In the Lab: Women Playwrights Changing Theatre Through Science Plays

Natacha Roi in the world premiere production of Emilie by Lauren Gunderson

Natacha Roi in the world premiere production of Emilie by Lauren Gunderson at South Coast Repertory

by Jonathan Alexandratos

As you read this, a revolution is changing the art of playwrighting. At its heart? Science plays. Its vanguard? Women playwrights.

A director whose work I greatly admire told me that, when you’re in the center of this movement, it feels more like evolution than revolution. I couldn’t agree more. Yet, whenever I discuss women changing the look and sound of 21st Century drama through science plays at conferences or lectures, tragically few seem to have heard the news. That’s okay, though; we’re all here to learn, and we all take good notes.

So, in the hopes of broadening the discussion, I’d like to recognize the women playwrights at the heart of this shift and highlight how their work is reshaping the form and content of modern theatre. All of the women I will discuss have used the science play to alter the way plays are written and/or seen.

The term “science play” refers to any play that aims to use theatre to discuss aspects of science. It is not science fiction, in that most science plays are not speculative – they refer to verified, though perhaps not certain, events. The fact that these plays usually contain some aspect of experiment puts them in a unique position to abandon theatrical tradition. They might, for instance, break certain dramatic rules because  experimentation is already a prominent theme in the plot. If the story features an experiment, why not allow the form to test boundaries, too?

And this is precisely the reason women playwrights in particular are revolutionizing the way we write plays: they have spectacularly married experiments in plot with experimental form to constantly challenge the traditions of playwrighting.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll list a selection of women playwrights, below, and brief notes on how their science plays have changed the craft. For the sake of convenience, I’ll go in alphabetical order. This list is nowhere near comprehensive.

  • Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play A Number studies the science of cloning. Further, her play’s dialogue features nontraditional uses of punctuation, which means that lines may not adhere to grammatical rules, but reflect characters’ speech patterns instead. The result is an authentic play that looks new on the page, while speaking about an incredible, new issue.
  • Lauren Gunderson’s canon includes many science plays that allow new audiences to access formerly distant scientific theories. Her 2010 play EMILIE distills the complex 17th Century concept of Force Vive into a digestible and emotionally compelling story. Her next play, BY AND BY is coming up this May in Berkeley at Shotgun Players.
  • Sarah Ruhl’s 2010 In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) features the early, medical use of the vibrator as a cure for hysteria. Ruhl’s approach turns a 20th/21st Century device of pleasure and liberation into just the opposite by returning to the vibrator’s origin. This play, like many of Ruhl’s pieces, employs poetic stage directions which show that this once-purely-functional component of drama can also be rhythmically beautiful.

 

  • Shelagh Stephenson’s 1997 Experiment with an Air Pump explores two scientific issues through a non-linear plot that follows characters in 1799 and 1999. Her play also involves the famous Joseph Wright painting, thereby adding another layer to the way in which theatre can combine science with art. This, combined with Stephenson’s use of time, makes her piece incredibly important to the study of modern theatre.
  • Anna Ziegler’s 2010 play Photograph 51 centers around Rosalind Franklin’s discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, and the subsequent hijacking of that finding by Watson and Crick. Ziegler’s piece is relevant for a number of reasons: (1) its main character endures the same challenges many women writers must also overcome, such as not being taken as seriously as their male counterparts, (2) the play functions as a semi-biographical tale, showing how modern theatre can develop the lives of those we are (or think we are) already familiar with, and (3) her play benefitted from established, prominent programs meant to develop science plays – projects like the Sloan Project at New York City’s Ensemble Studio Theatre.

 

As I mentioned before, the women leading the charge to change theatre are far more than these five. Further, men writers, too, are remolding the craft of playwrighting through science plays. The message, here, is that while this theatrical revolution is not a boys’ or girls’ club, the work of its women contributors needs to be recognized, specifically, because: (1) the number of produced, women playwrights is overshadowed, disproportionally, by men, (2) women have been told, time and again, that men have a higher scientific ability than they do, and such nonsense needs to be refuted at every turn, and (3) this is a phenomenon where, in many cases, women are the first to take the risk of changing tradition, and that deserves recognition.

I will not attempt to “explain” why so many women have created this revolution out of the science play – to do so could only ever amount to speculation – but I will simply end by saying that women are at the forefront of this movement. Writers: take advantage of the permission they give us. Audiences and producers: embrace their genius, and help close the gender gap in theatre.

Posted on by Jonathan Alexandratos in Feminism Leave a comment

About the author

Jonathan Alexandratos

Jonathan Alexandratos is a playwright living in New York City. He is a professor at Plaza College and Queensborough Community College, and is a co-founder of the non-profit playwrights' lab Playsmiths.

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