How the “World” Evolved
A playwright finds visceral power in the evolution debate
How the World Began is about heady ideas, but it’s aimed at our senses, our guts.
Take the opening scene: Though the play, presented by Women’s Project at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, eventually explodes into arguments about faith, evolution, and the rights of teachers and students to speak their minds, it begins with the smell of manure infiltrating a teacher’s classroom. A few minutes later, a tornado siren tears through the air, and the teacher calms a frightened student with an intimate breathing exercise.
As the stakes rise, these elements get stronger. The teacher, Susan, is a Yankee transplant to a small Kansas town. With flippant remarks about evolution, she inflames a religious student, and the world itself seems affected by their conflict. The sounds outside get more violent; wordless interactions carry more weight.
“There are lots of plays about science out there,” says playwright Catherine Trieschmann. “A lot of those plays are very talky, and they’re very intelligent people talking intelligently about big ideas. And in a lot of these plays, the body is lost.”
With every edit of her script, however, Trieschmann makes the body more prominent. After productions last year in California and London, she cut swaths of dialogue to make room for silent encounters. “This is the only time where this has ever happened, where I cut ten pages and the length [of a performance] does not diminish at all,” she says. “We really needed to let the play have those breaths.”
Visceral moments also heighten the sense of frustration. The characters are rarely eloquent as they try to explain their positions, and the more passionate they are, the more physical and guttural they become.
For Trieschmann, who currently lives in small-town Kansas, that’s a reflection of real life. “What inspired me to write this play was that the people in my town had these panels where these issues were discussed with great fervor, but maybe not the most articulate arguments. I was very interested in us fumbling for articulation when it comes to some of these issues. I found that real and interesting.”
Capturing that tone also means cutting the “poetry” out of her writing. “In earlier versions, Susan’s big meltdown speech was more soapboax-y sounding,” Trieschmann says. “Too many people thought, ‘That is the voice of the playwright,’ and we worked hard to strip that. I don’t want there to be a ‘playwright’s voice’ moment. In fact, none of these characters represent what I believe, and they are all in me. None of them is my voice specifically, and all of them are.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor