That meteor explosion over Russia a couple of weeks ago made playwright and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Alan Brody a tiny bit sad.
“That was the first time I mourned the salons,” Brody says.
For 10 years, Brody and his MIT colleague Alan Lightman ran informal monthly gatherings of scientists and playwrights in Room 112 at MIT’s Building 14N, on Memorial Drive. The dozen or so attendees at what they called the Science on Stage Salons discussed the intersection of science and theater as well as related topics in art, philosophy, and religion, usually inspired by a story in the news or something that happened to one of them in the course of their work.
“We got wiser and wiser as the wine disappeared,” says Brody, who teaches playwriting at MIT.
The duo hosted their last salon in December, feeling that the series had run its course. If they’d kept going, Brody says, he’s sure the Siberian meteor would have been a topic this month.
‘Audiences in general still feel alienated from science, from discussing it.’
The salons are continuing to have an impact anyway. On Thursday at the Central Square Theater, the Nora Theatre Company will unveil the world premiere of Brody’s play “Operation Epsilon,” which arose from one of the group’s conversations and was developed through Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, a spinoff from the salons.
The collaborative hosts readings and full productions of plays that live at the intersection of science and society, often with discussions by prominent scientists and artists before and after shows.
“We really try to take advantage of the enormous brainpower we have in the Cambridge-Boston area,” says Lightman, a physicist, critically acclaimed novelist, and MIT humanities professor.
At a salon way back in October 2003, Lightman talked up a book he had just read, Jeremy Bernstein’s “Hitler’s Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall,” based on transcripts of bugged conversations between 10 of Germany’s top nuclear scientists while they were held as prisoners of war at a mansion in the British countryside at the close of World War II.
He told Brody it would make a great play, and now, after several readings and a weeklong developmental workshop in Florida, audiences are going to find out if he was right. The 10 Germans, minded by one British officer, argue about their reputations and legacy, pure research versus politics, and why America was first to develop the atomic bomb.
The conversation slowly turns from the mathematics of nuclear fission to their fear that the world will believe they were developing the bomb for Hitler, to the morality of working for the Nazi regime even on questions of pure science. The cast includes Diego Arciniegas as Werner Heisenberg (who’s also a principal character in a Tony Award-winning physics play, Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen”) and Will Lyman as Otto Hahn, two leaders of the group.
“Alan Brody has certainly done his homework, because if he hadn’t, his colleagues at MIT would rip him to shreds,” director Andy Sandberg says cheerfully. “I know very little about the world of nuclear physics other than what I’ve learned developing this play, to be honest. And part of my job is to provide that objective lens and not get caught up too much in the world of physics.” If the play is to reach beyond the insider crowd, a perspective like his is key. And so he asks himself: “What is keeping people who are not physicists on the edge of their seats?”
Brody, the late playwright Jon Lipsky, and Debra Wise founded Catalyst Collaborative about seven years ago, and Lightman soon signed on as well. It began as a partnership between MIT and the Underground Railway Theater, where Wise is artistic director. The Nora joined more recently.
Among previous works commissioned and/or produced by the collaborative have been Brody’s “Small Infinities,” about Sir Isaac Newton, and Suffolk University theater professor and salon regular Wesley Savick’s stage adaptation of Lightman’s best-selling “Einstein’s Dreams.” Other works tackled the extraordinary case of a man who could form no new memories after brain surgery (in Savick’s “Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M.”) and sexism in the sciences at MIT (in Gioia De Cari’s one-woman show “Truth Values”).
But Wise says that the collaborative’s most important work may be much like that of the salons, creating conversations that cross boundaries between science and art — and audiences.
“Audiences in general still feel alienated from science, from discussing it, even though we’re in an increasingly scientific and technological age,” says Wise. “Many of us, I think it’s safe to say, are still cowed by the practice of science. And we are very willing, I think, to defer to the scientists and people in technology and the experts.
“But science and technology interface with so many questions that deal not only with our everyday lives but with existential questions for us now,” she says. “We as a citizenry need to be able to enter into those conversations.”
Highlights of New Repertory Theatre’s 2013-14 season, announced this week, range from a revival of “Camelot” to a play imagining Bernie Madoff’s jailhouse conversations with a Jewish poet.
Main-stage productions in the Charles Mosesian Theater are “The Elephant Man” by Bernard Pomerance, Sept. 7-29; “Rancho Mirage,” a National New Play Network comedy by Steven Dietz, Oct. 12-Nov. 3; Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot,” Nov. 23-Dec. 22; “The Whipping Man,” by Matthew Lopez, Jan. 25-Feb. 16, 2014; and the time-travel fantasy “On the Verge,” by Eric Overmyer, May 3-25, 2014.
In the Black Box Theater, New Rep will offer Deborah Margolin’s “Imagining Madoff” Jan. 4-26, 2014, and the three Next Rep Festival productions: “Tongue of a Bird” by Ellen McLaughlin, March 8-30, 2014; “Our Lady” by James Fluhr and “In Between” by Ibrahim Miari, both running March 30-April 20, 2014.