Science History Dull? No More, Boasts Stage Festival

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

What do people think of when you say “science”?  Test tubes.  Rocket launches.  Moon rocks.  Old science fiction movies featuring scary monsters such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The answers people usually give make New York theater producer Billy Carden chuckle. “The study of science has, in fact, launched great movies and plays,” he said.

And he has a festival full of science plays to prove his point.  This is the thirteenth spring for the First Light theater festival at the Ensemble Theater Company, 549 W.52d St., in New York.  The theater presents brand new science plays (hence the “first light” in its title) in conjunction with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (Sloan grants also enable the theater to commission and develop other plays about science).  In addition to the science plays, the festival includes a first day brunch, an opera and a multimedia show on Wall Street.

The festival began last week and continues through April 23.  Tonight’s work is the opera Ada, about the daughter of Lord Byron, a mathematical genius.  The highlight of the theater lineup is the appearance of actor James Earl Jones in the play Separation of Blood.

“Each year, we work with playwrights on dramas about science and are amazed that they can turn so many scientific events and people into gripping stories,” said producer Carden.  “A lot of these plays are historical because the writers select scientists from the past.  The story of history and the story of science often merged.”

The Ensemble Studio Theater has assembled an interesting collection of history and science plays this spring.  The festival began April 3.  The science history plays:

  • Pidgeon, by Tommy Smith, is the story of Depression-era electronic music inventor Leon Theremin, a Russian, who battles racism when he marries a black American ballerina and is then kidnapped and put to work for the KGB.
  • Please Continue, by Frank Basloe, is a story about the fabled early 1960s Yale study in which supervisors convinced students to continually deliver electric shocks to victims as part of an experiment that proved ordinary people do what they’re told, no matter what the consequences.  Famed anti-Vietnam activist William Sloan Coffin is a character in it.

    “What the playwright did was merge the lives of the people in the experiment with Coffin’s, creating a genuine story that carries over ten years,” said Carden.

  • Separation of Blood, by Bridgette Wimberly, is the saga of medical pioneer Dr. Charles Drew, the inventor of dried blood transfusions, used to save the lives of thousands of American soldiers.  Drew, an African American, was not able to get transfusions himself because of his color, until one dramatic night in 1950.
  • A Lady Alone, by Lynn Eckert, Christine Farrell and Kevin Confoy, is the tale of the first African American woman to earn an MD from an American medical school.  The one-woman show tracks the live of the woman in the middle of the nineteenth century.
  • Smash, by Robert Askins, tells the 1993 story of a worker in the Texas supercollider project and how it came apart, and then was put back together.
  • The festival’s opera, Ada, is historical, too.  It is the story of poet Lord Byron’s daughter and her life in the nineteenth century.  She reportedly invented computer language.

In addition, First Light presents several non-history science plays.  Several plays are presented just once, but others are staged several times.

“I think the key to our festival is that audiences get to learn a lot about science history and are often amazed by the plays.  Who knew that Lord Byron’s daughter with a math whiz?  Who knew that Lord Byron had a daughter?” smiled Carden.

The producer saw additional value to how plays are written.  “The Yale shock experiments are legendary, but you learn a lot more about them in this very personal play about the event.”

And, too, the plays often widen the eyes of people in the audience because they arrive at the theater expecting one thing and discover something else.  Consider Pidgeon, about composer Leon Theremin.  Many people know that a ‘theremin’ is a piece of music produced electronically and they remember the sound of it from movie scores and rock tunes.  But who knew that the composer was in the middle of a race scandal and later designed electronic bugs for the KGB?

“The playwright took a simple story, did a lot of research and produced a fine play and new chapter of history,” said Carden.  “That is what this First Light festival is all about.”

One play from the festival is re-staged as a mainstage presentation by the Ensemble Studio Theater and given a longer run the following season.  Last year’s selection was Photograph 51, the story of a woman involved in the original DNA project.  A main character in that story was Thomas Watson.  The theater brought the real Watson to the play and created quite a stir.

The festival is a launch pad.  They are later offered to theaters around the country.  So far, in thirteen years, there have been sixty productions of these plays at other American theaters.

“We have a good track record and I think that’s why so many talented playwrights come to us with their first works,” said Carden.
For days, times and tickets: 866-811-4111 or 212-247-4982. All the plays except Ada are presented at the theater.  Ada will be staged at the 52d St. project, at 789 Tenth Ave.

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