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September 16, 2002

Physics seminar results in two Brave New Works

By Eric Rangus

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 plan.

“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 said.

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.