‘Sea­son of sci­ence’ takes the Re­nais­sance stage

Wisconsin Gazette - - Wigout - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

Mil­wau­kee’s Re­nais­sance Theater­works’ 26th sea­son’s theme is “She Blinded Me with Sci­ence,” and all three plays that are sched­uled ex­am­ine the roles women have played in fur­ther­ing sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery.

The plays “were ones that we had been want­ing to do for some time,” says artis­tic di­rec­tor Suzan Fete, who comes from a sci­ence back­ground and holds a mas­ter’s de­gree in nurs­ing.

The se­lec­tions re­flect the mis­sion of Re­nais­sance — “the­ater by women for ev­ery­one” — while sup­port­ing na­tional ef­forts to get more young women in­ter­ested in the study of sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics, bet­ter known as STEM pro­grams.

De­spite shar­ing a sci­en­tific through­line, the se­lec­tion is sur­pris­ingly di­verse.

Play­wright Karen Zacarias’ Na­tive Gar­dens (Oct. 19–Nov. 11), de­scribed as “a hot­but­ton com­edy where cul­tures and gar­dens clash,” tack­les the hor­ti­cul­tural con­flict be­tween na­tive plants and ex­otic species in a tony Wash­ing­ton, D.C., sub­urb. Led by two feud­ing neigh­bors, both women of sci­ence, the nar­ra­tive tack­les a va­ri­ety of sub­jects, in­clud­ing race, taste, class and priv­i­lege.

Anna Ziegler’s Pho­to­graph 51 (Jan. 18– Feb. 10), a play about am­bi­tion and iso­la­tion, chron­i­cles the role sci­en­tist Ros­alind Franklin played in the re­search that even­tu­ally led to the dis­cov­ery of the DNA dou­ble helix. Yet Franklin’s name of­ten is not as­so­ci­ated with the break­through de­scribed as the 20th cen­tury’s great­est sci­en­tific achieve­ment.

Fi­nally, Reina Hardy’s An­nie Jump and the Li­brary of Heaven (March 29–April 21) tells the tale of a 13-year-old sci­en­tific ge­nius from Straw­berry, Kan­sas, and her chance en­counter with Althea, an in­ter­ga­lac­tic su­per­com­puter that, ac­cord­ing to pro­gram notes, man­i­fests as “a mean girl with re­ally great hair.” An­nie is the cho­sen one to lead hu­mankind to the stars, Althea says, but there is a cost to ful­fill­ing that des­tiny.

The de­sire to pro­duce An­nie Jump ac­tu­ally started the sea­son rolling, Fete says. Re­nais­sance had per­formed the play as a dra­matic reading dur­ing its 2017–18 Br!nk New Play Fes­ti­val. The full pro­duc­tion will be the com­pany’s first “rolling” world pre­miere, with con­cur­rent pro­duc­tions this sea­son by the­ater com­pa­nies in Austin, Texas, and Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

BAL­ANC­ING THE GEN­DER EQUA­TION

Each of the plays stands on its own, but all carry a sub­text of the dif­fi­culty women face in try­ing to com­pete in what hereto­fore has been seen as a man’s world, Fete says.

“Even though the plays aren’t di­rectly about dis­crim­i­na­tion, they each touch on things that show how so­ci­ety dif­fers in the way it treats women,” Fete says. “Women face more ob­sta­cles than men.”

In Pho­to­graph 51, for ex­am­ple, the char­ac­ter of Ros­alind finds chal­lenges based on the fact that she is both a woman and Jewish, mak­ing her an out­sider in mul­ti­ple ways, Fete ex­plains. She ar­rives at the study as­sum­ing she will be a fullfledged par­tic­i­pant only to dis­cover she’s been as­signed to an as­sis­tant’s role.

“She was also not a pleas­ant or user­friendly per­son,” the artis­tic di­rec­tor says. “Had she been a man, per­haps her name would be on the No­bel Prize along with the oth­ers.”

The sci­ence theme not­with­stand­ing, all of this sea­son’s plays have what Re­nais­sance al­ways looks for — strong and in­ter­est­ing roles for women.

“When we were founded in 1993, we wanted to pro­duce the best pos­si­ble qual­ity the­ater that we could while pro­mot­ing the best pos­si­ble roles for women on stage and off,” Fete says. “We seek out plays with strong fe­male char­ac­ters and themes that speak to women in so­ci­ety.”

Fete notes that a large ma­jor­ity of the­ater­go­ing au­di­ences are made up of women, but only 20 per­cent of plays are writ­ten by women. The dis­par­ity causes an im­bal­ance in how women are rep­re­sented on­stage, which re­sults in false per­cep­tions by so­ci­ety in gen­eral and among women them­selves.

“We all thrive in a so­ci­ety that ap­pre­ci­ates di­ver­sity,” Fete ex­plains. “I don’t think peo­ple ac­tively dis­crim­i­nate, but you seek what you are fa­mil­iar with and what you like.

“If most pro­duc­ers are men, they will seek things that speak to them,” she adds. “As we get more women in power, things will bal­ance out.”

Based on re­sponses that Fete hears, she be­lieves Re­nais­sance Theater­works is ac­com­plish­ing what it set out to do: bal­ance the gen­der equa­tion.

“What makes me the most proud is when a young ac­tress comes to me and says, ‘I saw your work when I was in ju­nior high school and re­al­ized that there is a place for me in the­ater.’”

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