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Behind the Scenes: Claire Willett on the Influences of DEAR GALILEO

Playwrights’ Corner

Hilary Bettis

Hilary: Dear Galileo is about women struggling with their identities and relationships with their fathers, while wrapped in this really beautiful and poetic struggle between religion and science, and how there is a place for both. I love that, and rarely see plays that handle those who need religion with equal empathy to those who need science. Being the daughter of a Methodist Minister from South Carolina, I deeply relate to that struggle. I'd love to know about what sparked you to explore the conflict of religion and science?

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Claire: I grew up in a very intellectual, socially progressive form of Catholicism.  My parents were both incredibly devout. When my mother died seven years ago, eleven priests, an archbishop and an abbot concelebrated her funeral - but they also had like five science degrees between them.  My sister and brothers and I grew up going to church every Sunday and spent twelve years in Catholic school, but we also watched the Discovery Channel and read books about dinosaurs and went to The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry as often as we could.  (I actually still do all those things).  So there was never any kind of faith/science conflict; those things always sat peaceably side-by-side.

Then, in my twenties, I spent about eight years as a youth minister and discovered there was this kind of fringe subset of extreme right-wing Catholicism – mostly in the South and the Midwest, in megachurch country – where a commonality of belief about moral issues like abortion and gay marriage has blurred the lines between Catholicism and the kind of hard-line evangelical Christianity that’s so prevalent in those communities, with the result that some very non-Catholic theology seeps in around the edges and begins to spread.  I was at a conference in the summer of 2010 with some of my youth group kids where there were other youth ministers talking about how evolution and the Big Bang theory were lies poisoning American culture.  So honestly, the genesis of this play (PUN COMPLETELY INTENDED) came about because the kids were asking me about it - "Is that true? Does the Church not believe in evolution? Am I not allowed to like Neil DeGrasse Tyson or evolutionary biology?" - so I decided to go do a crapload of research on the history of the Church and science for the completely petty reason of basically wanting to say "THOSE IDIOTS WERE WRONG, BAM, HERE'S A GIANT PILE OF FACTS."  I read papal encyclicals and the Catechism and I dug up a bunch of stuff about Galileo and about the Jesuits, and then I sort of accidentally stumbled upon the amazingly weird fact that the Vatican Observatory operates a U.S. outpost in the middle of the Arizona desert, where they have their own world-class telescope that’s operated by research scientists who are all Jesuit priests.  And I remember thinking, “Oh my God, what a perfect setting for a play.”  So that’s how it all started.

H: The way time works in this play is really compelling. The play is set in three different time periods and locations – Florence, Italy in 1641, Arizona in 1995 and Galveston, Texas in 2006 – but the action is happening simultaneously, while there is a larger conversation going on about the creation of time via The Big Bang. Time itself seems to take on different rules in this play. Could you talk a little about the effect time has on the relationships in this play?

C: The idea of relationships that sort of echo through time in many different forms was a big part of the play from the beginning, beginning with my idea that Galileo’s daughter Celeste would appear as a different character in all the storylines. In my mind, she’s always some version of herself, like Celeste Galilei keeps being born into the world again and again in some form, as a talk-show host or a small-town diner waitress or whatever, and that there are elements of Celeste in all those characters.  Then, in later drafts, the script evolved so that Galileo also time-travels, cropping up as a TV show floor producer and an OB-GYN.   And he also appears as himself a couple of times, popping into scenes set in the present to deliver pieces of dialogue that are pulled from the real Galileo Galilei’s writings.  The other two stories are set in more contemporary times, but they weave together over the course of the play so that by the end of it, you can see that what looked like three separate stories was really just one story over a long span of time, divided into three parts.  Jasper Willows, the missing astrophysicist whose disappearance is at the heart of the play’s central story, delivers a science lecture that’s broken up into little chunks in each scene of the play, where he talks about some principle of science that seemed to me to echo the ways that human beings behave, or the nature of our lives.  So it begins with “The Big Bang Singularity,” where you kind of see the inciting moments in each of the stories that sets them rolling in a new direction; and it ends with “The Arrow of Time,” where Jasper talks about how the three different ways we measure time – thermodynamic, cosmological and psychological – all point in the same direction, moving us ever forward.  And the way the three stories blend together at the end sort of mirrors that idea.  I wanted to end the play by leaving the audience hopeful, thinking about the ways that time moves onward and carries us with it.  Jasper talks a lot about the idea of connectedness - that every moment that has ever existed in the past, or will exist in the future, is linked in some way that traces back to the Big Bang, which is an idea I find really powerful.  It's a pretty forceful reminder of global solidarity, our connection with each other and with the earth.

H: This might be a little personal, but I read on your blog that Dear Galileo would not be here without the influence of your friend, Cameron Hockenson, who recently passed. Cameron created really beautiful site-specific installations that seem theatrical in their own right. One of the things I love most about theater is how much other forms of art – music, dance, visual, etc. – can find their way into a play. How did Cameron's work influence this play?

C: The very first public performance of Dear Galileo was me in a yellow sundress, reading three of Jasper’s monologues while standing in the middle of a field in East Haddam, Connecticut, underneath an enormous wooden sculpture shaped like a gothic arch.  I spent a month in the summer of 2011 on a residency at the I-Park Artists’ Colony; Dear Galileo was my residency project, and the big wooden sculpture was Cameron’s.  He was the person I was probably closest to of all the other artists; he did environmental installations all over the world, from California to Greece.  He was brilliant, and I was crazy about him.  I had never met anyone who did the kind of work he did.  We would stay up late and drink wine and talk about art and life and the projects we were working on.  He asked me once what the hardest part of writing a play was, and I said that for me, it was cutting.  I always over-write my first drafts, I put too much in, and I have to really go through very carefully and prune out the stuff that doesn’t need to be there because there has to be space for the director and the actors to kind of step inside it and create their own art.  And that led to an amazing conversation about negative space and how that was something that all the artists were exploring in some way; Cameron was making this big wooden arch and was explaining to me how part of his design process was sculpting the space between each plank of wood as well as the wood itself.  And that idea of space between became something we talked about all the time, something I found myself catching glimpses of in everybody’s projects – the gap between two planks of wood, the rests in a phrase of music, the things that go unsaid between two characters on a stage. 

The very first line of Dear Galileo is, “In the universe – just like in music, or architecture, or relationships – the absence, the space between, is just as important as the observable, tangible things.”  Jasper is talking about dark energy there, about the sort of hidden forces that power the expansion of the universe, but he’s also talking about the space between all the characters in the play.  And that idea really came from that conversation with Cameron.  In a strange way he kind of became the play’s heart.  I lost touch with him over the years so I never got to tell him that, but I had a really beautiful conversation about it with his father.  

Cameron was an artist and a teacher and his work shaped a lot of lives; one of the really extraordinary things in seeing the way his community came together after he passed away was how many other artists were creating work inspired by him or in memory of him.  There were writers and sculptors and musicians and dancers, all sharing stories about how Cameron had influenced their work.  I got the news about Cameron while the world premiere of Dear Galileo was running in Portland, and it was a really strange and powerful experience to watch that final weekend of performances with that loss fresh in my mind.  I kept picking out all these moments I had never consciously noticed before where I could see, in hindsight, how clearly the play was shaped by sharing space with those other artists while I created it.   It’s heartbreaking that we won’t get to see the next insane genius artistic idea out of his extraordinary brain, but he gave me such a gift and I’ll always be grateful.

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