Lynn Rosen on Tics, Cheerleaders, Twerking, and THE FIREBIRDS TAKE THE FIELD

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On November 18 and 19 *The EST/Sloan First Light Festival will be presenting a RoughCut Production of Lynn Rosen’s new play, THE FIREBIRDS TAKE THE FIELD. Lynn took a few moments off from this week’s intense rehearsals to answer a few questions about the play.

THE FIREBIRDS TAKE THE FIELD is inspired by a real incident that received national attention a few years ago in upstate New York when several members of a team of high school cheerleaders developed similar tics. What was it about this incident that made you want to write a play about it?

It started with the cheerleaders then spread until eighteen people were afflicted – almost exclusively female. Right off the bat, I was fascinated by the mystery at the heart of it. But it also spoke to me as a mother, as a woman, as the sometimes insecure teenage girl I used to be, and as a playwright who loves a theatrical story. I was interested in investigating how toxic legacies – familial and environmental – affect today’s generation. I was also intrigued by how the girls' identities were molded – for better or worse – by the popular images of “femininity,” and how this connected to their ailment.

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What kind of research did you do in writing the play? Did you speak with or meet any of the people actually involved with the incident in Le Roy?

I read a few articles when initially learning about the case and the science behind it, but I quickly jettisoned all the facts about the people involved in order to make it my own. However, I do stay connected with the mentor EST set me up with – Dr. Heather Berlin, a cognitive neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Hospital. She lets me know if the fiction I’m creating is scientifically credible. She also assists with little details like, “Would a molecular neuroscientist eat potato chips in her lab?”

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I based her diagnoses of the girls’ ailment on the facts of the real case. Other than that, Dr. Avery Kahn is my creation, as are all the characters. Avery’s bull-in-a-china-shop arrogance is a result of many of my own frustrating doctor visits though, I’m sure.

When he was writing The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger reportedly hung around his local soda shop listening to the chat of teenagers after school. What kind of research did you have to do to make the chatter of your cheerleaders so believable? And the painfully awkward exchanges of the parents with the teenagers so accurate?

Oh, thanks for saying so. Well, I looked up guuurrrl talk in my 1978 Encyclopedia Britannica but there was nothing. Then I went on the Information Super Highway and found SO much stuff. But really, I’m relieved you think it’s believable and that no one in the cast has called me out on any of it. I guess I just hear stuff and collect it and recall feelings from my (not that distant?) teen years. I thought everyone knew what twerking was but someone in our cast didn't, so that made me feel cool…although maybe it shouldn’t.

There have been reports of similar kinds of tics developing in other high school cheerleading squads. What do you think it is about cheerleaders that makes them susceptible to this kind of phenomenon?

Well, I’m no doctor – and I know this because I just applied for a new credit card and I got sweaty when I typed in my income level – but it seems that this happens mainly to girls and usually starts with those at the top of a social hierarchy, i.e., cheerleaders. Perhaps they feel the most pressure to be “on,” and happy, and perfect. Perhaps having to be this way, even while disturbing things are happening, plays havoc with their psyches in puzzling ways? This is a pressure the girls in my play feel. And apparently, what turns out to be one cause of their tics is a condition specific to highly intelligent people because they are especially empathic. Empathy, or a lack of it, is a big part of this play.

You had another of your plays, Progress in Flying, about aviation pioneer Octave Chanute, in the First Light Festival in 2010. How did your previous experience with First Light inform your writing of THE FIREBIRDS TAKE THE FIELD?

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Has the play changed much during the EST/Sloan development process?

This process has helped me locate the tone of the piece – a balance of reality and theatricality. And the table reads and my recent rehearsals have helped me zero in on what’s truly at stake in the play. It’s also been really fun to work in some choreography for the RoughCut reading – there are cheerleaders in this, after all.

Have you written other science-related plays? What were they about?

I wrote a musical about physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg called Copenhagen Boom Boom, so I was really sad when Michael Frayn beat me to it. Truthfully, his was a LOT better. But no, only the two EST/Sloan commissions. However, most of my plays are inspired by true stories that confound me into wanting to know more.

When did you first become interested in science? Do you have a favorite area of interest?

When a scientific mystery is linked to a human mystery – especially if it involves class struggles, gender issues, and the lengths to which we’ll go to be heard and belong – then I’m hooked. Also, if it has an inherent theatricality that I can play with, heighten, and use to illuminate the play then I’m all in.

You’re currently one of the writers on the new web series, Darwin. Provocative name. Any science going on there?

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How long have you been writing plays? What’s next for Lynn Rosen?

I’ve been writing plays since I was a little girl. “Purim Shmurim” was a big hit at Sunday school. What’s next is more Darwin (have I mentioned it?), working on a TV thang, and, of course, more plays. I just became a resident at New Dramatists, so I’ll be there in December exploring my new play, In The Blueanother mystery, of sorts. As for THE FIREBIRDS TAKE THE FIELD, I’m sure there’ll be rewrites. The play ends with some important first steps and that’s how I think about this RoughCut process. I look forward to seeing where these steps take this play next.

*The First Light Festival is a monthlong series of workshop productions and readings that is part of the play development process of The EST/Sloan Project, a joint venture of the Sloan Foundation and the Ensemble Studio Theatre.