Science plays come of age

Lauren Gunderson -- a playwright, screenwriter, short story author, and actor based in Atlanta, GA -- discusses the art of scientific storytelling

Jul 28, 2006
Lauren Gunderson
My career as a science playwright started when I asked my undergraduate physics professor to let me write a play instead of a term paper. Luckily he agreed, and the result was a time-twisting play called Background, based on cosmologist Ralph Alpher. Unexpectedly, the play not only satisfied my physics professor, it went on to receive awards and inspire productions across the country. Several years later, it now seems that stages across the world have fallen in love with science. It's an age-old flirtation, for sure. From the Greeks to Marlowe to now, scientists (and alchemists) have held a fascination for playwrights and audiences. More recently, in our tech-savvy, genetically altered, atomic-powered climate, plays containing science of any description can head straight for the spotlight, and hits like Tom Stoppard's time-bending chaos theory play Arcadia and Michael Frayn's Heisenberg-Bohr intellectual smash Copenhagen have delighted audiences for the past two decades. Recently, strong support for new science plays has come from regional theatres like The Magic in San Francisco and New York's Manhattan Theater Club. In parallel, science/theatre partnerships, prizes, and conferences have sprung up across the world, such as the Sloan Foundation's New Plays Initiative, which commissions, develops, and produces plays exploring the worlds of science and technology. And as an educational tool, science theatre has opened up a new avenue to grab students' interest. For example, Emory University's Center for Science Education is sponsoring the upcoming Actor's Express Theatre's tour of my theatrical adaptation of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, aiming to excite middle- and high-school students about both science and theatre.But what does it take to write a good science play? As a playwright, I believe in communicating science effectively, but not taking out what makes science hard. So it is absolutely essential to learn the relevant science well enough to represent it accurately -- otherwise the whole play fails. I always do a lot of research from online magazines, scientists' Web sites, and books on history and theory -- everything from Brian Greene's books on string theory to Newton's Principia itself has passed across my desk. And many playwrights, myself included, consult scientists in person for critique, advice, and content.In a science play, you want to make your scientists sound like real scientists. I'm not afraid to use a lot of jargon -- I sometimes use what I call the "verbal wall of science" effect, in which I allow a character to speak freely like a scientist, without any further explanation. This isn't to confuse a general audience, but to allow an appreciation of the character's expertise. Yet I also try to combine effective science with effective poetry to create something that is true both in the concrete and the abstract. Science metaphors work best this way. For example, the particle physicist in my play Baby M explains her work this way: We move in secrets. Fundamentals locked, related in code. What is obvious is not always what is. And what is isn't always what is known. Essentially, we deal in thought made manifest, and this work represents the world.The best scientific characters do all the things that make us human, not just the things that make us brilliant. So it is not enough for me to show you scientists doing science; I need to show you why they do it. Why do they venture into the essence of nature? Why do they subject themselves to deadlines and peer reviews and failure? The second level of the human spirit is the how. How do these scientists handle science, or rejection, or success? How do people negotiate all the tribulations of a highly competitive field on top of those of normal life? What amazes them? What depresses them? These are all essential in creating the right atmosphere. I think that most of today's playwrights are tackling science with a successful, steady hand -- writers respect science, or else they wouldn't write about it. I do get weary, however, of plays that mention science without any depth or obvious research. Writers may add scientists or mathematicians because it's sexy, but a lot of these plays are one-dimensional, referencing science instead of exploring it or challenging the audience to deepen their knowledge. Paul Mullin's Louis Slotin Sonata, on the other hand, exemplifies the genre at its best, giving us a brilliant story about a man dealing with atomic physics as well as his own imminent death. The historical and scientific research is realistic and engrossing, but so is the humanity of the characters.In my work, I try to reveal a person's inner desires with a combination of the spoken word and onstage action. People show their fear and love in different ways but they all usually involve a reaction or action that gives the audience its clues. For example, in my play Leap, Isaac Newton explains to one of his students that his work isn't just a hobby:Men have died chasing what I'm after! Sacrificed life and loyalty. It is not funny. This consciousness is as serious as you can possibly come close to knowing. You should treat it as such.Lauren Gunderson is a playwright, screenwriter, short story author and actor based in Atlanta, GA. Her debut collection of plays, Deepen The Mystery, was published in 2005.Lauren Gunderson lgunderson@the-scientist.comLinks within this article:Background Alpher Arcadia Magic Theatre Theater Club Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's New Plays Initiative University's Center for Science Education's Express Theatre Short History of Nearly Everything Ganguli, "A lab goes to Hollywood," The Scientist, March, 2006 M Slotin Sonata Gunderson http://www.laurengunderson.comDeepen The Mystery