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A leading playwright and a pioneering virologist marry science and art on stage


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Judy Woodruff: And now to a marriage of science and art on stage and in real life from a leading playwright and pioneering researcher into the causes and effects of pandemics.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

William Demeritt: This is -- what is this?

Jeffrey Brown: What is it? A play in the time of pandemic about how pandemics happen.

William Demeritt: I try to predict pandemics, because, if you can predict pandemics, you just might be able to prevent them.

Jeffrey Brown: A story of a scientist thrilled by discovery.

William Demeritt: Bacteria and viruses are the same thing. Nope. No, absolutely not. They are vastly different.

Jeffrey Brown: And pained by loss.

It's called "The Catastrophist."

Playwright Lauren Gunderson:

Lauren Gunderson: It was a story that I knew I could tell. But the question was, should you?

Jeffrey Brown: The reason? The subject is her husband, Nathan Wolfe.

Lauren Gunderson: But it felt like now is an obvious time to go into the backstory, the passion behind scientists who study what Nathan studies in virology, pandemic experts.

Jeffrey Brown: And how did the subject himself feel?

Nathan Wolfe: The truth of the matter is, if you're married to one of the most prolific playwrights in the world, especially someone who focuses on science, you learn that the various characters in her plays, you shouldn't extrapolate or see yourself in those characters.

Now, of course, I had to change my viewpoint a little bit for this particular play.

Jeffrey Brown: Wolfe, now 50, is a virologist known for his work tracing how viruses jump from animals to humans. He worked in Africa for many years and was on "TIME" magazine's 2011 list of 100 most influential people.

That same year, he was featured on the "NewsHour" after his book "The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age" predicted the kind of event we're living through now; 39-year-old Lauren Gunderson is prolific and successful. According to the trade magazine "American Theater," she's the most produced playwright in the country, with many works that explore science and scientists of the past.

She wrote "The Catastrophist" during the pandemic, commissioned by Marin Theatre in California, directed by its artistic director, Jasson Minadakis, and co-produced with Round House Theatre in Maryland.

William Demeritt: Prokaryote.

Actor William DeMeritt plays a character besotted with science and the search for the unknown.

Lauren Gunderson: We made the decision that this is not an imitation of Nathan. It's an artistic synthesis. I also do have to say that it is absolutely true that Nathan is besotted with science.


Lauren Gunderson: I can confirm that that is true.

Jeffrey Brown: Gunderson and Wolfe live in San Francisco and have two young sons. The play delves deeply into Wolfe becoming a father, while losing his own, a man obsessed with mapping future catastrophes, while unable to foresee those in front of him.

William Demeritt: How does the futurist not see his own future? How does the catastrophist not playing for his own catastrophe?

Jeffrey Brown: It's a personal story. But also, for Gunderson and her collaborators, about the power of art, especially now.

Lauren Gunderson: We believe in theater. We believe it never stops. We believe it's necessary, especially in times of crisis. We believe in science. We believe that the stories of science and scientists lift up new heroes.

We believe in empathy and how that is a unifying force, and it happens to be one of theater's superpowers.

Jeffrey Brown: Wolfe's focus these days is assessing the risks of pandemics. His company creates models for government agencies and corporations to help mitigate potential damage.

Of course, as a recent cover story on him in "Wired" magazine suggests, we humans aren't very good at planning ahead.

I asked if anything about this pandemic has surprised him.

Nathan Wolfe: In some ways, what is unexpected is the nuance, the small features that you won't model, you know, the impact of Twitter, the way that communication and miscommunication has played a role.

Jeffrey Brown: Still, he says:

Nathan Wolfe: I tend to be an optimist. And let's just say it this way. I no longer have to spend the first 10 minutes when I'm talking to somebody, the CEO of a large corporation, explaining the potential impact of pandemics.

Jeffrey Brown: In their own personal lives, Gunderson and Wolfe say their work as writer and scientist feeds the other. And they see a deeper connection in the disciplines.

Lauren Gunderson: I think that science and art a lot closer than they are often portrayed, because, at the heart, you are trying to innovate, you are trying to investigate, you are trying to create.

Nathan Wolfe: And I think people don't -- they think of scientists in a particular way, laboring in a lab.

But, at its fundamental core, science is attempting to understand features of the universe. And in order to sort of really make important strides in science, you have to see something and be willing to believe something which others don't. And that's the part of science that I love.

Lauren Gunderson: See, he makes a great character.


Jeffrey Brown: Now you see a character you could use in a play?

Lauren Gunderson: See, I love it. This is what I write about. No wonder. I kept waking up next to a character, and it took me 10 years to write it.


Jeffrey Brown: As the character in the play says:

William Demeritt: It's a risk being married to a playwright. They usually get the last word.

Jeffrey Brown: "The Catastrophist" is streaming through February 28 by the Round House and Marin theater companies.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: It's fascinating.

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