It takes a sure hand (and, quite possibly, a blown mind) to craft the stuff of science into engaging theatre.
For a new play about Charles Darwin and evolution, the CatalystCollaborative@MIT, a partnership between MIT and Underground Railway Theater, looked to playwright Melinda Lopez (Playwriting Fellow ’03). In recent years, Melinda’s plays have been performed locally and at the Laguna Playhouse in California, Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida and – talk about a natural selection – have earned her Elliot Norton and IRNE awards, a Huntington Theatre Playwrighting Fellowship, residencies from Sundance and The Lark Playwrights Center, and more.
The result of Melinda’s commission, From Orchids to Octopi: an Evolutionary Love Story, approaches evolution by way of a muralist beset by hallucinations (and pregnancy), and an “evolving theatrical mural” created by artist David Fichter. The play premieres at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge on March 31 and runs through May 2.
Melinda spoke to ArtSake about science in art, writing for (and by) actors, and why a playwright needs to “break” character.
ArtSake: I’m curious about the writing process of From Orchids to Octopi, which was commissioned by the National Institutes of Health to commemorate the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. Did having some elements already established complicate your writing process?
Melinda: This piece has been hugely ambitious from the git go. Just thinking about how to frame ‘evolution’ as a dramatic narrative — it’s insane. From the initial conversation, I knew I had to keep bringing it back to the question, “what does this have to do with me? why should I care?” I may have stuck too literally to that idea, but without a really strong concept, you just go on these tangents about genetics, and fossils, and court rulings, and you can’t remember how you got there (well, that metaphor is also a good one for evolution, I guess).
Once I had a loose frame (pregnancy inspired fantastical journey through time with circus acts and mural) I read a million books, and interviewed scientists, doctors, muralists, etc. (plus ridiculous amounts of support from Debra Wise & Roxy Myrrhum, who also read, talked, interviewed, fact checked, et al.) The fantasy aspect let me go wild with having dinosaurs as characters, and gave me a reason to have Charles and Emma Darwin show up. I’m a stickler for consistent logic, even in a fantasy. Every universe has its rules.
ArtSake: This is not your first “science” play (Melinda created Girl Meets Boy: A Comedy about the Universe in conjunction with the Boston Museum of Science). Certainly, there are challenges that come with writing about science, but has anything pleasantly surprised you about these projects?
Melinda: I have loved meeting with the scientists in both cases, and most especially with the young women in science who are breaking new ground with their research, and who are Einstein level geniuses — Mary Dussault, at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics & Pardis Sabeti at the Broad at MIT. It’s incredible to live in this area surrounded by this IQ level. My dad and sister are both scientists, and I love the milieu, the questions, the challenge for me to stay coherent. I’m not afraid ever, to say, wait, go back, I don’t understand that. But mostly the concepts are so simple, so beautiful and clear that really, a little kid can follow. And then your head explodes.
ArtSake: You also worked with Underground Railway Theater in 2001 for How Do You Spell Hope? How does an ongoing relationship with a group of collaborating artists impact your writing?
Melinda: It’s a huge part of it. I started work with URT as an actress touring a million years ago. Then writing the first commission, I knew what they could accomplish with puppets and theatre magic. For this play, the concept of the mural came straight from the fact that I knew David Fichter could do it. It’s such an astonishing piece of work. It’s much more beautiful than the play! Also, one of the first questions I asked Debra was, how many actors can I have? She said three, but I begged for one more. So I have four actors, but they play 17 characters. I know URT could handle that.
ArtSake: Your work has been performed by some high-profile actors, including Lea Thompson, Matt McGrath, and Lucie Arnaz (daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), as well as many of the Boston area’s best. What’s more, you’re an Eliot Norton Award-winning actor yourself. As a playwright, how do you balance your awareness of the actor’s process with your goals as a writer?
Melinda: Derek Walcott, one of my teachers, always stressed that if an actor doesn’t understand the line, you’ve got to change the line. Actors are my inspiration. Everything I write, I think, will an actor have fun with this? It’s how I teach writing as well. You’ve got to hear the words in the mouth and body of a sensitive performer. On the page, it means almost nothing. So in rehearsal, I’m a pain because I’m changing up ’til the last minute, and if you ad lib and you’re funny, I’ll also totally steal your words. I assume, by the middle of rehearsal, that the actors know more about the play than I do.
You asked about working with ‘names.’ I have found for the most part that an actor has a name because they have big talent. To be fair, I have worked with unknown actors who had impossibly huge egos and destroyed the room. I haven’t had that experience with anyone whose name you would recognize.
ArtSake: You teach at a number of universities, including playwriting at Boston University. What do you try to instill in emerging playwrights?
Melinda: Wow. You should ask them! Break your characters. Don’t protect them. That’s the number one thing I see — a playwright has everything lined up, beautiful words, great characters, and killer story, and then they can’t follow through because they love their characters too much. You have to break their little spines, and leave them in the dirt and see if they can get up. If they can, then it’s a comedy.
ArtSake: What are you working on now?
Melinda: I have a 10 minute play that’s part of GRIMM at Company One in June — I based my play on the Grimm Fairy Tale “Stories About Snakes” which no one has ever heard of. Also, Boston Theater Marathon. Then there’s also a big play I am avoiding writing: Spanish American War. I think it’s time for me to go back to Cuba. I’ll work on that this summer.
From Orchids to Octopi by Melinda Lopez runs from March 31 to May 2, 2010, at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA. Many of the performances will include pre- or post-performance discussions by artists and scientists.
Melinda Lopez was the first recipient of the Charlotte Woolard Award, given by the Kennedy Center to a “promising new voice in American Theatre.” Her plays have been produced by the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Huntington Theatre, Coconut Grove Playhouse, the Laguna Playhouse, the Boston Playwrights Theatre, and elsewhere, and have been broadcast on NPR’s “The Play’s the Thing!” Her play Sonia Flew won the Elliot Norton Award for “Best New Play,” and the IRNE (Independent Reviewers of New England) for “Best Play” and “Best Production.” Melinda is also an actress; she has appeared at regional theatres across the country, and is featured in the movie Fever Pitch.
Images: Promotional image for FROM ORCHIDS TO OCTOPI; Melinda Lopez, photo by Ethan Backer; mural created by David Fichter for FROM ORCHIDS TO OCTOPI.