Tune in: Short virtual plays bring science to life Jan. 21-24
by Kelsey Simpkins, University of Colorado Boulder (Read the original.)
Four actors perform The Tipping Point over Zoom, a short play by Lia Romeo. (Credit: Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company)
Stages remain quiet these days, seats sit unfilled and curtains gather dust as the COVID-19 pandemic has put theater on pause around the world. But this weekend, four new short, science-based plays debut online about everything from pikas and tsunamis to cannibalism.
Available to view online starting today, Science Shorts are the result of four CU Boulder scientists partnering with four playwrights from Colorado to write and produce four fictitious, 10-minute plays, followed by four short talks by the scientists who inspired their work. The production is the result of a collaboration between the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), with support from CU Boulder’s Nature, Environment, Science & Technology (NEST) Studio for the Arts.
“There are so many artists who are interested in environmental work and climate change issues, that it’s really a fruitful area for artistic exploration,” said Heather Beasley, associate producer at BETC and coordinator of Science Shorts.
Local professional actors take on the characters in these play readings over Zoom, since the plays could not be performed for live audiences as originally envisioned due to the pandemic. While it’s not a weekend of live performances, Beasley is excited that more people have the chance to see the production through its online format. And, because the plays are recorded, they have the potential to be used in classrooms as educational tools.
Science in the screenplay
From top to bottom, left to right: Participating scientists Atreyee Bhattacharya, Ted Scambos, Neesha Schnepf and Ashley Whipple. (Credit: Atreyee Bhattacharya, Ted Scambos/CIRES, Neesha Schnepf/CIRES and Ashley Whipple)
Participating scientists Atreyee Bhattacharya, Ted Scambos, Neesha Schnepf and Ashley Whipple were matched with playwrights Kenya Fashaw, Ellen Graham, Nigel Knutzen and Lia Romeo to provide research-based catalysts for the plays, and to advise the playwrights throughout the process. Any science that is in the plays is accurately represented, even though it’s represented within a fictional framework.
The science represented in the plays is also quite diverse. Schnepf is a post-doctoral research associate at CIRES who studies geomagnetism, while Whipple is a research affiliate at INSTAAR who studies pikas in the Rocky Mountains.
“To the credit of the scientists, they were willing and able to be really flexible,” said Erin Leckey, education and outreach associate at CIRES and co-coordinator of Science Shorts.
Scambos, an internationally known CIRES scientist who studies Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, jumped on the chance to participate because he has always been interested in science writing for the public, as well as writing science fiction. Due to effects of global climate change, the massive, 70-mile-across Thwaites Glacier is slowly flowing into the sea like stretched saltwater taffy, and it could be responsible for a significant part of sea level rise between now and the end of the century.
After learning this information for the first time, Scambos’ playwright partner Romeo was faced with a unique challenge. When she writes short plays, she tends to make them comedic. But what’s funny about glaciers melting?
“The play that was written really caught me by surprise,” said Scambos. “The key is that it’s always about people, no matter what—science fiction, romance, history—it’s always about people. That’s the story.”
The realm of the real
From top to bottom, left to right: Playwrights Kenya Fashaw, Ellen Graham, Nigel Knutzen and Lia Romeo. (Credit: Kenya Fashaw, Ellen Graham, Nigel Knutzen and Lia Romeo)
For Bhattacharya, working with playwright Fashaw was one of the most unique experiences of her life. It helped her see the impacts of her work on individuals, not just communities.
Bhattacharya is currently a visiting researcher in Civil Environmental and Architectural Engineering, a research affiliate in the Center for Asian Studies, and will return this fall as a research affiliate in CIRES. She studies variations in temperature and rainfall related to climate, and the impacts of climate anomalies on human societies, particularly in semi-arid societies in the global south. Her findings help inform climate policymakers and governments about the risks to particular societies from climate variability, from conflict to migration and agriculture.
When Bhattacharya talks to some communities about climate change and mentions that there’s going to be “X centimeters” of sea level rise, that information isn’t tangible to people. That’s where Fashaw’s work comes in.
“People don’t react to data,” Bhattacharya said. “But the impacts are real. Climate scientists are not able to paint that picture for us. They need artists to paint that for us.”
Visual art, theater, documentaries and movies also allow people who are facing climate impacts to share their story, she noted.
“I think the thing that theater does so well is that it takes stories and information from the realm of the abstract to the realm of the real,” said Romeo. “It brings a real sense of concreteness and urgency to these ideas that otherwise can feel sort of abstract and far away.”
As theater looks for ways to continue to feel relevant in a COVID-19 world, its power remains in storytelling and starting conversations, Romeo said. Even if a play isn’t about the scientific research itself, the scientists involved in Science Shorts all are keen to alert more people to their work and its relevance to their lives.
“Anything that you can get people to kind of sit down, look at and be entertained by, they’re definitely going to take away some type of awareness from it,” said Fashaw. “If you can get their attention in a very exciting way about a topic they probably would have never even thought about, I feel like you’re doing your job as an artist.”
Science Shorts is supported by CU Boulder’s Nature, Environment, Science & Technology (NEST) Studio for the Arts and Boulder County Arts Alliance, and producing partners Elizabeth Barrekette & Jonathan Steinberg.