An excerpt from the production program, compiled by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre. Explore the full program here.
Just after the New Year, playwright Lauren Gunderson sat down with her husband Dr. Nathan Wolfe to discuss his point of view on the making of her play The Catastrophist.
LAUREN: What did you first think when I told you about the idea of writing a play about you?
NATHAN: I don’t remember—did I think it was a joke?
LAUREN: You might have. What did you expect that I would write about?
NATHAN: I should’ve known from your work that it would be a personal piece. I’ve been covered elsewhere, but never for a piece of literature, never for a piece that featured my non-scientific thinking, my family, my emotions. And so it was really different from any other exercise I’ve had in communicating with the public. I think what you do is a form of scientific communication. Part of what your plays do is to inform us of the human nature of science and help to give people a more holistic understanding of science, which is just not limited to hypothesis, generation, experimentation. It’s people working together, it’s people who are human and have lives. And so in the same way that communicating with a journalist is an outgrowth and part of the scientific process I think, it feels very natural to me that plays are a different way in which science becomes manifest and understood by the world.
LAUREN: When you saw the reading on the first day of rehearsal, what did you come away with?
NATHAN: All the pieces that I’ve seen have a truth to them, and there’s nothing in it that feels to me particularly fictionalized. Having said that—it’s a piece of art that transcends me, my work, my personality. And frankly, I think, if you’re married to one of the most prolific playwrights in the world, you learn pretty quickly that reflections of yourself that you see in characters are best left uninterpreted, right? But the reality is it’s a piece of art that exists that I’m related to but that also exists sort of independent of me. And frankly, in a way that a great piece of art is supposed to provide some sort of accurate reflection on reality, I felt it did that and I saw myself in it. Not like you would see yourself in a mirror but in a way that I often found humorous, or emotional. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s a great honor to have such a talented team that you’re at the center of taking time to talk about this topic and to, among other things, amplify elements of the work that I’ve done.
LAUREN: What do you wish people knew about pandemics?
NATHAN: These are not static things, these are rapidly-evolving. One of the things I’m thinking about is there’s this interesting variant which appears to cause increased transmissibility, and so I feel like one of the things that scientists like myself can do is to help provide context. And part of the context is that I think people naturally, but erroneously, tend to view the epidemic in static terms. ‘Okay, we’ve got a vaccine, it was proved to be efficacious, that’s good news, we need to get it out there.’ But the reality is that the pandemic is a living, evolving thing—these viruses evolve very rapidly, so there’s a whole range of variants out there and the notion that it appears that we may have gotten lucky with this variant, that it is still amenable to protection from these amazingly efficacious vaccines. The pandemic is a range of different variants of that virus in different people around the world—some of which have different characteristics, and spread faster, or don’t spread faster, some of which cause more disease to different people, or to other people, or less disease, some of which are more amenable to a vaccine, and some of which are less amenable to a vaccine. And the pandemic now is quite different than [what] the pandemic [will be] at every moment after, and not recognizing that this is a living, rapidly-evolving population is missing the boat on what a pandemic is.
LAUREN: What do you love most about science?
NATHAN: The magical part of science for me is a little bit like how you would think of the Oracle in some Greek play, where you have to ask the Oracle the right question, you have to ask the Oracle the question in the right way, and you have to be able to understand the answer from the Oracle in order for the Oracle to be valuable. When science is done well, what it feels to me is: humans are asking questions of the universe about its fundamental nature. And when science does its job well, it asks the question in a way that it gets an answer, the answer is meaningful and consistent over time. And that’s a pretty remarkable thing to be able to do, and our capacity to do it just continues to seemingly grow. It’s like the universe, as manifest in us, can ask questions about itself that are answered, and sometimes in deeply compelling ways. And so it’s a pretty cool enterprise to be a part of. Cause you feel like it’s a—you’re at this self-reflective moment of the universe understanding itself.