Isaac's Eye won the 2012 Whitfield Cook Prize, an annual award given by New Dramatists for an unproduced, unpublished play deemed worthiest by an outside panel of judges.
Lucas Hnath on Isaac Newton:
I write so frequently about science and technology because I'm interested in characters who take themselves to the very edge of human experience. Newton takes himself to the edge of what can be seen by our eyes — much as astronauts go to the edge of our world, or a swimmer who uses performance enhancing drugs takes himself to the edge of what the body can experience.
I perceived Newton as a kind of risk taker. But as I studied him more, I actually enjoyed what a difficult, argumentative person he was. He's probably not someone you would have wanted to hang around.
Robert Hooke is an especially exciting character because almost no one knows who he was. But he did so much that you've heard about but never knew came from him: the artificial respirator, the earliest telescopes, the plan-form map, the theory of elasticity. At the time he was called “London’s Leonardo.”
I think with Newton and Hooke you have a man and his shadow. Hooke is this wretched figure: sinful, hedonistic, grotesque. Newton, by contrast, is deeply moral. And yet, these distinctions become a bit more complicated before the play reaches its end. You come to realize how vicious and brutal a person Newton could be.
Isaac’s Eye and The EST/Sloan Project process
Four years ago, Isaac’s Eye was but a few paragraphs Hnath submitted for funding to The EST/Sloan Project. He describes how the play developed:
When I submitted the idea to Sloan, I had no play. I had a one-page proposal. The proposal outlined much of the story, but still, it was highly tentative. The folks from Sloan gave some feedback, and I actually rewrote the proposal based on their comments. They had some concerns about the factual accuracy of the play. As a result, I added what has now become the play's primary theatrical metaphor: the writing of “what’s true” on the wall. Sloan's concerns about accuracy actually opened the door for me to explore the relationship between truth and fiction in our attempts to understand the world and one another.
After I was given the commission, EST allowed me to use their space during the off-season to workshop the play. I'd bring in rough pages and notes, and I'd have actors read the text. I'd listen. I'd make changes on the fly. These little workshops allow me to quickly write a first draft. Beyond the first, EST held a couple more workshops to give Linsay Firman and me a chance to try out the play on its feet.
After I had written a second draft, I had a conversation with Daniel Todes, a science historian and professor at Johns Hopkins. At the time I was using Newton's work with alchemy to create some dramatic stakes. Todes told me that Newton's work with theology was far more controversial, which led me to change his secret work from alchemy to theology. This enabled me to explore Newton's relationship with God.
Many drafts later, I met with Gabriel Cwilich who expanded my understanding of how Newton and Hooke represented two opposing ways of looking at the world, two fundamentally different scientific approaches. Newton focused on a limited number of topics and obsessively studied and tried to relate those few things. Hook, on the other hand, was all over the place. He studied voraciously anything and everything. The next draft sharpened the differences in how they practiced their disciplines into the conflict.
In the spring of 2012, another play by Lucas Hnath, Death Tax, was produced at the 36th Annual Actors Theatre Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville to rave reviews. “This play is pure joy for thinkers,” exulted the reviewer for Louisville.com. “Hnath expertly inserts enough ambiguities and layers to his characters to keep play analysis junkies occupied for months." Hnath’s other plays include Red Speedo, Hillary and Clinton, Sake Tasting with a Séance to Follow, The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith, Odile’s Ordeal, Tonguetied, and Three Attempts at Corrective Eye Surgery. A resident playwright at New Dramatists since 2011, Hnath’s work has also been produced at the University of Miami, The Culture Project, Target Margin and Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Besides EST, his plays have been developed at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and Cleveland Public Theatre. He has also enjoyed playwriting residencies with The Royal Court Theatre and 24Seven Lab and is currently working on two commissions for Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Linsay Firman, Associate Director of The EST/Sloan Project and Literary Manager at EST, directed the NY premiere of Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, reprised at the 2011 World Science Festival. Other NYC productions include Rachel Bond’s Anniversary, Garrett M. Brown’s Americana and Jose Rivera’s Flowers, all in the EST Marathon; Perdita by Pierre Diennet (Lion Theater), Joy Tomasko’s Unfold Me, Catherine Trieschmann’s Crooked, Heather Lynn MacDonald’s Pink (all at Ariel Tepper’s Summer Play Festival); Anne Washburn’s Apparition (chashama) named one of Time Out New York’s ten best plays of 2003, Howard Barker’s The Power of the Dog and The Possibilities, Joe Orton’s Loot, and Peter Rose’s Snatch (Soho Rep). She began working in new play development as the Associate Director of Soho Rep, where she worked from 1998 – 2004.
The EST/Sloan Project: Fifteen years of acclaimed productions
The upcoming Mainstage Production of Isaac’s Eye continues a tradition that began in 1998 and continued last season with Patrick Link’s acclaimed play, Headstrong, a gripping family drama about concussions and sports which Stone Phillips found “funny, frightening, relevant, and enlightening.” Its 2011 predecessor, Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler, about the life and work of British scientist Rosalind Franklin and her role in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, was reprised for the 2011 World Science Festival and was a sold-out hit.
In previous years EST/Sloan has dramatized the travails of two Russian scientists charged with embalming Lenin’s corpse (Lenin’s Embalmers, 2010), the conflict of two generations of black scientists (Relativity, 2006), a solipsistic anthropologist coping with mothering an autistic child (Lucy, 2008), the last days of a tragically irradiated nuclear physicist (Louis Slotin Sonata. 2001), and the romantic resonance discoverable in string theory (String Fever, 2003), among other subjects. In the spring of 2009, Deb Laufer’s End Days brought together the Rapture and Stephen Hawking for what Backstage called “A serious comedy, and the best new play I’ve seen in a long time. Ferociously good.” In 2007 David Zellnik’s Serendib investigated how the dynamics of a group of primate field researchers mirrored the behavior of a troop of Sri Lankan temple monkeys. (“A great play” – NPR) The complete roster of mainstage productions below shows how impressive the range of scientific topics has been:
Season Featured Play
1997-98 Flight by Arthur Giron (Wright Brothers)
1998–99 Tesla’s Letters by Jeffrey Stanley (physics and engineering)
1999-00 Moving Bodies by Arthur Giron (Richard Feynman – physics)
2000-01 Louis Slotin Sonata by Paul Mullin (Los Alamos Atom Project)
2001-02 Secret Order by Bob Clyman (cancer research)
2002-03 String Fever by Jacqueline Reingold (physics)
2003-04 Tooth and Claw by Michael Hollinger (Galapagos/evolution/biology)
2004-05 Luminescence Dating by Carey Perloff (archaeology)
2005-06 Relativity by Cassandra Medley (melanin research)
2006-07 Serendib by David Zellnik (evolution/genetics/field research)
2007-08 Lucy by Damien Atkins (autism/anthropology)
2008-09 End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer (cosmology & religion)
2009-10 Lenin’s Embalmers by Vern Thiessen (science of embalming)
2010-11 Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler (women in science/discovery of double helix)
2011-12 Headstrong by Patrick Link (concussions and sports)
The people behind The EST/Sloan Project
Doron Weber, Vice President, Programs, The Public Understanding of Science and Technology at the Sloan Foundation
William Carden, Artistic Director at EST
Graeme Gillis, Program Director for EST/Sloan
Linsay Firman, Associate Director for EST/Sloan
EST/Sloan Science Advisors
Darcy Kelley, professor of biological sciences and co-director of the Doctoral Subcommittee in Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University; editor of Journal of Neurobiology.
Stuart Firestein, professor of biological sciences, Columbia University and director of the Firestein Neurobiology lab.
Gabriel Cwilich, associate professor of physics, Yeshiva University