Thursday, April 14, 2016

Science + Theater + Diversity Conference with the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT

By E Rosser

This Sunday, I sat down with a quantum physicist-slash-director on my right, and a playwright who works with telescopes on my right.  A slew of other participants, ranging from theater interns, to history students, to neuroscientists, to engineers circled their chairs around the room.  Together, we represented a broad range of interests and backgrounds, but today we were there to tackle our favorites: theater, science, and diverse representation.  After introductions, ample coffee, and some question brainstorming, we dug right into group dialogue, wondering how theater might effectively capture the scientific process, and how science, in turn, might be progressed by featuring in theater.  That dialogue was the central component of Sunday’s Science + Theater + Diversity Conference, hosted by the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT and the companies in residence at the Central Square Theater.

Photo courtesy of Allison Schneider

The CC@MIT is the only long-term collaboration venture between a professional theater and a research institution like MIT.  Through theater that focuses on the seldom-told stories of science, CC@MIT seeks to not only bring the thrilling narrative of discovery to the public eye, but also spark an ongoing science dialogue.  Founded by local theater pro Debra Wise, playwright and MIT theater arts professor Alan Brody, and his colleague Janet Sonenberg, the Collaborative aims to produce at least one science play per season.  The colorful posters that lined the hallways of the theater speak to the variety of their past works, all classics of science-based theater: A Disappearing Number, Q.E.D., Photograph 51, and Einstein’s Dreams, based on the book by artistic co-director Alan Lightman.  Debra Wise, the moderator of the conference’s discussion, proudly rattled off these titles, but noted how “we’re running out of good science plays!”  The Collaborative seeks to fill that void, especially with under-represented voices, by commissioning scripts from minority playwrights through their Untold Stories: Catalyst 2024 program-- or ”young nerds of color,” as Wise playfully called the series.  The next installment will be announced at an upcoming CST Gala, and produced during the theater’s next season.

Next came presentations by several conference attendees.  Alona R. Bach offered a preview of her upcoming thesis play about female electrical engineers in British history.  Sami Harper and Neerja Aggarwal gave a presentation about Now Then Again, their inaugural play with ETC, MIT’s student Experimental Theater Company.  Jasmine Florentine, an artist and mechanical engineer, pitched a concept for Hex Allen, her lushly-illustrated story about engineering geared to inspire girls to explore STEAM activities.  Rounding out the discussion with some topical science, lighting designer Allison Schneider drew connections between optics, physics, and theater lighting effects.

Photo Courtesy of Allison Schnieder

After the presentations, we sat down with a panel of several accomplished science communicators:  Rhodes scholar, musician, mathematician, and science historian Anya Yermakova; Alan Brody, playwright of last season’s Operation Epsilon; and frequent director at CST Lee Mikeska Gardner.  Science and art, they agreed, weren’t always subject to the same rigid division we see today, and once coexisted in intellectual circles.  Just as philosophy is meant to be lived rather than simply studied, Yermakova remarked, science can and should be put on stage, rather than keeping it in the classroom.

The conference concluded with a matinee performance of CC@MIT’s latest production, the Tom Stoppard staple Arcadia.  Stay tuned for a full review...or head to Central Square Theater to check out a performance yourself!


E. Rosser is a science writer and mechanical engineer currently wrapping up a degree at MIT. As a designer and theater enthusiast, she's left this conference excited to start making more science theater! She was honored and thrilled to be part of the Conference discussion, and thanks the staff of the Central Square Theater for organizing it.


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