Play Fuses Theatre, Science Departments

Ali Elkin

Issue date: 9/29/08 Section: Campus
The McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science hosted performances of Michael Frayn's play "Copenhagen" from Sept. 23 to Sept. 28 as the inaugural event of the Engineering Transdisciplinary Outreach Project in the Arts, or ETOPiA.

The new initiative seeks to use theater as a vehicle for bringing engineering, science and technology into public discourse.

"Hopefully, this is the first of many events," said Matthew Grayson, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Grayson produced and performed in "Copenhagen," which chronicles a September 1941 discussion between scientists Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Bohr's wife, Margrethe.

In the play, Heisenberg, who has been commissioned by the Nazi Party to research atomic weapons, visits the Bohrs in German-occupied Copenhagen.

They discuss Heisenberg's role in the research and explore the ethical decisions that scientists must make in times of war. One such decision concerns the balance between loyalty toward one's country and one's personal beliefs.

"I really think that as a person you should do what you think is right," Weinberg senior Dillon Clausner said. "In this example, Heisenberg has a lot of power and authority, but even so in that case (personal beliefs should take precedence)."

This production premiered in 2006 in Munich, Germany, where Grayson was conducting research.

The cast also performed in Vienna, Austria and Zagreb, Croatia. In each city, the actors performed in university lecture halls to use the chalkboards and classroom furniture as part of the performance.

In the production, each act was preceded by quotations from leading scientists of the early 20th century, many of whom were displaced by the war.

"It does such a great job of getting at the people behind the ideas, of getting behind the humanity of these people," Grayson said.

The play moves back and forth in time, alternating between the conversation itself and the characters' posthumous analysis of the event. Each character has different impressions of what happened, and none feel entirely convinced that his or her perspective is correct.

"They all have a different version of what happened," said British actor Mansel David, who played Niel Bohr. "How can any of us really know what our own motivations are?"

After each performance of the play, a panel of professors from various departments at NU and the actors answered questions from the audience.

Panelists, including theatre Prof. Henry Godinez said they would welcome future participation in ETOPiA initiatives and interdisciplinary events.

"We are always interested to reach out into the Northwestern community, especially to other departments," Godinez said.

Godinez and Grayson discussed other interdisciplinary theater projects that may inspire scientific discussions in the NU community.

"There is plenty of raw material out there," Grayson said. "It's just a matter of getting the right people talking."


alisonelkin2007@u.northwestern.edu