Influential women with ‘Celestial Bodies’

By Alexandra Kukulka

The changing rooms under the stage are abuzz with actors preparing for the next scene. They grab clothing and makeup, while at the stairs, an actor who just came from the stage, jokingly yells that he is looking for actors to perform in the play and asks if he has come to the right place to find some.

“Celestial Bodies” is a new play that will open at the Getz Theatre at the 11th Street Campus, 72 E. 11th St., on Nov. 30. The play was written by Lisa Schlesinger, assistant professor in the Fiction Writing Department, who is also the coordinator of the playwriting program. This is the first time the Theatre Department is featuring original work by a faculty member.

“‘Celestial Bodies’ is the first play in a trilogy of plays about women who were connected to well-known scientists in the 17th century,” Schlesinger said. “[The play] is about Maria Gamba, Galileo’s mistress. They lived together for 12 years and had three children.”

According to Schlesinger, the idea for such a play came to her in a dream in which she saw a female scientist wearing men’s clothing presenting scientific theories.  Schlesinger later decided to do some research and learned about Gamba, though very little is known about her, Schlesinger said. She believes that Gamba had a powerful influence on Galileo because they spent so much time together and would talk and share meals.

“I just know from myself, how I work as an artist,” Schlesinger said. “My partner and I are always talking about what we are thinking about [and] what we are working on. I decided to write this play with the idea that she influenced a lot of his ideas as his lover, as his friend and as the person he ate with.”

The play features a cast of 20 Columbia students and is directed by Will Casey, adjunct faculty member in the Theatre Department. The lead actors are senior Erin O’Brien, who plays Gamba, and British exchange student, Lee Bainbridge, who plays Galileo.

Casey took on this play, he said, because it “seemed to really speak to me.” He emailed Schlesinger to discuss what he wanted the play to look like and bounce ideas around. They later set up meetings to further expand on those ideas and talked to Theatre Department Chair John Green, who approved the play to be produced.

“I love that this play takes a different take on [Galileo’s life],” Casey said. “It included the woman who was the mother of his children, Maria Gamba, and makes that story a part [of] his. It tells both stories at once.”

Casey admires the way Schlesinger executed the play and taught the audience about a person they may not know. In “Celestial Bodies,” Gamba is portrayed as a stargazer who has an interest in comets and is searching for knowledge,

O’Brien said.

According to O’Brien, in the beginning of the play, Gamba is a peasant woman who can’t go to school because she is a poor, young girl. Because of her circumstances, Gamba dresses up as a boy and ends up studying with Galileo, O’Brien added.

“Something kind of happens between [Gamba and Galileo] romantically,” O’Brien said. “It’s not as easy as boy meets girl, because she is a boy, technically, and lives as a boy for a long time.”

The part in the play where Gamba dresses as a boy is fictionalized, O’Brien said. The play takes place during the course of 12 years, when Gamba and Galileo work together, O’Brien added.

The most challenging part about playing Gamba was the way she always had her head in the clouds, while O’Brien needed to focus and interact with other actors, O’Brien said.

Similarly, Bainbridge said he likes the way the play was written because it gives him room to portray Galileo as a contemporary figure.

Both actors agreed that the characters they play are fun and witty because O’Brien gets to dress as a boy and Bainbridge runs out on stage in just his underwear.

“I think that when you write plays, you have a clear idea of what they would look like, so it is really exciting to see them come to life,” Schlesinger said. “This is a pretty difficult play, and [the actors] are really doing an amazing job, so it is exciting.”