Interview: Jennifer Blackmer

Flat Earth Theatre: I understand that you came from a background in science before immersing yourself in playwriting. Delicate Particle Logic is a perfect example to show us that art and science can nicely complement each other. How do these two backgrounds (and others!) play together when you work? Were those two backgrounds ever at odds?

Jennifer BlackmerJennifer Blackmer: My background in science wasn’t professional— as a student, I was really good at it, and I almost chose it for a career. When I was deciding what to major in in college, I narrowed it down to theatre or physics. I auditioned for one theatre program and told my parents (and myself) that if I didn’t get in, then I would become an astronomer instead of an actor. I got in, but I found out later that it wasn’t for my acting (I was a TERRIBLE actor!) but for my grades and skills as a writer. That was good enough for me, but I STILL thought I had to put my love of science on the shelf as a result of this choice to become an artist. I “secretly” read books about cosmology and quantum mechanics, I subscribed to WIRED magazine, but I always felt like I SHOULD have been reading other things. I was a closet nerd, before being nerd was even remotely cool.

It wasn’t until I went to graduate school that I learned that my skills as a storyteller should really be applied to the stories I love— namely, stories about science. I had the opportunity to work with an amazing science historian in graduate school; he taught me about Einstein and relativity, and actually introduced me to Lise Meitner’s story, along with the stories of many other female scientists who were her contemporaries. These, to me, are some of our most significant omissions from the narrative of progress— there were women, unbelievably smart and capable women, working alongside the men, contributing to the most critical discoveries of the age, and not being recognized. These women, like Lise, had DIFFERING opinions about what to do with the knowledge. What would have happened if we had listened to them?

The older I got, the more I came to acknowledge the similarities between science and art, and understand why, as a kid, I was drawn to both of them. There’s a reason we call our small theatre spaces “laboratory theaters” - it’s because we’re experimenting with potential truths, testing for plausibility, and sharing the results with live audiences. Science and art both relentlessly pursue truth and meaning. In the past, scientific and medical procedures were performed in front of witnesses, audiences, if you will, who were able to verify the truth of what took place. For me, science and art were never at odds, and part of my overall goal as an artist is to get audiences to understand that. We still think of science and art as two separate cultures, but they’re more alike than most people realize.

FET: Delicate Particle Logic tells the story of this groundbreaking scientific achievement through the voices of women. What drew you to wanting to tell the story of Lise Meitner, the mother of nuclear fission?

JB: My fury at Otto’s choices were initially what drew me in. Otto and Lise were partners for thirty years; they could finish each other's’ sentences, their backgrounds in chemistry and physics complemented each other so beautifully at the perfect time. They were a team, and they were friends. Then, because Lise was born a Jew (she’d converted Lutheranism, ironically), she was forced to flee Germany and live in exile in Sweden. She and Hahn continued to correspond, and the letters prove that LISE WAS THE ONE WHO ACTUALLY SOLVED THE PROBLEM OF FISSION. She was the one who postulated that the experimental results were odd because they were actually splitting the atom, not merely adding electrons. She asked the magic “what if” question that made Hahn see the truth for what it was. She did it. And yet, Hahn didn’t give her credit— why? Lise’s left out of the official history – Hahn was able to follow up with experiments and publish while Lise was stuck in Sweden. I was obsessed and angered by the unfairness of it all. And I wondered, too, if perhaps Lise had understood the truth of fission and interpreted the results differently BECAUSE she was a woman. Many scientists insist in the pure objectivity of their work, but we cannot escape our humanity— we cannot escape the fact that our observations and conclusions are always filtered through who we are; perhaps, being a woman has assets in this process that have escaped detection until now, when we’re finally starting to unearth and honor female stories in the sciences! I find these kinds of questions fascinating to explore.

FET: What made you decide to present the story that's ostensibly about Lise Meitner from the alternate perspective of Edith Hahn?

JB: One of my favorite plays/movies is Petter Shaffer’s AMADEUS, which tells the story of Mozart through the lens of his rival, Salieri, who was played SO BEAUTIFULLY by F. Murray Abraham in the film. I remember having a discussion about this story with one of my mentors, and he said that, as a playwright, Shaffer made a brilliant choice in using Salieri as his protagonist because Mozart was simply “too hot” to be the emotional center of the story. At first I didn’t quite get this until I realized that we experience Salieri’s struggles and discoveries IN REAL TIME in this story, and it lets us learn about and understand the decisions that Mozart made along the way. I knew I had to apply a similar structure to DELICATE PARTICLE LOGIC— the story of Lise is so obvious that it’s hard NOT to be upset by it, and I wanted this play to live within the complexities of its very real characters. With Lise as protagonist, the play couldn’t avoid being preachy AND being a science lesson, which are two things that spell disaster for any play that tackles difficult intellectual ideas. Seeing the story of Lise through the eyes of an artist trying to understand the choices her husband made is a juicy emotional playground for an audience, and it also explores the many, many similarities between the process of doing science, and the process of making art.

There also is very little information about Edith in the actual historical records. Otto barely mentions her in his own autobiography (I’ll resist making the “otto-biography” joke here, but I’ll still laugh at it!) This gave me a great deal of dramatic license in imagining what kind of a woman Edith might have been, and to create a deep and abiding friendship between the two women that most likely did NOT exist in real life.

FET: In doing research for this script, what did you learn about these amazing women that was unexpected or interesting to you?

JB: Lots of facts about Lise stand out to me— the fact that she agreed to work with Otto for NO SALARY, and that was okay; the fact that she couldn’t set foot in the main institute without Otto, and they had to set up their lab in a separate woodshed off the main grounds; the fact that she was expected to give everything up in order to do her work, yet Otto could have a wife and family and all the trappings of a normal life. The horrors of German politics immediately before World War II, while I knew about many of them, came together in new ways for me, and I found myself often wondering what I would have done in Lise's situation. As I worked with Lise’s struggle to be recognized for her work, I also learned about myself as a writer and a theatre artist – how it’s often so easy for women to agree to do too much for too little, or agree to terms that a male playwright never would, just to be SEEN in a field that has been dominated by men for centuries. I felt a strong kinship with Lise— she wanted to do science, I want to tell stories, and in order to do what makes us most happy we’re willing to allow ourselves to be treated as “less than” by the people we love and admire the most.

So, in a weird way, Lise gives me courage every day. The letter she sent to Otto after the Nobel was awarded, acknowledging her frustration and sadness at his betrayal, took guts. Her refusal to go to Los Alamos to work on the bomb shows me that she was a woman of principle, who wasn’t afraid to stand for what she believed in, even if it meant she’d be left out yet again. In that way, I think women all over the world can learn from Lise’s story.