'What is really going on?': 'The Catastrophist' is a play about the scientific process
Last year, during the height of the Covid pandemic and its attendant lockdowns, the new play The Catastrophist made its debut as a digital streaming show produced by the Marin Theatre Company. It was a timely work then and remains one a year later; while it doesn’t deal directly with Covid-19, it features a protagonist who studies viruses and works to predict upcoming pandemics.
“The catastrophist… is a man who makes his living predicting the next catastrophe and trying to prevent it from happening,” says director and Austin Playhouse founder Don Toner.
“It’s based on the life and work of Nathan Wolfe,” says Ben Wolfe (no relation to Nathan, as far as he knows), who stars in the show. “He’s the real-life husband of the playwright Lauren Gunderson, and he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people for his work based on pandemic tracking and prevention. So he’s a world-renowned virologist. And the play focuses on… the excitement of scientific exploration and sort of the harrowing look that sometimes comes up when we face our own mortality and the mortality of our family members.
“And it just so happens that [Nathan Wolfe] married a woman who writes plays,” Toner adds. “And he met her because… she reached out to him to get some information about what do scientists do? What’s this about? And I guess they fell in love and got married and had two children. And it’s a lovely story.”
“It’s a memory play, in essence,” Wolfe says. “The character, Nathan, wakes up onstage and he has no idea why he’s there. So his big question is what is really going on? Which is also tied in to the scientific process. You know, the questions that get asked and answered in the scientific process are trying to answer what’s really happening.”
“There are two characters in the play, [and] only one of them is seen – that’s the part played by Ben,” says Toner. “The other one is the playwright. Laura Gunderson is kind of a voice offstage.”
“The Catastrophist was written during the height of the pandemic and was performed virtually in that production, but we’re the first company to get to perform it live in front of an audience,” says Wolfe, who’s looking forward to performing the play for an in-person audience. “That’s, I think, where we thrive – with that sort of personal interaction between audience and performer,” he says. “There’s a real energy that gets shared between the two that you miss when you’re doing a virtual performance. The energy you get from the audience really informs your performance, and without it, well, you’re just kind of speaking into the void.”