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Dava Sobel’s Copernicus takes the stage in Boulder
In 1995 Dava Sobel introduced readers to one John Harrison with her graceful and engrossing history, ” Longitude, The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.”
Now, with a steadfast assist from the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company and artistic director Stephen Weitz, Sobel adds playwright to her résumé.
Her debut, “And the Sun Stood Still,” tells the story of Nicolaus Copernicus’ theory that the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way around. It plays at Boulder’s Dairy Center for the Arts through April 20.
Copernicus honed his theory as a young man, then tucked it away — for three decades — until Georg Joachim Rheticus sought him out in Poland and pushed the astronomer to make public his findings. “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” was published in 1543.
The notion for a play was something Sobel tucked away for a spell, too.
“It was was an idea I had years ago, in 1973, when I was writing on the 500th anniversary of Nicolaus Copernicus’ birth,” she said on the phone recently.
She was particularly attracted to the relationship of Copernicus and this visitor. “I just thought that was the most interesting thing I’d ever heard,” she said. “Immediately it sounded like a play to me.”
But at the time, she had a full-time job and, well, she didn’t know anything about penning plays. “After a few weeks I gave it up but I didn’t forget about it.”
Lovers of Sobel’s books know she takes great pleasure in digging in and drilling down into the research.
It’s little surprise then that when she returned to the idea — thanks in part astronomer Owen Gingerich — she applied a similar enthusiasm and discipline to playwriting.
Sobel set herself on a course to learn how to write plays. Research included taking season subscriptions to four of the best theater companies in New York City, each known for finding and nurturing new works: Manhattan Theatre Club, Roundabout Theater Company, New York Theater Workshop and Second Stage.
Her publisher suggested writing the Copernicus book around the play. So when we arrive at page 81 of “A More Perfect Heaven,” that drama begins. When it ends some 78 pages later, Sobel picks up the historical narrative of what happened after Copernicus’ assertions.
“I knew the play still didn’t really work very well as a play,” she said. “Though it worked very well inside the book.”
Enter Weitz, artistic director of the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company.
When Sobel visited Boulder during a book tour for “A More Perfect Heaven” in 2011, he helped with the reading.
“Stephen helped pick out scenes,” said Sobel. He helped prune and tighten. He sent actors Jim Hunt and Brian Landis Folkins her way as well. “Even though they were reading in the bookstore, they really had it. They made it work.”
Sobel was impressed enough that when her book tour ended she reached out to Weitz and asked him to do a workshop. He agreed. A collaboration was launched. .
For Weitz’s part, the partnership has been rich and instructional. “To be completely honest, I wasn’t sure it was going to get there,” he said, readily acknowledging the risk of new play development. “But we agreed to do it because it was an interesting project and she was incredibly gracious.”
The newbie playwright will be in Boulder once again for tonight’s world premiere.
“I never thought I’d see the day. And here we are.” she said.
Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567, email@example.com or twitter.com/bylisakennedy
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