Who gets to be a scientist? What does our attitude toward science say about us as a society? What do we do if we possess scientific knowledge but society won’t listen?
Those are some themes addressed in the three plays receiving staged readings this weekend during Mach 33: the Caltech-Pasadena Playhouse Festival of New Science-Driven Plays, part of the Playhouse’s ongoing community outreach efforts. Intended to “energize the conversations about scientific, mathematical, and technological questions,” the readings will be followed by panel discussions with scientists from Caltech and JPL.
Interestingly, all three plays are period pieces. James Armstrong’s “Bones of the Sea,” helmed by London-born director/actor Satya Bhabha, concerns 19th-century British paleontologist Mary Anning and her landmark discoveries despite establishment bias against her because she was not formally schooled, wealthy, an Anglican, or a man. Susan Bernfield’s “Sizzle, Sizzle, Fly,” directed by Rhonda Kohl (who choreographed and assistant directed the Playhouse’s recent production of “Native Gardens”), time travels to the 1960s, when miniskirted “computress” Frances “Poppy” Northcutt became the first woman to join NASA’s Mission Control team. Award-winning playwright Kristin Idaszak’s “The Surest Poison,” directed by LA-based Randee Trabitz, applies hardboiled noir style to a Prohibition-era mystery that imagines real-life toxicologist Alexander Gettler and flapper reporter Lois “Lipstick” Long teaming to solve a murder.
Taking its title from Ralph Waldo Emerson (“the surest poison is time”), “The Surest Poison” gathers dramatic momentum from Gettler’s mandate to “teach juries how to understand science.” The intersection of science and law was not well traveled in the pre-“Law & Order” 1920s, and civilians and law officers alike needed to be educated about scientific breakthroughs — and processes required for scientific findings to be reliable. (That remains true, as recent discoveries concerning blood spatter patterns have upended courtroom proceedings.)
Like Armstrong and Bernfield, Idaszak, the daughter of chemical engineers, revised her script following input from Caltech’s Dr. Jay Labinger, who offered fruitful observations about how to stay faithful to scientific processes while making experiments onstage “legible” to audiences.
“Because of the narratives that have entered our collective understanding around ‘CSI’ and how sophisticated our technology and science is, it doesn’t always tie up as neatly or translate as perfectly as we see on these [TV] shows. In some ways there is a continuing refining of how science and jurisprudence go together.
“I am an expert in neither of these things; my training is firmly as a playwright,” notes Idaszak, who is also artistic director of Chicago’s Cloudgate Theatre. “But what I was struck by in researching Gettler was how extremely rigorous he was. … He did immense work across many, many, many toxins and poisons and substances. I focused on two of his major accomplishments: his developing testing for cyanide, [and] his work essentially processing and dealing with the effects of Prohibition.”
Bernfield, who describes herself as a “very rhythmic” writer, says she was drawn to the plosives and interesting sounds in math’s vocabulary while researching “Sizzle, Sizzle, Fly.” She laughs while recalling how validated she felt when her Caltech adviser said she got the numbers and their terminology right. Then she asked him about thinking.
“Dramatizing thinking onstage is a bit of a conundrum, but I find thinking really fascinating as an activity,” she explains. “He described two different ways of thinking: one is figuring out how to solve a problem, which is ‘looking at blue sky’ thinking; and the other is actually solving the problem using what you figured out.”
It’s pertinent because, while the blonde, twenty-something Poppy Northcutt’s bold fashion sense grabbed eyeballs and press attention, it was her mathematical brilliance that earned her a position alongside career NASA engineers; she subsequently helped design the trajectory for Apollo 8 and also helped land Apollo 13. Making that intellectual process engaging without a filmmaker’s cinematic tools, and without fetishizing Northcutt’s femininity, goes to the play’s core.
“The amazing thing I learned about NASA, the reason it worked, was its organizational structure,” Bernfield explains. “These teams were incredibly collaborative, and then they were pitted against each other to see who was gonna come up with stuff first. They had so little time, so if you could do it, you were on the team. … There was a lot of pressure on her, but it wasn’t what we expect. She could do the work and they needed her.”
Recent films like “Hidden Figures” have celebrated the many women involved in early computer research and coding. Later, that cultural condition shifted, and fewer women became engineers. Bernfield, who is also artistic director of a woman-focused theater company (New Georges), wants people to ask why.
“Structures didn’t really exist at NASA to get in the way of people advancing in this field; they just needed people who could get the work done,” Bernfield observes. “In the meantime we’ve actually put together more structures that have kept people out. That’s a really interesting lesson.”
Armstrong, Bernfield and Idaszak all touch on science’s value, and questions of privilege. Idaszak hopes audiences will discuss the appropriate role for artists, journalists, policy makers and scientists in advocating for “robust institutional change,” and the varied means by which “vulnerable groups” can be harmed and also helped by science.
“Who is allowed to be considered a scientist?” Armstrong asks rhetorically. “So frequently our image of the scientist is a balding old white guy in a lab coat. Nothing against balding old white guys in lab coats — they’re some of my favorite people — but that’s not the only type of person who gets to be a scientist. Mary Anning didn’t fit into images of who a scientist was [in the 1800s], and still doesn’t fit into images of what a scientist is today. Yet she was so influential. … Who are you if you are both the woman who has provided half of the fossils in the British Museum and you’re also the woman who is a small business owner, has this fossil shop down the street, and just hangs out with other working-class folks?”
Anning died in 1847, after discovering fossils along England’s Jurassic coast that helped change prevailing beliefs about prehistoric life. At the time people were slowly coming to grips with anthropological and scientific discoveries, and Christian churches were a powerful presence in civic life. Today, on the other side of the Industrial Revolution and deep in the throes of the Information Age, religion and science are stereotyped as opposing forces. “Bones of the Sea” is logically set in the 19th century — as are several other Armstrong plays, because, he says, “so much of what we are as a society today and who we are today was set up then.
“The way in which we talk about things like science and faith frequently grows out of things that happened in the 19th century. So if you really want to understand where we are now, you often have to see where we’ve come from.”
Mach 33: The Caltech-Pasadena Playhouse Festival of New Science-Driven Plays presents “Bones of the Sea” at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 9; “Sizzle, Sizzle, Fly” at 7 p.m. Friday, May 10; and “The Surest Poison” at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 11, at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; $15 ($10 for Playhouse members and students). Tickets/info: (626) 356-7529. armstrongplays.com, susanbernfield.com, kristinidaszak.com, Pasadenaplayhouse.org