“What Makes a Great Play about Science?” Heather Berlin, Maria Konnikova, Deb Laufer discuss with Ivan Oransky at the 2014 Fall Artist Cultivation Event

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On October 14 the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Sloan Foundation once again convened an audience of playwrights and a panel of experts to discuss “What makes a great play about science?” The discussion kicked off the 2014-2015 season of the EST/Sloan Project, a joint initiative that has granted more than $1.5 million dollars over the past seventeen years to playwrights to develop compelling new plays about science and technology.

This year’s panel featured neuroscientist Heather Berlin, New Yorker science writer Maria Konnikova, and EST/Sloan grantee and playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer. Medical journalist Ivan Oransky, M.D., moderated the lively and free-wheeling discussion. The excerpts below will give you some flavor of what transpired over the course of the ninety-minute session.  

EST’s Artistic Director Billy Carden opened the evening by describing the goal of the EST/Sloan Project and the evening:

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Moderator Oransky kicked off the discussion with a two-part question: 1) what is your favorite play about science or the one that had the greatest impact on you; 2) what is a story line, or a specific character or area of science that you feel is underdeveloped.

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Konnikova: I’m going to have to go back in time a bit to one of the classic stories which shows how much fiction and science and scientific innovation overlap to Frankenstein. We have it in play form and we have Young Frankenstein, and we have it in many other forms. When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein we did not know that much about genetics or anatomy or how life actually formed and developed. There’s this wonderful reciprocal relationship where you have a book that then becomes a play and then a movie and then a series. If someone reads this when they’re young at an impressionable age you might have then asking questions: how do we get life? How does it reproduce? I have no idea if Watson and Crick were at all inspired by Frankenstein but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they read it when they were young. You often have this sort of story where the artist can go further than the scientist because the artist can go where the scientist cannot reach yet and that then gives the next generation inspiration for where to go for research. I think that’s quite a beautiful relationship.

As for an area ripe for wonderful playwriting: a question that’s been fascinating me for several years is sleep, the nature of sleep, and how it’s changing in the modern world. There’s some interesting research now; we’re learning so much about how circadian rhythms really affect life and how we have circadian clocks in every cell of our body. And how modern advances in technology – cell phones, the light on your computer screen, ambient noise that we don’t even realize is there, noise pollution and light pollution – how those are affecting our sleep cycles and changing the way we sleep and function in ways we don’t even realize. There are a number of brilliant researchers working in this area who are ripe for story picking.

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In terms of stories worth exploring, there are so many. One that fascinates me: what we are understanding from neuroscience is that our feeling of free will is an illusion. The brain decides first and we’re only aware of it after the fact. You feel like: I’m deciding to go left. But really we can predict that up to ten seconds before you get the feeling of your intention. This brings up philosophical questions of how much control we really have. And then add to that neural prosthetics, which is a new technology where we can implant electrodes into the brain that can modulate emotions and help psychiatric patients who are suffering. Over time, eventually, they may be used for cognitive enhancements like improving memory, attention, wakefulness, for example, being able to stay awake all night. These types of new uses will likely first be developed for the military, and then they move to the public. It introduces questions of ethics: who can afford these neural implants. They will be like performance-enhancing drugs. Those who can afford neural implants will do better on their SATs. Those who can’t afford them will then be disadvantaged. There are many social and cultural issues there. Some juicy subjects there.

Oransky: How do scientists feel about the way they’re portrayed in plays? Scientists are part of the audience. Heather, how do you and your colleagues experience seeing themselves onstage

Berlin: It’s kind of exciting. Ah, it’s one of us. We’re involved. There was a play a year and a half ago, The Other Place, on Broadway about this woman scientist whom I could identify with. She was studying Alzheimer’s and thought she had a brain tumor, but it turned out that she was developing Alzheimer’s. It took you on her journey through her mind as she was going in and out of reality and being lost in this weird memory world. She was getting up and talking at conferences and having lapses in memory. It’s frustrating when scientists are portrayed as ridiculous caricatures. I like it when they’re made to be human with flaws and foibles. That’s real. I like when scientists are portrayed as real people, not as stereotypical in white lab coat maybe with a German accent.  

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Berlin: it’s not always the smartest person who makes the discovery. It’s a lot about dedication, and about passion and hard work, and a lot of serendipity. Watson and Crick, for example, maybe each on their own couldn’t have done it. Einstein was brilliant, yes. He will always be known for his discoveries, but a lot of the reason for his being famous is his character, his jokes, what he said. It’s the personality that emerges that makes people stand out and be symbolic.

Laufer: I feel like we’re giving the impression that a scientist needs to be at the center of all Sloan plays. That’s not the case. My play End Days was produced as a Sloan play. Stephen Hawking is a character in it and the actor who plays him also plays Jesus. The play is about salvation and who we turn to in desperate times. At the heart of it is a kid who’s just obsessed with physics. It’s his salvation. He seduces this sixteen-year-old girl — he’s sixteen too — with physics. It’s his lifeline. It’s the thing that saves him. The ideas in physics are poetry to him. And they’re as big and as meaningful and moving to him as religion. There isn’t really a scientist in the center of the play but the play is very much fueled by how moving ideas in science can be and how the metaphor of science can bring hope and meaning to your life. So I want to say that you don’t need Isaac Newton in the center of your play for it to be Sloan-worthy. 

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