By Bliss Bowen
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
What are we going to do when it’s too late to turn things around?
That’s the question playwright Amy Berryman was asking herself in 2017 as she began writing “The New Galileos,” a thriller about three female climatologists held hostage by government officials. A semi-finalist in the 2019 Mach 33 Caltech Pasadena Playhouse Festival of New Science-Driven Plays, “The New Galileos” is being presented online by Caltech Thursday, April 22, to Saturday, April 24.
At the time Berryman was shaping her script, Donald Trump was still president, the United States had just withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement, and the EPA was setting land speed records for rolling back environmental protections.
“Part of my motivation for writing is having questions about the world that I don’t have the answer to, attempting to explore them through my work,” explained Berryman (amy-berryman.com), who Zoomed in for an interview from London, where she is preparing for the West End premiere of her new play “Walden.”
“One big question I have is, what are we going to do when we can’t turn things around? ‘The New Galileos’ and ‘Walden’ are both different imaginings of an answer to that question. I’m really interested in how do we engage with the climate issue when it’s such a big issue that no one really wants to deal with or think about. I’m also so interested in human relationships, human choices that are impossible and putting characters in impossible situations. How do we marry all of those things?”
Brian Brophy, the director of Theater Arts at Caltech (TACIT), said he was drawn to Berryman’s lead characters: Nora, a twentysomething marine biologist and children’s book author (portrayed by Alison Koontz, G5 biology graduate student researcher); Elaine, a Nobel Prize-winning glaciologist in her 50s (Monique Thomas, CIT program coordinator at Caltech Center for Inclusion & Diversity); and Beth, a well-known, middle-aged soil scientist (Charmii Lee, enterprise systems analyst at JPL). “JPL and Caltech have a long history of white male leadership,” he said. “For Amy to write a play that has three women was very powerful … The public has an image of the white shirt and the black tie, male and white, but there’s more abundance of female scientists. These are serious scientists who happen to be women. For me it’s really important to model that, for little girls growing up (to see) that they can be scientists, too.”
When the story opens, mystery shrouds Nora, Elaine and Beth, as an interrogator questions them. It gradually emerges that they are being pressured to recant their science because it threatens the government’s ideological support of geoengineering.
“It is definitely political. It’s a dangerous play, in many ways,” Brophy said.
“So many big things are happening — you get overwhelmed with what’s happening in Myanmar, for example, or you get overwhelmed with what’s happening at the border,” he continued. “The play allows us to understand the relationship between the earth and science; in this case, female scientists who are really connected to the natural world.”
A story about female climatologists is inherently timely, given the number of respected women now leading the climate movement — scientists such as Drs. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Kate Marvel, Leah Stokes and Katharine Wilkinson. But it was Berryman’s cousin, a marine biologist, who seeded her original idea.
“She and I have had a lot of conversations about the climate crisis, her work with octopuses, and invertebrates,” Berryman said. “She was a lot of the inspiration for Nora, and her frustration in not being able to speak as easily as she wanted to about climate, learning about people trying to get grants being told not to use the words ‘climate change.’”
Readings for the play began in early 2020, until the pandemic paused everything. After one reading last spring, Berryman was inspired to make revisions based on feedback from Caltech scientists such as geochemistry professor Jess Adkins and Paul Wennberg of the Linde Center for Global Environmental Science.
“I was demonizing geoengineering in a pretty intense way, and (their notes) helped me make the conflict in the play more nuanced,” Berryman recalled. “And I love that. I love pulling apart a conflict, and a political idea, so that it becomes more nuanced and complex, and you don’t really know who to agree with. It’s been really cool to work with scientists at Caltech who are so engaged in this work.”
That fit with Brophy’s stated mission for the program he runs: “making sure that the science is good, making sure that the science is researchable, making sure that the science makes sense for an audience too. I want to be able to demystify the science that’s in the plays we do for the Mach 33 Play Festival so it engages the public.”
Beyond a rewrite, the pandemic mandated a creative production approach. Brophy calls it a “Zoom film” because they are not performing it on a stage. He has been using the video platform to direct the six-person cast, each of whom was provided with a satellite five-foot green screen, two sets of ring lights, and earbuds.
“All of this is being shot on their cellphones, with green screen and earbuds, in their apartments or little houses,” he said. “There are a couple of things done on location … actors were in the same scene but they were not together.”
The process of splicing together various cellphone videos via Open Broadcast Software and the Discord platform has proved “monumentally challenging,” Brophy acknowledges with a laugh, but also artistically intriguing.
“Most of the actors had very little room to work in,” he observed. “It lends the play an intensity. It’s a COVID period of time and beyond Covid too, because we all are inside our little cells now. … You don’t lose any of the drama — in fact, a lot of the drama is heightened.”
The story’s questions remain relevant, even as the Biden administration reaffirms the role and essential value of science in policy making.
“I wasn’t sure how the play would land in a post-Trump world,” Berryman said. “But it’s such a science-denial world that it definitely still packs a punch.”