As both an art form and a cultural institution, theater is particularly well-suited to response and reflection. Theater can hold up a mirror to contemporary issues – sometimes a fun-house mirror – and provide a new way to look at ourselves and our times.
Such is the case with “Life of Galileo,” the new production underway at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. Based on the life and work of the famous Renaissance era astronomer, “Galileo” digs deep into themes that have tremendous and maybe even existential relevance to our society just now – reason versus dogma, anti-intellectualism, the dangers of politicizing science itself.
Galileo championed heliocentrism – the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun – in a time when such science was an inconvenient truth for those in power. Galileo was forced to recant and spent his life under a kind of 17th century house arrest.
“Galileo” is a retelling of Galileo’s struggles and is based on the stage play by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. In a nod to the cyclical natural of the play’s core issues, Galileo’s world has been updated with several modern elements like projections screens, contemporary costuming and live video feeds.
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PlayMakers’ producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch directs the play. Speaking from her offices at UNC, Benesch spoke to The News & Observer about staging Galileo’s story among today’s climate change debate, disinformation campaigns and the emerging threat of a “post-truth” era.
Q: How did you come to select “Galileo” for production this season?
A: I actually chose this a few days after the U.S. pulled out of the Paris climate accords. It has been suggested to me about a year previous, and I’d always been a fan of Brecht. When the U.S. withdrew, I woke up and thought: We kind of have to do “Life of Galileo” now. That was the provoking moment.
Obviously, climate change is one of many resonant themes in the production. As our program says, the time frame of the story is Then, Now and Later. These issues around science and truth and change, these cycles, they’ve always been around.
Q: The program notes suggest that the action takes place inside one of those arctic seed vaults where scientists store plants and genetic material. What was the idea behind that?
A: Well, we didn’t want to make it too specific. That was one of our inspirations, the seed bank, but also the idea of computer server vaults. It’s supposed to be ambiguous, with the idea that these are the places that we’re keeping our history, our stories. These incredible technologies are supposed to be saving our history, but if we don’t tell that history – if we don’t tell the truth – then there’s nothing to save.
You might notice that there is also this gigantic Leonardo Da Vinci book is on the set. It’s on one of the tables and it never leaves the set the whole time. It was actually my Belgian grandfather’s book, the complete works of Da Vinci. I wanted it on the set to echo this idea that there are connections of science and art and ethics in every age.
Q: Aside from the ecological themes introduced, the production also nods toward current crises around media and disinformation and this terrifying idea of a “post-truth” era.
A: Yes, we spent a lot of time talking about that, who owns the truth now? Galileo’s most important quote in there is “I’m not out to prove that I’m right, but to find out if I am.” I feel so strongly about this. Technology has made it so that we no longer have one given truth. We have the truth of the moment. We tried to reflect some of that in the stage design. For instance, depending on where you sit in the audience, you will see things in the background that no one else can see.
Q: It’s no secret that we’re in some anxious times in America right now. Theater can be an escape, but it can also be a kind of pressure valve. There seemed to be a sense of catharsis in the audience at the opening night show. Did you feel that?
A: Hugely. As an artistic director, I think one of my biggest responsibilities is giving people different access points to that feeling of catharsis. Sometimes that’s best done by provoking them, making them sit up and say “Yes, that’s what we need to hear!” Other times you just need to make them laugh so they can relax for a moment and escape.
It’s an issue when you’re programming a season. What do we need to hear right now? And from whom? And how? That was particularly important with “Life of Galileo,” this intellectually rigorous and political piece. But at the same time, we have to make it entertaining. As soon as it becomes a stodgy scholarly endeavor, we are not going to move people emotionally.
Q: Speaking of which, there’s a rather surprising musical number in the middle of the second act, can you talk about that?
A: I knew early on that I wanted to use this idea of popular song as the equivalent of a Wikileak. It’s about releasing knowledge directly to the people. In the context of the historical record, it’s referring to the moment when Galileo started writing in Italian, a language accessible to the people, rather than Latin, which was reserved for the elite and which kept knowledge in the Church’s control.
The lyrics are entirely the Brecht lyrics, but the music is by our sound designer and composer Justin Ellington. We worked on that a lot. We listened to everything from Bjork to Prince to Herbie Hancock.
What: “Life of Galileo” presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company
When: Through March 17
Where: Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill
Tickets: Start at $15; Student tickets start at $10
Info: playmakersrep.org or 919-962-7529