It is not uncommon for the creation of a work of art to be the
result of a class assignment. But for a play to come out of a freshman
physics seminar? That is something else, indeed.
Sidney Perkowitz’s Fall 2000 class “Envisioning Light”
is uniquely responsible for both of the featured plays of Theater
Emory’s (TE) upcoming Brave New Works festival, which opens
Sept. 19. One of them, Background, was written by Emory
College junior Lauren Gunderson, and the other, Friedmann’s
Balloon, came from the mind and pen of Perkowitz himself.
Brave New Works is TE’s biennial play development workshop.
This year’s event, which runs from Sept. 19–Nov. 3,
features not only Gunderson and Perkowitz but also a new play by
playwright-in-residence Steve Murray and an exploration of a new
project by French director Arthur Nauzyciel. The public readings
of Background and Friedman’s Balloon will
be Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. and Sept. 21 at 6:30 p.m. in the Mary Gray
Munroe Theater. Admission is free.
In her first semester on campus, Gunderson was a student in Perkowitz’s
seminar. When told she would have to do a research paper, Gunderson
had a unique request: She wanted to write a play.
Perkowitz thought it was an excellent idea and—provided she
had the science right—encouraged her to go ahead with the
“I think the freshman seminar is supposed to encourage unconventional,
creative ways of teaching and interaction, and that’s what
she provided,” said Perkowitz, Candler Professor of Physics.
What resulted was the play Background, which explores the life and
career of scientist Ralph Alpher. In the 1950s Alpher came up with
mathematical proof of cosmic background radiation, which has been
left over throughout the universe since the Big Bang.
In the 1970s another group of scientists made a similar discovery
and won the Nobel Prize for it. Alpher got no credit. This conflict
gave Gunderson more than enough drama to work with.
“I give so much credit to Dr. Perkowitz for letting me write
a play, because I learned exponentially more than I would have writing
a [traditional research paper],” said Gunderson, who got to
speak to Alpher during her research and said he is still somewhat
ornery about not receiving proper notoriety for his discovery.
“I needed to know every corner of Alpher’s idea and
his life to make a metaphor of it,” she continued. “Now,
it’s become my habit to dive into a situation and be a sponge
until there’s a critical point where then a story spills out.”
She got an A for the class.
Perkowitz, who has written many nonfiction works, had been toying
with the idea of stretching himself stylistically, and his experience
with Gunderson—as well as the fact that music Professor John
Lennon recently had a play produced with Brave New Works—convinced
him to try drama.
As a subject, Perkowitz chose Russian scientist Alexander Friedmann,
who not only challenged the theories of Albert Einstein but also
was an ace World War I bomber and top balloonist.
Gunderson and TE Artistic Director Vincent Murphy lent assistance
with dialogue, and when Perkowitz was finished, he submitted it
to Murphy. Murphy then determined that the play was good enough
to be included in Brave New Works.
“There was a thrill when my first book was published—to
see your words in type,” Perkowitz said. “But this is
an entirely different level.”
Their playwriting was not the last time Gunderson and Perko-witz
worked together. While gathering information for an upcoming book,
Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids, Perkowitz
employed Gunderson as a researcher.
“I figured a creative, dramatic mind like hers could come
up with some good stuff, and she did,” Perkowitz said.
“I’m just lucky to have found a professor—even
though I probably won’t be taking any more of his classes—with
whom there is still a mutual respect,” Gunderson said.
In between their busy schedules, the two try to get together a couple
times a semester just to chat. “You can call it a continuing
collaboration that doesn’t meet all that often,” Perkowitz
Background is not Gunderson’s first success. This fall, she
is commuting frequently between Atlanta and New York, where her
play Parts They Call Deep is being staged off-Broadway.
She wrote the play while in high school, and after it was performed
here in Atlanta, it was entered in a national contest sponsored
by Young Playwrights Inc. The play was named one of the 10 finalists,
a handful of which then are chosen for production.
Just a few days after Background’s debut at Emory, Gunderson
will jet to back to New York to put the finishing touches on preparation
for Parts’ opening in October.