Sloan Blog

Frank Basloe on Obedience, Shocks, Learning, Stanley Milgram, Yale in the 1960s and PLEASE CONTINUE

Previews begin this week for this year's EST/Sloan Mainstage production, PLEASE CONTINUE, a new play by Frank Basloe about psychologist Stanley Milgram’s infamous “obedience” experiments, directed by EST's Artistic Director, William Carden. Basloe’s play focuses on the very first pilot studies Milgram supervised as a young assistant professor of social psychology at Yale University in the fall of 1960. In these early studies Milgram explored with undergraduates the methodology and procedures he would later use in 1961 with New Haven residents in the experiments that made him famous. 

Anna Ziegler on gender reassignment, parenting, literary bonding, betrayal, the blinding force of love, and BOY


The last of this season’s *EST/Sloan First Light Festival RoughCut Productions will occur with performances of BOY by Anna Ziegler this Wednesday, December 10 at 7:00 PM and on Thursday, December 11 at 3:00 PM. BOY tells the story of a family with twin boys, one of whom suffers a botched circumcision and who is then raised as a girl. Anna took time from what you will learn is a very busy period of her life to answer our many questions.

The story of BOY bears many resemblances to the case of David Reimer, a twin boy born in 1965 in Canada who suffered a botched circumcision and who, at the advice and under the care of psychologist John Money, was raised as a girl. How much did that incident inform your writing of BOY?  

The story of David Reimer was certainly the inspiration for my play. It gave me a very general framework – boy loses penis, boy is raised as a girl, boy learns what happened to him and returns, at age fifteen, to being a boy. I set the play during the same time frame as the Reimer story because it is also a chronicle of where science was during those years—if the play were set now, for instance, no one would believe that such a decision could be made, and indeed, it likely wouldn’t. But the play departs quite radically from Reimer’s story in almost all other respects. For instance, the John Money/David Reimer story seemed to lack the particular angle in which I was most interested – a story in which love is the blinding force, as opposed to greed or ambition or cruelty. I wasn’t interested in writing a story about a villain and a victim, but in exploring the complicated terrain of mutual need, love and dependence between doctor and patient, and the problems that arise when someone is desperate to see an experiment succeed.

In another interview you mentioned that “betrayal and forgiveness and the durability of love” are recurrent themes in your plays. Is this true in BOY?

Ha ha. That might have been my way of not answering that question! I mean, one would be hard pressed to find a play that doesn’t involve at least some of those things. But having said that, I think those themes play a huge role in BOY too. At the heart of the play is an incredible betrayal, stunning in its scope and consequences. That Adam can ultimately find a way to forgive his parents speaks to his gradual recognition that it was in fact love that drove their decision, and to all the characters’ deep humanity and good intentions, however flawed.

If I have the chronology right, you had your first child around the same time you were writing BOY. How did becoming a mother for the first time inform your writing?

You’re right! My son Elliot was born in June, 2013, right smack in the middle of my time with BOY. So I had already done many drafts of the play by the time I became a mom, but when I continued to work on it, my perspective shifted. Unsurprisingly, I related much more to the parents in the play, and their position came to seem all the more heartbreaking. There’s a moment that’s actually no longer in the play when the doctor, Wendell, who’s been nursing resentment towards his own mother (who’s also no longer in the play), realizes that he has failed his patient, a patient he thought of as his own child, and he says, “I never forgave her – my mother. I thought one had to work hard to truly fail a child. I thought it was painstaking, deliberate work.” This idea keeps coming back to me these days. How blinded by love we can be to the real needs of our children.

There are quite a few literary references in the play – to Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Leigh Hunt. Are you saying as much about literature in the play as you are about science?

Oh gosh, I think you’re my ideal reader! You caught all my references. And who knows? Maybe subconsciously I’m trying to say something about literature’s limitations being comparable to science’s. Or maybe I’m just dusting off the old English degree and putting it to some use for once – when else can I show off that I read those books? But from a practical standpoint, many of those texts appear in the play because the act of reading connects two of the characters – the child, Samantha, and the doctor, Wendell. Books become incredibly important to Samantha’s growing – and changing – sense of herself. Frankenstein, Paradise Lost and Jane Eyre are also so much about freedom and captivity, creators and their creations, and man’s overreaching, that they felt appropriate to the play.

When did you first become interested in science? In playwriting? Which came first?

Playwriting definitely came first! As mentioned above, I was an English major – your classic kinda scared-of-science girl writer. I regularly cried in math class in middle school. It was only when I was commissioned to write a play about a group of female scientists, and began to research Rosalind Franklin in particular, that I became more interested than I was daunted. When I was working on Photograph 51, I had the probably-obvious-to-most revelation that science is driven by people and personalities as much as any field is, and that changed the way I looked at the entire endeavor of science – and of writing plays about it.

Yes, we should probably mention that Photograph 51, which dramatizes the story of Rosalind Franklin’s role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, was the widely acclaimed EST/Sloan Mainstage Production in 2010 and has received many productions around the world since. Besides BOY and Photograph 51, what other plays have you written that have a scientific component?

None, really. I did write a couple drafts of a play about Heinrich Schliemann, the businessman-turned-archeologist who believed so deeply in the truth of Homer’s stories that he made it his life’s work to find the real Troy. This was also a Sloan commission, but it turned out not to involve very much science (and maybe not very much drama either) so I didn’t pursue it further.

What’s next for Anna Ziegler?

Immediately after these RoughCut performances in First Light, I’m getting on a plane to San Diego for the Old Globe’s New Voices Festival, where my newest play The Last Match will be read on Saturday night. After that, it’s basically the holidays, when you’re allowed to do very little, right? I think those will go on for about three months for me this year, if at all possible. I also have a commission I’ll be working on in 2015 from Seattle Rep – an adaptation of a book called The Lost Bank, which is about a topic even more daunting to me than science: finance. And maybe Matt Schatz and I will actually write our musical about Lenny Ross, the child prodigy who went toe-to-toe with Mike Wallace in an interview that made Ross famous but also foreshadows his tragic end. Sounds like a musical, right? And then, you know, other things, like watching with wonder as my one year old grows and grows and also, more importantly, the next season of Game of Thrones (when is that coming out already?) and trying to decide for myself whether or not Adnan of Serial fame is guilty or just really really unlucky.

*The First Light Festival is a month-long 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. 

Matt Schatz on multiple universes, Hugh Everett III, writing songs and musicals about science, and WHERE EVER IT MAY BE

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On November 24 the *EST/Sloan First Light Festival will be having the first ever reading/performance of a new musical about quantum physics, WHERE EVER IT MAY BE by Matt Schatz. The musical leaps off in the 1950s in Princeton where Hugh Everett III is pursuing his doctorate in physics and meeting for the first time the woman who will become his wife. From there quantum entanglements ensue, as Schatz explains in our interview.

What persuaded you that the life of quantum physicist Hugh Everett III would make a good subject for a musical? Was it the life or the name? Should we feel we know the historical Hugh Everett III at the end of the play?

Well, I’ve known about Everett’s “Many Worlds Theory of Quantum Mechanics” for a while.

The idea that each of our decisions, no matter how small, greatly affect our lives, and that there may be other worlds out there where versions of ourselves, maybe an infinite number of versions, have made other decisions, and are living vastly different (or even subtly different) existences, is of course fascinating. It’s particularly fascinating to storytellers whose job it is to create characters who make decisions (which is all a character really does).

There have been a fair number of movies and books and even at least one other musical (If/Then) that have played with the idea of alternate universes, but what excited me most about this is that it isn’t really fiction. There is a lot of science and math (little of which I truly understand) that supports this theory. It may well be true. And what are human implications of all that science and math?

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2851","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"642","style":"line-height: 1.538em; width: 300px; margin: 10px; float: right; height: 321px;","title":"Hugh Everett III","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]]In the play I talk a little about thought experiments, which is an experiment not meant to be tried, but just thought about for the purpose of thinking through the outcomes. Like Schrödinger's cat (which I also touch on in the piece and even wrote a song about!).

In many ways, WHERE EVER IT MAY BE is a thought experiment. I wanted to examine a relatively small moment, or period of time in someone’s life and try to look at it through this “Many Worlds” prism.  I wanted to find a conceit for exploring it in a way that you could only do in a play. That this particular moment could be a love story involving the man who came up with the Many Worlds Theory and about the formulation of the theory itself seemed like a fun idea so I went with it.

Also, I love the idea of a musical about quantum mechanics. My favorite kinds of musicals are the musicals that might inspire someone to say, “Why would you ever make a musical out of that?”

When you say, “the name” are you talking about the pun on Everett/Ever It? I wasn’t sure if anyone would even get that. But you did! That was just an accident. Something I thought of. I like puns.

And my hope isn’t that we’ll know the historical Hugh Everett III at the end of the play, but rather that we will know the fictional version(s) of the characters that I’ve made up in my dumb head. 

But if someone goes home after this show and researches the actual guy, I won’t be mad at them. Hugh Everett III had a fascinating, eventful and ultimately sad life, most of which I barely touch on in the play. In this draft anyway.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2853","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"280","style":"line-height: 1.538em; width: 200px; height: 280px; margin: 10px; float: left;","title":"Milan Stitt","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"200"}}]]The lyrics to the songs – and the byplay between the characters – suggest you’ve actually taken some pains to get the references right to quantum physics, Niels Bohr, John Wheeler, Schrödinger’s Cat, etc. What kind of research did you do to write your play? Did you work with a consultant?

The director of my MFA program at Carnegie Mellon, the late Milan Stitt, used to say something like: the only research you should ever do before writing a historical play is read the one-paragraph entry in the encyclopedia. I largely agree with that and think about it all the time. Research can be a kind of elaborate procrastination tool.

But for a play like this, you do need to do a little bit more than that to at least pretend you know what you’re talking about. I bought a few books: one by Michio Kaku, and one called The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III by Peter Byrne. The latter was pretty much indispensable not just for stuff about the science and Hugh, but also for information about the time period and the woman who would become his wife, Nancy Gore (who is the only other character in the play). There’s also a short BBC documentary about Hugh Everett and his son, Mark Oliver Everett (“E” of the band Eels) that I found online, that helped explain things like Schrödinger’s cat to me in a way I could understand, and more importantly make an audience understand.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2852","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"413","style":"line-height: 1.538em; width: 250px; height: 179px; margin: 10px; float: right;","title":"Dr. Spiros Michalakis","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"578"}}]]I’ve not worked with a consultant (yet) on this specifically, but I recently wrote and performed an unrelated five-minute quantum mechanics musical for the 2014 Sloan Film Summit here in LA. And for that I met and talked to Cal Tech quantum physicist Dr. Spiros Michalakis. He’s amazing. Some of what we talked about for that project found its way into this one. As I move forward with drafts of the show, I would love to have someone like him have a look at the script to tell me what is bullshit and what is not. It doesn’t mean I’ll take out the bullshit, but it would just be nice to know where it is.

You’ve posted most of the songs from WHERE EVER IT MAY BE on SoundCloud. They have a light, folksonglike, singer/songwriter quality to them. I’m predicting that the title song, “Where Ever It May Be,” so plaintive and beautiful, will be the breakout hit from the show. What singer/songwriters have most influenced you?

First, thank you! That is lovely to hear.  Second, that was the one song I’ve considered cutting, but we will see how it plays in the show! 

I think all nine songs are up there on SoundCloud. I posted them for the actors to familiarize themselves with the material, but anyone is free to have a listen.

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Still, I consider myself to be a musical theater songwriter especially as far as the lyrics are concerned.  I’ve really studied the craft of musical theater lyric writing and try to bring my own voice to the form in that context. Musically, I just like musical theater songs that sound like songs I might otherwise listen to, or more importantly songs that sound specific to the characters I’m creating.

So many songwriters have influenced me. But the ones that immediately spring to mind are Dylan, Stephin Merritt (Magnetic Fields), Billy Bragg, David Berman (Silver Jews), John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats), Regina Spektor, Aimee Mann, Kanye West, Jay Electronica, Tom Petty, Marc Cantone (The City and Horses), Belle and Sebastian, Loudon Wainwright, Randy Newman, and also musical theater songwriters like Bock and Harnick, Frank Loesser, Kander and Ebb, Adler and Ross, William Finn, Howard Ashman, Irving Berlin, Yip Harburg, Sondheim, sometimes, and people like Jeff Moss and Joe Raposo who wrote a lot of songs for the Muppets. I could go on and on, but won’t.

The pantheon of singer/songwriters who have written songs about scientific themes in which they actually respect and even try to explicate science seems rather spare. I’m thinking of Tom Lehrer, They Might Be Giants, The Animaniacs, Jonathan Coulton. Who are your favorites?  Do you have a favorite song about science?

I like They Might Be Giants and Jonathan Coulton. Tom Lehrer is very witty of course, but I don’t have any of his records or anything.  I like that Coldplay song “The Scientist” but who knows what the hell he is talking about in that one?

But what excites me most are songs that have interesting and/or surprising ideas behind them or in their execution.

What comes to mind are musical theater songs like Loesser’s “Adelaide’s Lament” which isn’t about science per se, but finds a complicated, surprising and delightful way to talk about something seemingly simple like love, which really every song is about anyway. Except “The Scientist” which again, who knows? Pretty, though.

Listen to Faith Prince sing "Adelaide's Lament" from Guys & Dolls

First Light seems to have had a fondness for musicals about science. During this season of First Light there is a reading/singing of another musical, The Elementary Space Time Show by Cesar Alvarez. Last year we had The Drive, a musical about NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak. And in 2011 there was Ada, a musical about Ada Lovelace.  Wasn’t one of your musicals, The Tallest Building in the World, also in a previous First Light showcase? Outside of EST, I’m not recalling that many breakout musicals about science. The only ones that spring to mind are Star Messengers, about Galileo and Kepler, and Fermat’s Last Tango, about a character based on the mathematician Andrew Wiles. Am I missing any? Do you have a favorite musical about science (other than your own)?

I don’t have a favorite musical about science.  I’m not even sure I have a favorite musical.

And I have no interest in any of those shows you mentioned.  Art is a contest and they are my competitors.

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In 2012 you won the prestigious Kleban Foundation’s annual Kleban Prize for the most promising musical theatre librettist for Love Trapezoid, which I believe first began as an EST/Sloan First Light project, didn’t it? Can you take us through how Love Trapezoid changed as it went through the EST/Sloan development process?

EST and the EST/Sloan project in particular has been such a big supporter of mine and really instrumental in my creative career.  I can’t overstate that.

I got the commission for Love Trapezoid, I think, in the winter of 2008.  Graeme Gillis had me do this thing where I came to EST at the start of the month to present some sketches of what I was working on for that show, rough scenes and songs, etc. I then wrote all that month, came in again at the end of the month and presented a version of the entire show. It was great to have that sort of deadline hanging over my head. Back then the show was called Postumusical.

Later, I workshopped it with EST at the Southampton Writers Conference. EST’s Jamie Richards directed it and she really put it through its paces. I’m not even sure if she liked it, but she really made it better. We performed it at like 11 PM, outside under a tent and it went great. That was the draft I sent to the Kleban Foundation. I really should have thanked Jamie when I got that award.

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[You can listen to a demo recording of the music from Love Trapezoid here]

The Kleban award included a cash prize of $100,000. What was the impact of winning that award?

It was life changing. The money was anyway. I still can’t believe I got that and I often suspect that they made some sort of mistake. Winning allowed me to quit my day job, and eventually used some of that money to move to LA to write for Hollywood like F. Scott Fitzgerald; it’s going about as well for me as it did for him!

I’m kidding. It’s going OK.

In Love Trapezoid lyricist Betty Lou is writing a scientist-loves-girl / girl-loves-scientist / scientist-is-sick / scientist-clones-self / girl-loves-clone / clone-loves-boy musical comedy. The play itself features a robot who recreates Betty Lou’s deceased writing partner. WHERE EVER IT MAY BE now ups the ante with multiple versions of the two main characters. Does something about doubles/clones/multiples fascinate you? Will the number of same characters multiply exponentially in your next play?

This is the most amazing interview question I’ve ever been asked. The short answer to all of it is yes. And no.

You got your MFA from Carnegie Mellon, which is also known as one of the country’s leading institutions for turning out scientists and engineers. Did you take any science courses there? Have to read anything special to keep up with lunchtime discussions?

We weren’t allowed to take any classes outside of the MFA Program.  One time, my friend and classmate Sallie Patrick asked if she could take some class outside of the program. The aforementioned, late Milan Stitt told her if she wanted to do that, she would have to go to “hell and back.” Sallie, then asked who “Helen Beck” was and how she could get a hold of her.

Carnegie Mellon also has a partnership with the Sloan Foundation though, and they give out awards. My play The Tallest Building in the World began as an MFA screenplay. It didn’t win any awards though.

Over the years I’ve witnessed you playing many terrifically witty songs about science at the annual Youngblood Science Brunch. Which came first the music or the science? What is it about science that cries out for musical expression?

Oh that is so nice to hear. Thank you! I like to be witty.

Lyrics and music certainly came first for me.  They say music is related to math but I’ve always been kind of dubious because I have very little aptitude for math. I went to an arts college with an admissions department that only looked at your verbal SAT scores.

But I’ve been fascinated with science since I was a little kid. My dad‘s favorite writer is Isaac Asimov. I think scientists and artists have a lot in common. They are both very interested in ideas. They both probably are bullied in middle school.

You were a member of EST’s famed Youngblood program. For how long? How did being a member of Youngblood affect your writing/composing?

I don’t think it was quite as “famed” then, but it was terrific. I’d applied a couple times and was interviewed but didn’t get into the group. The third year, I’d gotten an EST/Sloan Commission (for The Tallest Building in the World), went on a retreat for that, got to know Graeme a little, and they asked me to join the group. I almost said “no” as a kind of “you had your chance” reaction, but I said “yes” and thank God I did.

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I got in when I was twenty-eight, so I was only a part of it for two years, but for that time it was basically my life. The program made a huge impact on me and I’d like to think that I made an impact on the program.

I didn’t really write musicals when I started Youngblood. I wrote plays and songs but kept them separate.  But when I was on my first Youngblood retreat in 2006, RJ Tolan asked me if I would write a song for the upcoming Youngblood Sunday Brunch. I was so excited that I wrote the song while on the retreat. I went on to write an original song for every Youngblood Brunch for the next two years. And it was for the “Musical Brunch” that I wrote my first ever musical with my dear friend Courtney Lauria. It was called Co-op. It went on to be fully produced by EST/Youngblood in February of 2008 as part of its “Thicker Than Water” revue. It got us a rave review in The New York Times. And I haven’t really written a play without some sort of music in it since.

In “The Galaxy Song” Eric Idle has the Earth “revolving at nine hundred miles an hour” because “rotating” did not rhyme with “evolving.” Have you ever been tempted to cheat on the science to make a song work?

Rhyming is everything to me, so, yes.

Also, I think you “cheat” in some way in every song you ever write or every work of art you ever make. You also lie. And you also steal.

That answer is likely stolen.

What’s next for Matt Schatz?

In the longish run, I’m writing a couple musicals and pitching a couple television shows.  

In the short run, I’m on a beet salad kick. Today I’m cancelling cable because it is too expensive. Tomorrow (November 21st) is my 4th wedding Anniversary.  My wife Jenna and I are celebrating by taking a red-eye back to the East Coast for theater and family and Thanksgiving. I couldn’t be more excited. I couldn’t be more delighted.

Thanks for this interview. Such smart and thoughtful questions. I had a blast!

*The First Light Festival is a month-long 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. 





David Valdes Greenwood on transgender teenagers, mermaids, parenting, writing, and THE MERMAID HOUR

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Seven plays will get their very first readings as part of this year’s *EST/Sloan First Light Festival. THE MERMAID HOUR by David Valdes Greenwood will be read on Thursday, November 20 at 7:00 PM. The play brings us inside the lives of working class parents Bird and Pilar as they cope with raising their eleven-year-old transgender daughter, Vi. We had questions.

What path led you to write THE MERMAID HOUR?

When my college roommate began living her public life as the woman she knew herself to be, she shared stories about her childhood that I had never heard in twenty-five years of our friendship. That prompted me to write plays I think of as siblings, THE MERMAID HOUR, a drama looking at the experience of parents, and Raggedy And, a comedy about a woman staking claim to her own identity.

While the central character in THE MERMAID HOUR is Vi, the transgender eleven-year-old, the play seems just as much about what her parents are going through in wrestling with decisions about how to raise and care for Vi properly. What do you want audiences to take away from the play?

Actually, I now think of the parents as the protagonists. Vi’s behaviors and needs are the catalyst, but the play over time evolved into a portrait of what it means to be a loving, wise parent in the face of such huge cultural and medical questions. I’m hoping what audiences take away is how hard it is to ever know what the “right” thing means when you are a parent making decisions about a life that is not your own.  

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There is no universal symbolism for any group, but I kept running into a fascination with mermaids in the blogs, videos, and articles about/by transgender kids, especially girls. The mermaid is resonant because it is so magical and transformative.

In your book Homo Domesticus (2009) you chronicle the courtship that led to your same-sex marriage and your experiences raising a child together. How did your experiences as a parent inform the writing of THE MERMAID HOUR?

Because parenthood is a round-the-clock job, you kind of never stop thinking about it. In writing this, I brought a lot of my daughter’s spitfire, highly-emotional temperament to Vi. I don’t make Vi an angelic, acted-upon kid — I want her to seem like the real kids I’m surrounded by in my community, kids who don’t know how many buttons they’re pushing, and who trust that their parents will still always do right by them.

Were there aspects of your childhood you drew on in creating the characters of Vi and her friend Jacob?

Sex play! The idea that kids want to know more about sex and try things out with their friends is both terrifying to parents and yet inescapable. Vi and Jacob have a conversation that sounds like one I had with my best friend in his bedroom at twelve.

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Absolutely. Her innate glow and her parents’ support of her life inform the happiest moments and scenes of most ease between the family members in the piece. I saw a lot of kids on film and read a lot of parents’ stories, including Jesse Green’s sobering article, “S/he,” in New York magazine, which added other colors and revealed some of the tougher elements, and inspired a dramatic scene late in the play.

Gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder are the technical terms for what Vi is experiencing. You mercifully avoid such technical jargon in the play but in the conversations between the parents and Dr. Eggleston you do introduce some of the current research on this phenomenon. What kind of research did you do to write the play?

I read what felt like endless articles and essays about the latest approaches to treatment, how that has evolved in the past ten years, how diagnosis works, and the current theories around the neuroscience on the topic. In the end, I learned a lot but cut almost all of that material, keeping only what seems most commonly shared by the parents, who had become the focus of the play.  

The Internet plays a significant role in your play, both as the provider of perhaps too much information to the parents and as an uncontrollable distributor of viral media. Do you think the Internet is making it more difficult or easier to raise children like Vi? Or any children?

I think there is a way in which it is a great boon for children like Vi and for her parents. But for her and all children, the ease of access to outlets for sharing personal information makes it easy to ignore or forget the risks and complications that can also arise.

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

From the first pitch to the first draft, the title, the conceit, and even some of the characters all changed. From that draft to this one, the structure changed somewhat as did the overall trajectory, and it became vastly less muddy, with the play much more clearly tracking the parents’ journey.

Have you written any other plays that deal with science or medicine?

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2834","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"700","style":"line-height: 1.538em; width: 260px; height: 314px; margin: 10px; float: right;","title":"Charles Darwin, 1881, by John Collier","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"580"}}]]I wrote a romantic comedy premised on the Variable Speed of Light theory and a play about the last two years of Darwin’s life, both of which were read here. My play Full Code, about the interior life of a coma patient at the heart of a love triangle, is in development for production with the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company.

When did you know you were going to be a playwright?

My freshman year of college I started writing little plays for students to do, and then I petitioned for a playwriting course my school didn’t offer. By the time I was a senior, I wrote a play for my thesis and had my first full production, and I just assumed I’d keep going. It’s been a twisty road since!

According to your “Plays” webpage you have four other plays that are currently in production or development. How do you manage such a prolific output?

If I’m not writing, I feel a little crazy. Part of what works to keep me sane and keep my career alive is just continually writing, because the lead time is so long. There are deadly dry spells in production, times when no play is going up anywhere, but you can’t ever tell when someone is going to look at your work. This year has led to four different plays in four different theatres, with the youngest play (this one) only a year old, while the oldest play was six years old by the time it went up. Write, write, write, submit, submit, submit — it’s the little engine mantra for playwrights.

What’s next for David Valdes Greenwood?

I just finished a new play, Vow Keepers (or, Meet the Kids), about an older couple from the future who time travel back into the hotel room of a young couple on their wedding day to talk them out of it — think Dr. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And I’m starting research for a play about paladares in Cuba in the age of renewed American tourism.

*The First Light Festival is a month-long 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. 


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Lloyd Suh on William and Ben Franklin, America as a Social Experiment, and FRANKLINLAND

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One of three plays receiving a RoughCut production during this year’s *EST/Sloan First Light Festival is FRANKLINLAND by Lloyd Suh on November 21 and 25. The play reimagines the rich and at times contentious relationship between Founding Father and indefatigable inventor Benjamin Franklin and his illegitimate (and only) son, William. We were curious what intrigued Suh about the Franklins.

FRANKLINLAND seems to stick pretty close to the historical facts of the life of Ben and William Franklin. Did you take any liberties? Is the name “Franklinland” your invention?

It’s nice of you to say I stick close to the facts – I’ve tried to be respectful of the history, while inventing some things within areas that are more apt for speculation. The idea of Franklinland is completely my invention, but it’s rooted in some really interesting things I learned about Ben and William’s relationship. In his will, Ben left him only a patch of land in Nova Scotia, and the significance of this is really unclear. I couldn’t help but imagine that this gesture was loaded with meaning somehow, which led to me speculating on what that meaning might have been.  And that turned into this elusive dream of a place called Franklinland.

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Totally. He was a noted humorist, and really famous for his disarming wit, so it made for a really fun ride in trying to honor that sensibility.

What kind of research did you do in writing FRANKLINLAND?

Before I started, I read two different biographies, one by H.W. Brands and another by Walter Isaacson, along with a lot of Ben’s own writing. There has been so much written about Franklin (and by him), and thankfully a lot of it contradicts – which I take as an invitation to pick and choose what serves the play dramatically. Once I started actually writing the play, I tried to respect the simple truths and facts, but be less beholden to the depth and breadth of all that history. That lets me focus more on the speculative aspects that I’ve decided to run with.

Your previous plays all dealt with Asian American themes, American Hwangap, The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space, Chupacabra Go!, among others. Does FRANKLINLAND represent a change in direction for you?

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You’re an alumnus of EST’s Youngblood program. For how many years were you a Youngblood? How has being part of that program affected your playwriting? 

I was in Youngblood from 1999, I think, until about 2003. I can’t really quantify how it’s affected my writing, but it was certainly an amazing community at a time when I needed exactly that. I can confidently say that being a part of it made me happier, and probably at least a little bit cooler.

What’s next for Lloyd Suh?

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*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. 



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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. 




“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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Heather Berlin, Maria Konnikova, and Deb Laufer join Ivan Oransky to Discuss “What Could Make A Great Play About Science” at EST/Sloan’s Fall Artist Cultivation Event on Tuesday, October 14

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Over the past 16 years The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Project has awarded more than $1.5 million to some 250 playwrights and theatre companies. There have been more than 150 productions of  EST/Sloan developed plays nationwide. You can view this year’s just-announced grants here.

The EST/Sloan Project mission: “to stimulate artists to create credible and compelling work exploring the worlds of science and technology and to challenge existing stereotypes of scientists and engineers in the popular imagination.” 

Every year EST/Sloan kicks off its new season with the Fall Artist Cultivation Event. At this eagerly anticipated event, a panel of scientists, science writers and playwrights engages in a far-ranging and free-wheeling discussion with an audience of prospective playwrights about “what could make a great play about science.” The 2014 Fall Artist Cultivation Event will take place at EST on Tuesday, October 14 at 7 PM. The event is free and any playwright interested in developing a play about science or technology is welcome to attend.  

This year's panelists include:

  • Neuroscientist Heather Berlin, currently an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a Visiting Scholar at the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Berlin is also a presenter on the international Discovery Channel Series "Superhuman Showdown, a frequent commentator on the History Channel, and has appeared on StarTalk Radio with Neil deGrasse Tyson. This summer Berlin collaborated with the rapper Baba Brinkman at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in a show about the neuroscience of improvisation.
  • Maria Konnikova, a contributing writer for The New Yorker online, where she writes a weekly column with a focus on psychology and science. Her first book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking/Penguin, 2013), was a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into seventeen languages. The Confidence Game, her new book on the psychology of the con, is scheduled for publication by Viking/Penguin in 2015.
  • Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, author of End Days (EST/Sloan 2009 Mainstage Production and awarded The ATCA Steinberg citation), Sirens, Leveling Up, Out of Sterno, and many other plays. Laufer is also the recipient of the Helen Merrill Playwriting Award and the Lilly Award.

This year’s moderator will be Ivan Oransky, M.D., vice president and global editorial director of MedPageToday, co-founder of Retraction Watch, and founder of Embargo Watch. He teaches medical journalism at New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program and is vice president of the Association of Health Care Journalists.  He has also kindly served as moderator for talkbacks for the EST/Sloan productions of Headstrong and Fast Company

Click here to RSVP


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EST/Sloan Project Announces 2014 Commissions; Submissions Open For 2015

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The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Project for New Plays about Science, Technology, and Economics is pleased to announce its 2014 commissions. $90,000 in support was awarded to 21 new plays, including pieces by Cesar Alvarez, Sean Devine, Arlene Hutton and Anna Ziegler, with subjects ranging from the correspondence between Galileo and his daughter, to computer hackers in the 1970s.  See full list below.

Now entering its 17th year, the EST/Sloan Project has awarded over $1.5 million to some 250 playwrights and theatre companies, with over 150 productions of EST/Sloan developed plays nationwide. The program’s annual First Light Festival of new plays in development begins 11/2.

EST/Sloan is now accepting submissions for the 2014-15 season – deadline for artist proposals and script submissions is November 1; for regional workshop grant applications, December 1.


EST/Sloan 2014 Commissionnees

Cesar AlvarezThe Elementary Space Time Show, a musical about about a young girl who discovers that science can provide solace and meaning when her family life is falling apart.

Chiara Atik Midwife Mechanic, based on the true story of an Argentine mechanic who, inspired his daughter’s difficult labor, invented a device to help women through difficult childbirth.

Sinead Daly A play about the effects of an apocalyptic storm on a group of research scientists whose work is threatened by the power outage and flooding.

Sean Devine Daisy, on the psychological theories behind the game-changing political advertisement.

Jessica Dickey A play on the convent life of Galileo's daughter, inspired by her letters to her father.

Cory Finley A play about life on the McMurdo research station in Antarctica.

Arlene Hutton Maria Sybilla, based on the life of 17th Century German naturalist and illustrator Maria Sybilla Merian.

Andrea Lepcio A play about the Montreal Protocol and how scientists, politicians and industry executives came together to protect the ozone layer  and prevent an environmental catastrophe.

Erica Saleh A play dramatizing the race to develop technology to save the trapped miners after the San Jose mine collapsed in Chile in 2010.

Emily Schwend A play about the culture of early Hackers at MIT, and the schism between open source and proprietary coders.

Deborah Yarchun Techtonic Melange about the small town tensions a petroleum geologist discovers when she is sent to survey for mineral rights in a North Dakota town.

Patrick Link Kinemacolor, a play about the first technology used to color films. (Winner of the EST/Sloan Galileo Prize.)


Rewrite Commissons

Father Unknownby Daniel Reitz

Ada: An Opera by Kim Sherman & Margaret Vandenburg

Boyby Anna Ziegler


Regional Development Grants

Cleveland Play House & Geva Theatre Center (Rochester, NY)
Informed Consent by Deborah Zoe Laufer

Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theater (Minneapolis, MN)
Winter Dreams by Steve Ackerman & Alison Heimstead

Huntington Theatre, Hartford Stage and La Jolla Playhouse
Etherdome by Elizabeth Egloff'

South Coast Rep (Costa Mesa, CA)
Fast Company by Carla Ching

2G (NYC)
Galoisby Sung Rno

Swine Palace Theatre (Baton Rouge, LA)
Spill by Leigh Fondakowski