The groundbreaking research and discoveries that happen at Stony Brook are inspiring both art and science through innovation in the performing arts.
Ken Weitzman, an associate professor in the Department of English at Stony Brook University and affiliated faculty with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook, sought to leverage Stony Brook’s research as a creative and substantive way to ensure theater still has a viable place and presence on campus.
The Alda Center, which uses improvisational theater techniques in its science communication training programs, is aiming to make science accessible and engaging beyond the lab. This project enabled Weitzman to combine theater and science in a performance and discussion about the intersection of art and science, and science and society.
“I became interested in commissioning professional playwrights to write plays and, specifically, to engage with the research being done at Stony Brook,” he said.
Weitzman approached Laura Lindenfeld, dean of the School of Journalism and executive director of the Alda Center, with the idea. Lindenfeld, who was immediately supportive, was able to secure a grant from The Kavli Foundation to make Weitzman’s vision a reality.
“For a decade, the Alda Center has focused on using theater improv techniques to help scientists build trust and engage others in conversations about complex ideas,” said Lindenfeld. “I am so thrilled to see how these plays merge science and art, both of which affect our lives every day. I’m grateful for the opportunity to showcase some of the science happening here at Stony Brook on stage for others to explore.”
Through the project, the Alda Center commissioned three professional playwrights, including Weitzman, to collaborate with three Stony Brook researchers to craft short, one-act plays inspired by the lives, careers and work of the scientists. Researchers from across the University volunteered to collaborate on the project. Ultimately, three were chosen: Alexander Orlov, associate professor of materials science and engineering in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Clare Whitney from the School of Nursing; and H. Andrew Schwartz in the Department of Computer Science.
Each playwright had conversations with their subject, then wrote a play based on and inspired by that conversation and whatever additional information the scientist provided. The playwrights then shared their first drafts with their partner scientists and received feedback on the representation of the science/scientist.
“What’s different about this is the partnering of the scientist and the playwright from the start and the fact that it’s local, that it’s about research happening here,” said Weitzman. “Usually these things are more wide open, about science or scientists in general and from any era.”
In addition to the plays themselves, the event, SBU Science on Stage, will feature a panel discussion with the scientists and the playwrights about what it was like to work together and the intersections of science and art and their importance to society as a whole.
In conceiving the event, Weitzman had originally planned to have a live, in-person concert-style reading of the plays on campus. However, the continued need for social distancing forced the event to go virtual. “Despite that, we’ve got a terrific director and actors for the readings,” said Weitzman, adding that the participants include several Broadway veterans.
In addition to Weitzman, who is an award-winning playwright, the other playwrights are Nathan Alan Davis, a lecturer in theater at Princeton University whose plays have been produced and supported at prestigious theaters across the country and was one of 32 writers profiled in a New York Times Magazine piece titled, “Black Male Writers for Our Time,” and Deborah Zoe Laufer, whose plays have been produced at hundreds of theaters around the world. Laufer’s play, Informed Consent, received an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science Play grant and went on to become a New York Times Critics Pick.
Weitzman said that one of the challenges of the project was working from the “outside in.”
“Usually you start with an idea and then research to fill in your knowledge and to stoke the flames of your initial inspiration,” he said. “Here we had the research first and then had to find the story idea within it. My personal challenge was forcing myself not to use certain material because there was so much I wanted to engage with.”
Weitzman also said it was interesting to see how each playwright approached the challenge.
“Professor Orlov was incredibly articulate about his research,” he said. “He was very skilled at communicating to audiences outside his field; I didn’t think he needed any help to do that. What struck me instead were the thorny issues related to the pursuit of funding as well as a particularly fraught entrepreneurship workshop he had to go through. So that became the jumping off point and the aspect, along with his research, that I felt was important to communicate through the play.”
The first hour of the livestream is the play performances, and the second hour is a panel discussion with the playwrights and scientists on the intersections of art and science and on science communication in general. The readings and panel discussion will be recorded and available for a limited time on the Alda Center website.
“I can say in this instance, with the SBU Science on Stage plays, I enjoyed having so much material just handed to me in my conversation with Alex Orlov,” said Weitzman. “His research and his life are fascinating and varied and important. What a luxury to have someone drop such great material right in your lap.”
The performances and panel discussion will be streamed live on the Alda Center’s Facebook, YouTube and Twitter accounts, as well as on its website. The event will be from 3 pm to 5 pm, Wednesday, October 21. In addition to watching the performances and panel, viewers are encouraged to join the conversation and ask questions of the scientists or playwrights by commenting on the social media posts.
The event can be viewed live here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3AsZnUbCgk&feature=youtu.be