed your playwriting?

The cast of Superstore

The cast of Superstore

First of all, to say that I wrote eight episodes of Superstore is a very very flattering misapprehension courtesy of IMDB. I was in the writer’s room of Superstore, but it was a BIG writers room, where everyone sort of pitched ideas and jokes. The writers on that show are genius comedians. Everything that comes out of their mouths is funny! I was in awe. SO fast and SO funny.

This is sooooo hugely different from playwriting, or screenwriting, for that matter, where you sort of get to sloooowly construct things.  I am NOT funny out loud. I am ONLY funny like, by myself on my computer.

But one thing I learned from Superstore – that I actually used on Bump! – is about ALTs. Having ALT jokes or ALT lines in a script. You can have the actor read them both and see which you like. In television, I believe they would film all the alts, and you then choose the best one when you’re editing later. For BUMP, I just have the actor try a few and choose right there, but adding ALTs to a theater script is, I think, unusual, and straight out of my time at Superstore.

Do you remember when you first got turned on to science?

Well, tellingly, my interest in science is strongly tied to narrative! I took an incredible Microbiology class in high school which stood out from all the other science classes I’d ever taken because there was such a focus on the stories and scientists themselves – how Louis Pasteur discovered vaccinations by inoculating chickens with weak strains of bacteria; how John Snow traced the cholera epidemic in London back to a single water pump; how Ignaz Semmelweiss realized women were dying after childbirth because doctors weren’t washing their hands. I guess I like unusual discoveries and the logic behind them. It’s no wonder I was so inspired by the real-life story of Jorge Odon and his cork-trick discovery!

 When did you first discover you were funny?

I think there were a good few years of trying very hard to be funny without ever managing to do it. Then, when I was a freshman in high school, I wrote a funny short story (??why) that my friends really liked and passed around, AND I’VE BEEN CHASING THAT HIGH EVER SINCE.

In an interview in 2014 you raved about how great Twitter was for new playwrights. In an interview in early 2017 you scaled down your enthusiasm but admitted that you met your husband through Twitter. Then in November, 2017, just after the presidential election, you left Twitter completely. What happened? Do you blame Twitter for Trump’s election?

Chiara's retired Twitter page

Chiara's retired Twitter page

I loved Twitter when it felt like a fun and a low-key way to engage with people about art, writing, and current events. There was a time when it was really effective. Writers that I had long admired were suddenly just a tweet away, and I could interact with them! I could post a tweet, an article, a link, a recommendation to a play, and people would really engage back, read the link, go see the play, talk to me about it.

But now it’s just din. Everyone shouting over one another. I don’t feel like it’s an effective way to promote content or ideas anymore, and I don’t know why, only that I also am so much less likely to take a Twitter recommendation seriously.

That’s enough for me to become disenchanted with it, but the reason I quit altogether is that I vehemently disapprove of Twitter as a conduit for political discourse. 140 characters – or whatever it is now – is not sufficient for the kind of conversations I feel are necessary now. Retweeting something does not make you politically engaged – that’s something I learned the hard way in 2016. An unguarded, unthoughtful, unedited screed quickly typed and published on Twitter is absolutely not something I can stand for in a president. I literally find it insulting as a citizen. And I felt that to despise when Trump does it yet continue to use the medium myself would be hypocritical.

Twitter was fun for a long time. I am so indebted to it. But I can’t support it anymore. And I’m ready for longer, more thoughtful conversations.

What else are you working on now?

A screenplay and a play! I’m reading The Odyssey with my dad right now, and I’m hoping to write a play – a comedy! – that picks up where that leaves off – Penelope and Odysseus back to domesticity after a twenty-year break from it.

BUMP is being produced as this year’s Mainstage Production of The EST/Sloan Project, a twenty-year-old initiative between The Ensemble Studio Theater and The Sloan Foundation. BUMP starts previews on May 9 and continues performances through June 4 at The Ensemble Studio Theatre. You can purchase tickets here

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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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

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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....