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Science-Driven Plays Take Center Stage at Pasadena Playhouse

Theatergoers at the Pasadena Playhouse will get a healthy dose of science May 9–11, as three new productions present stories about a 19th-century paleontologist, a Prohibition-era forensic chemist, and the first female NASA engineer.

The plays are being produced as part of MACH 33, the annual festival of new science-driven plays, which pairs professional playwrights with technical advisers from Caltech who help make the authors’ fiction richer by grounding it in scientific fact.

Brian Brophy, director of Theater Arts at Caltech since 2008 and artistic director of MACH 33, says that the program has exploded in popularity among the nation’s playwrights in the past few years.

“Two to three years ago, we usually received about 15 entries. But we received 117 submissions this year. We were overwhelmed by the response,” Brophy says.

A group of 23 readers, including staff, faculty, students, and other members of the Caltech community, winnowed the plays down to eight finalists. The authors were then paired with advisers, mostly Caltech PhD students, who worked with the playwrights for several months developing the science in the plays. The collaboration period often included several informal readings of the plays to provide the playwright with additional feedback.

The mission of MACH 33, says Brophy, “is to help scientists articulate why science is important and to bring people into a dialogue about what we do. Theater is a crucial public forum because it exteriorizes science and facilitates a public conversation about it.”

Arden Thomas, associate artistic director of MACH 33, notes that the benefits flow both ways: scientists disseminate concepts to new audiences, while playwrights “often find that by digging into the science, they raise the dramatic stakes of the play.”

Jake Mattinson, a graduating senior studying physics who has served for the last three years on the reading committee charged with selecting the top plays, says he looks for stories that authentically portray the values and mannerisms of scientists, and where the science serves as a realistic factor in propelling the story forward.

“Plays with sincere experiences are the best plays for MACH 33,” he says, because they engage scientists and the general public equally. He adds that the program is “an incredibly valuable method of scientific communication. Scientists want to be heard and want to be honest but oftentimes aren't being given the correct tools to actually work on that.” MACH 33, he says, is the “best example” of a program that allows scientists and playwrights to put science, literally and figuratively, center stage.

The three MACH 33 plays now in production will appear on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse May 9–11. They are:

  • Bones of the Sea. Written by James Armstrong and directed by Satya Bhabha, the play tells the true story of Mary Anning, a working-class woman in Dorset, England, who helped revolutionize the field of paleontology in the 19th century. May 9, 7 p.m.
  • Sizzle Sizzle Fly. Written by Susan Bernfield and directed by Rhonda Kohl, the play, based on real events, tells how math whiz Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, working at Mission Control as a “computress,” became the first woman to slip on the headset as a NASA engineer.May 10, 7 p.m.
  • The Surest Poison. Written by Kristin Idaszak and directed by Randee Trabitz, the story follows the work of obsessive chemist Alexander Gettler, who helped create the modern field of forensic toxicology while trying to track down a murderer. May 11, 7 p.m.

The plays, produced by and starring professional directors and actors, will also feature actors from the Caltech community in key roles.

Learn more and purchase tickets at www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.

On Friday, May 10, the MACH 33 program will host a panel discussion on science in dramatic literature. The event, which will feature playwrights Armstrong, Bernfield, and Idaszak, will in the Hameetman Center, room 206.

Written by Jon Nalick