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Science Gets Personal: Duel Between Grad Student and Professor Presented on Stage

Play is the Fifth Professional Production of ETOPiA: Engineering Transdisciplinary Outreach Project in the Arts

The How and the Why

"The How and the Why,” a new play examining how passion for science can set up unexpected rivalries — in this case between a graduate student and a respected professor — will have its Chicago-area premiere at Northwestern University from Sept. 27 to Oct. 14.

Representing the fifth season of ETOPiA: Engineering Transdisciplinary Outreach Project in the Arts, the play features professional actors. Performances will take place in an intimate room in the heart of the Technological Institute, where engineering and science students spend many of their waking hours in lecture halls and labs.

It is free and open to the public with advance reservations recommended.

ETOPiA is an outreach initiative that seeks to inspire cross-disciplinary dialogue about the role of science and technology in society, and audiences have grown since the first ETOPiA play, “Copenhagen,” was performed in 2008.

In this year’s play, “The How and the Why,” Zelda, a Harvard professor, and Rachel, an NYU graduate student, are connected scientifically by their competing evolutionary theories about the female body. But their relationship goes far deeper, to the point where personal interactions may be clouding professional judgment — and the stakes cannot be higher, with their professional careers hanging in the balance.

“Written by the young up-and-coming playwright Sarah Treem, this new play shows beautifully how the lives of scientists are inextricably linked to their passion for science and highlights the role of women in science with an all-female cast of characters studying evolutionary biology,” said Matthew Grayson, the producer of the ETOPiA initiative.

Grayson is an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“ETOPiA is entering a new phase in its development,” he said. “Our annual performances in Northwestern’s Tech Institute have earned a solid reputation among professional performers and directors in the Chicago area. As a result, this year we have attracted another phenomenal cast and production team to present a play that delves into the hearts of the human beings who create science.”

The production features two Chicago actors: Peggy Roeder, a four-time Joseph Jefferson Award-winner whose credits include productions at Steppenwolf, the Goodman Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, as Zelda; and Brenda Barrie, who has earned Jeff Award nominations for best actress and has appeared on stage at Steppenwolf, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and American Theater Company, as Rachel.

Maureen Payne-Hahner, an ensemble member at Chicago’s Gift Theatre and three-time ETOPiA director, will direct.

Grayson is pleased that ETOPiA productions are attracting star talent and now starting to transition from Northwestern’s Technological Institute to the professional Chicago stage.

“ETOPiA’s extremely successful 2010 production of ‘QED’ starring Rob Riley as Richard Feynman, one of the best-loved physicists in the world, is being picked up by the production troupe theatre4humanity and remounted at Chicago’s Collaboraction Theatre later in October,” Grayson said. “By serving as an incubator for Chicago-area scientific theater, ETOPiA is spreading science and engineering outreach to a far wider audience than can be reached from our Northwestern campus alone.”

Performances of “The How and the Why” will be held at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Jerome B. Cohen Commons, fourth floor of the Technological Institute, 2145 Sheridan Road, on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Reservations are strongly recommended. For more information on “The How and the Why,” visit

Theatre4humanity‘s remount of “QED” will run from Oct. 24 to Dec. 9 at Collaboraction Theatre, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave., in Chicago. For more information on “QED”, visit

Reserve tickets to "The How and the Why"