File this under the heading of: “Know your audience.”
A production of "Alice in Wonderland" at Caltech re-imagines Lewis Carroll's tale as the journey of a grad student who gets sucked into a wormhole where logic loses ground and she must battle The Queen of Research Funding.
"Alice Through the Wormhole" isn’t your normal musical theater, but this is also not your normal theater company.
The Caltech community isn’t exactly known as a hotbed of theater talent. These are the people who spend hours in labs, help design rockets and, in the case of lead actress Holly Bender, work on a magna-spectrometer for JPL.
“I’m not always the most outgoing person but get me on a stage and I really enjoy myself," Bender says. “There’s something to be said about this fusion of arts and science. There’s something really special about bringing the two together.”
But making that happen isn’t always so easy. Brian Brophy, a former member of the Actor’s Gang company, is the one-man band that is the theater department at Caltech.
Brophy says it is difficult to attract of students to the program, which goes hand-in-hand with the difficulty of being the director when you know you’re not the smartest person in the room.
Actors are drawn from students, faculty and alumni, and "Alice" has been adapted to be right in the Caltech wheelhouse. Alice is now a grad student hurled into the world of science funding, trying to sustain work and her emotional balance. Brophy says focusing on that balance issue — exposing students to the arts and forcing people out of their lab-coated comfort zones — is the real benefit of putting on a show, and part of the reason Caltech has a theater program in the first place.
“I think I’m saving a lot of their lives," says Brophy, perhaps only half-joking. "I had one gal who came in, the first thing [she said] was, 'I won’t wear a dress and I won’t wear my hair a certain way.' And she had all these things she wasn’t going to do. But by the end she was this self-confident creature … and even these social skills are going to serve her in the future.”
Brenda Varda is a former engineer-turned-musician who wrote the book and the music for "Alice Through the Wormhole." She says dealing with scientists-turned-actors can take some adjustment.
“Going to school here is tough,” Varda says. “Some of these people haven’t acted before in their lives, so talking to them is a slightly different set of language than you would use with someone else. One way to approach it is go for the emotional context, and the other way is to find ways into more logical sides of descriptions of human behavior and timing and structure.”
But it’s a two-way street, as the cast had a lot of input into the final script.
“We sort of folded the science into it layer by layer," says Steve Collins, who plays a manic PhD candidate. "We would riff on ideas, Brenda throws some Alice thing out, and we’d riff on it, and tune up the scientific veracity: Oh no that’s not how peer reviewed papers work.”
Cast notes notwithstanding, Caltech's theater program is much more about the journey than the destination. Undergrad student Harrison Miller plays the caterpillar, or Matter Filler in this incarnation.
“You come to school with geniuses and you get bad grades and these people are acing every class, and these people are way smarter than me,” Miller says. “But this is something a lot of Caltech kids would be terrified of doing, so it certainly gives me a little something I can do that they can’t.”
By the way, Miller had an interview with SpaceX lined up, so no matter what the reviews say, he should be fine.