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Physicist and novelist Alan Lightman looks back on a decade of science on stage

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Debra Wise, Robert Najarian, and Steven Barkhimer act in the 2007 CC@MIT production of Alan Lightman’s "Einstein’s Dreams."
Debra Wise, Robert Najarian, and Steven Barkhimer act in the 2007 CC@MIT production of Alan Lightman’s "Einstein’s Dreams."
Photo: Elizabeth Stewart/Libberding Photography

For a decade, Catalyst Collaborative at MIT (CC@MIT) has convened scientists and theater artists searching for common ground and, in a partnership between MIT and nearby Central Square Theater (CST), has brought those conversations to life for the wider community. Resident CST troupes Underground Railway Theater and the Nora Theatre Company have produced at least one play per season on a scientific theme, some of which have been commissioned by CC@MIT. The productions frequently include opportunities for the audience to engage directly with scientists, artists, and prominent local thinkers. 

This spring, CC@MIT caps off its 10th anniversary celebration with an adaptation by director/playwright Wesley Savick of Alan Lightman’s 2012 novel "Mr g," which imagines the creation of the universe from the creator’s perspective. One of CC@MIT’s co-directors, Lightman is both a physicist and professor of the practice of the humanities in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing program. He is no stranger to the stage; his international bestseller "Einstein’s Dreams" has received no fewer than two-dozen theatrical and musical adaptations (including a CC@MIT outing, with Savick, in 2007).

"Mr g" runs at Central Square Theater April 23 - May 24, and was included on the schedule of the sprawling Cambridge Science Festival. Participants in the accompanying discussions include such MIT faculty members as planetary scientist Sara Seager, Nobel-winning physicist Wolfgang Ketterle, and Lightman himself, as well as MIT-trained theoretical astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan ’90, ’91, SM ’11.

MIT Spectrum asked Lightman to look back at the group’s genesis and ahead to its future.

Q: How was Catalyst Collaborative at MIT first hatched? 

A: A little more than 10 years ago, [theater arts faculty member] Alan Brody and I started a monthly salon called “Science on Stage” for MIT scientists and playwrights from all over the Boston area. Our first meeting included physicists George Benedek, Jerry Friedman, Alan Guth, and Bob Jaffe. A biologist, Nancy Hopkins, was in the group, and an ophthalmologist, David Miller. The theater people included Debra Wise, artistic director of Underground Railway Theater; Kate Snodgrass, artistic director of Boston Playwrights’ Theatre; and Jon Lipsky, a Boston University professor who has since passed away. Our idea was that we would have freewheeling discussions about the intersection of the sciences and the arts.

Q: And is that what happened?

A: We had wine and cheese, and we would go around the table and talk about what we were thinking about, what we were reading, what plays we were seeing. And then after about 20 minutes we would magically focus on some particular topic of conversation. We never knew in advance exactly what it would be and we never had any homework, which was one of the reasons why it worked.

About two years after we started the salon, the idea of the Catalyst Collaborative emerged as a more formal association between MIT and the Underground Railway Theater. The playwrights were getting good ideas about plays that involved science and the scientists were learning how theater people think about the world. There was a very fruitful exchange of ideas that probably would not have occurred in chance meetings in the hallway.

Q: A decade later, you have a large advisory committee of MIT faculty from several disciplines. What is their involvement?

A: We can only commission one or two plays a year and perform a couple a year, so we meet for short play readings and the advisory committee shares its opinions. Another big part of what the faculty does is participate in the post-performance discussions with scientists and artists about the themes of the play. These are particularly appropriate for our audience. There’s no area in the world, certainly not in the United States, that has the assemblage of intellectuals that the Boston/Cambridge area does. We’ve also held performances and talk-backs at various high schools.

Q: Are there certain topics audiences seem especially eager to discuss?

A: People are very interested in ethical issues raised by or dealt with by science, and in science and religion.

And I think the public’s interested in understanding scientists as human beings. Scientists are generally regarded in our culture as being robots, as being from another planet. They have this arcane knowledge which can cause great good and also great destruction. And not many people know the language of science — it’s a kind of a priesthood. Who are these people in the lab coats? Anything we can do to help the public understand scientists as human beings is worthwhile, because science and technology, in addition to religion, are the most powerful forces shaping our world and our society.

Alan Brody’s play Operation Epsilon is a good example. It shows German atomic scientists at the end of WWII, debating the ethics of developing the bomb and questioning their own careers and self-identities. That’s one of the plays, by the way, that emerged from the Science on Stage salons, which continued until a couple of years ago.

Q: Having worked with Wesley Savick previously on "Einstein’s Dreams," were you excited to explore particular aspects of your book, "Mr g," with him?

A: My view about a collaboration of that nature is that I don’t want to get in the way of the playwright. I’m very pleased that "Mr g" and "Einstein’s Dreams" inspired Wesley to adapt for the stage. At that point, it’s Wesley’s own creative imagination that takes over. He’s made a number of artistic decisions which depart from the book. For example, he’s made Mr g, who is the God character, a teenage boy.

Q: What was your reaction to that?

A: Well, I was a little startled. After thinking about it a little bit, I could understand the reason behind it, because in the book "Mr g" is a playful, curious character, eager to do experiments. He has a lot of youthful enthusiasm and even naiveté, if you can imagine naiveté in God. Wesley apparently decided that casting a teenage boy would distill all of that. I was more startled when he chose a girl to play Belhor — who is the Satan-like character in the book — and implied a slight romantic flirtation with Mr g. But again, that’s a different artist, following his own star.

Q: What goals do you have for the next decade of Catalyst Collaborative?

A: I would like to see us have a national impact, for some of the plays that we commission to travel beyond the precincts of Boston and Cambridge, and to have talk-back sessions around the country — basically to export what we’ve developed here.

We’d also like to commission more plays where we bring scientists and playwrights together from the beginning. We need money to do that, though we’ve been operating on a pretty low budget and getting a big bang for our buck. And when we commission new plays, I’d like us to be able to draw from an even richer pool of playwrights around the country.

Q: There seems to be a growing interest among playwrights in engaging with these kinds of topics, especially through programs like the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s science play commissions.

A: In fact, one of the developments that inspired us to start the Science on Stage salons back in 2003 was the Sloan Foundation’s commissioning program in New York, which I think was just starting around that time, as well as the success of "Copenhagen" by Michael Frayn [about a meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg] and "Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard [whose characters grapple with the mathematical and scientific laws that govern the universe].

Q: You straddle the humanities and the sciences in a way most people don’t. Is it difficult to find scientists who want to be involved in a project like this? 

A: It’s true that it’s a minority of scientists who want to do this kind of thing. And of course, it would be nice to have a national rather than just a local net to catch these people. But all of the scientists who came to the salon — and they were just from MIT — are very interested in this. You can find scientists who are interested in the arts and want to participate.

Press Mentions

Boston Globe

Boston Globe reporter Jeremy Goodwin reviews “Einstein’s Dreams,” a play adapted from Prof. Alan Lightman’s 1993 novel. “The conceit behind Lightman’s deeply imaginative source material is that it presents a journal of Einstein’s nocturnal musings as he developed his theories of general and special relativity,” writes Goodwin.

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