N.Y. Stage Play Celebrates 'Math Team Queen'

A new off-Broadway play opens, and it celebrates, of all things, a high school math whiz. Playwright Kathryn Walat talks about the production, Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen, which asks the question: Can a girl know Pi to 53 decimal places and still be popular?

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

This month a new off-Broadway play opens, and it celebrates, of all things, the high school mathlete. You know, the high school mathletes? You have a math team in your school? Well, this play asks the question: Can a popular girl who knows Pi to 53 decimal places, can she be on a math team and still be popular? Well, you can if you're "Victoria Martin: The Math Team Queen." That's the title of the play, and it's opening this weekend at the Julia Miles Theater here in New York. And joining me now to talk more about it is the playwright. Kathryn Walat is the author of "Victoria Martin: The Math - Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen." There's a colon there. Thanks for talking with us today.

Ms. KATHRYN WALAT (Author, "Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen"): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Congratulations...

Ms. WALAT: Thank you.

FLATOW: ...on the opening of your play. Give us a little synopsis of what the play is about.

Ms. WALAT: Well, the play, as you said, the play has to do with the high school math team and Victoria Martin, who is the third most popular sophomore at the high school and who unwittingly finds herself on the team, only to discover that she is great at it and really carries the team and actually changes everyone, all the other kids that are on the team, too.

FLATOW: So you had this beginning conflict with the...

Ms. WALAT: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: ...with the high school popular kids...

Ms. WALAT: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: ...from the cheerleader side, I'll call them.

Ms. WALAT: Yeah.

FLATOW: And the nerdy kids...

Ms. WALAT: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: ...the geeks on the math team. And she crosses that divide.

Ms. WALAT: Yep.

FLATOW: Right. And she has to lie about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Doesn't she? To her friends.

Ms. WALAT: She does. She lies. She keeps it a secret from the Jens, Jen and Jen, who are her cheerleader best friends. She keeps it a secret because she thinks that there's, you know, that there's no way that she can possibly be popular and be a math nerd. But she pulls it off, and I don't know. I think Victoria Martin can do anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Is this the message of the play?

Ms. WALAT: Well, I think it's more about - for her I think she gets to a place at the end of the play where she decides she cares less about, I think, what the popular girls think...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WALAT: ...and about some of that other high school stuff. And that she really does like math and she is going to do it. And so I think it's about - I think the message of the play, if there is one, is kind of about figuring out who you are and who you want to be...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. WALAT: ...which is certainly a major question in high school, but also a question, you know, that we face all the time.

FLATOW: And being true to yourself about this.

Ms. WALAT: Yeah. Yep.

FLATOW: A major...

Ms. WALAT: It's a big challenge.

FLATOW: It was - it's true to the boys who are on the math team...

Ms. WALAT: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: ...being true to themselves as well as...

Ms. WALAT: I think so. Yeah, I think so. And sort of - well, in - I think they end up in a place where they're surprised about - a little bit surprised, certainly, the character Peter, about where he finds himself, that he is in a different place than he thought he would be...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. WALAT: ...or thought he was.

FLATOW: Now this is produced by the Women's Project.

Ms. WALAT: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: Tell us about the Women's Project.

Ms. WALAT: Well, the Women's Project is an off-Broadway theater company that produces work - well, a lot of the work is both by women playwrights and also sometimes women-themed. I guess this is kind of girl-themed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALAT: So kind of a, you know, a different spin on that.

FLATOW: Speaking of spin, how do you bring a project about mathematics to a production company and say I want to do - I have - you know, they're going to say to you, well, possibly, who's going to come and want to watch a show about math?

Ms. WALAT: Well, I think...

FLATOW: Did you face that at all, or...

Ms. WALAT: Not so - I mean actually I - one thing I found is all these closet mathletes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALAT: ...like had surfaced in working on this play, which has been kind of fun. And - well, I mean the great thing about plays and theater is that you can write about virtually anything you want.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WALAT: So that was kind of the starting place for the play. And then, I don't know, I think...

FLATOW: But what made you choose math?

Ms. WALAT: Well, I was - I started more at first with high school; that I love high school movies, and I started wondering why are there not more high school plays? So that's when I started thinking about, well, what aspect of high school was I interested in? And I thought that the math nerds would be - are kind of an unsung chapter in the high school narrative.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WALAT: So that's where I started.

FLATOW: Now you said that you once wanted to be a science journalist.

Ms. WALAT: I did, actually. And I remember when I was in high school, actually, I was very into science and also into writing and journalism, and I was on the high school newspaper. And that was - I remember applying to college, and one of my college essays mentioning that I wanted to do maybe science journalism. And actually I continued to study science and math in college until I was about - until it became time to declare my major, and then it...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. WALAT: ...I kind of had taken a few playwriting classes by then and discovered that's really what I wanted to do.

FLATOW: So how much of you, your struggles in high school, like liking math and science, is in this play?

Ms. WALAT: Is in this play. I don't know. I don't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALAT: I don't know that I felt so much of a conflict. I think I just liked it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WALAT: And was in that loose - and was OK with liking it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, did you have trouble figuring out the ending?

Ms. WALAT: Well, I knew that - actually I usually know with a play, I usually know the beginning and the ending, and not the middle. So I knew that I wanted them to make it to the state competition...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. WALAT: ...but not actually to win the state competition.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WALAT: But I think that the play, ultimately of course, doesn't just become about winning the state competition.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. WALAT: It becomes about the journey of these characters.

FLATOW: And do you think that this play, that high school kids would like - would feel that they could relate to the characters if they...

Ms. WALAT: I think so. We actually during previews last week, we had two student audiences. One that was junior high students and one that was high school students. And it was very interesting, actually, to see their reactions and see them relating to the play. With the junior high students, where they were kind of headed, and the high school students really kind of relating I think to, you know, on a different level than people who - adults looking back, so.

FLATOW: Well, and the actors and the direction are just amazing.

Ms. WALAT: Oh, just amazing.

FLATOW: Where do you find these actors in New York?

Ms. WALAT: They're - you know, there are a lot of talented actors in this city. Let me tell - I mean we completely lucked out. That was a fabulous cast, and they are just so right at playing the youth in the play, and also the direction really highlights as playing the youth but not sort of commenting on it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WALAT: Even though they are - they are in their mid-20s, but I think that they really play it in a very real way - the youthfulness of the characters and their journeys.

FLATOW: Could the conflict have been about anything but - you know, was math the most important part? Could you have written a different kind of conflict, do you think? Was the math integral to this here?

Ms. WALAT: I think so. One of the - another starting point about the play was the character Victoria Martin memorizes...

FLATOW: Fifty-three...

Ms. WALAT: ...50 digits...

FLATOW: How did she do that on stage? How did she memorize all those?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALAT: She's amazing. Jessi Campbell, she's amazing. She - and she came in the very first rehearsal with 52 digits of Pi memorized because she knew it would be a big chore. And she said that she broke it down by seven digits so they were like phone numbers, and that's how she memorized them, so...

FLATOW: I interrupted you when you were talking about one of the...

Ms. WALAT: Right. What one of the story points of the play was having - I was reading an article about the gifted camp at Johns Hopkins in the summer, and that there was a girl there that had memorized Pi. And by the end of the summer, there was a guy there who had memorized Pi kind of to be like her, and I thought that was very sweet. And I loved the idea of kind of these kids in this very nerdy environment getting to be very nerdy and comfortable with that, and that was one of the little sparks that kind of started the play - or started that character.

FLATOW: Yeah, now I'm going to pull - do a senior moment. I forget the other play I'm thinking of. But the one that won the Tony this year was also a play about - was about high school, but it was a British high school that...

Ms. WALAT: Oh, "History Boys."

FLATOW: "History Boys."

Ms. WALAT: Yep.

FLATOW: That's another school play.

Ms. WALAT: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: Yours is a school play. Are we seeing now, do you think, a trend...

Ms. WALAT: Maybe.

FLATOW: ...in these plays about school?

Ms. WALAT: Maybe. I mean it's definitely - I mean it's the perfect setting for high drama because I feel like everything is high stakes during high school. So that could be it. Also I think there's a lot of comedy, too. When you look back at high school with any kind of distance, you realize that even though things seemed like the end - everything seemed like the end of the world then, that it really wasn't.

FLATOW: I got a little impression that - you know, you sit there saying I think I've seen sort of an idea for this, maybe "The Breakfast Club" or something where you get kids together and they have this dynamic. Did "The Breakfast Club" or any of these other plays come to mind when you were writing it?

Ms. WALAT: A little bit, a little bit. It had been awhile since I'd seen "Breakfast Club," and actually I just recently kind of went back and watched it, and that was kind of fun going back and watching it. Also the movie "Mean Girls," which is a more recent one that came out a couple of years ago, which is really fabulous, I hadn't watched before I wrote the play. And then kind of when I was watching that I became kind of excited because it was dealing with some of the same things.

FLATOW: Somebody - a girl was on a math team in that one.

Ms. WALAT: Yeah.

FLATOW: Right?

Ms. WALAT: Yup.

FLATOW: Yeah. What would you do differently? Now the play is about to open, how would - would you change the story, or...

Ms. WALAT: I wouldn't change a thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. WALAT: No, I mean the great thing about the production of a new play is that the playwright - the first production, the playwright is very involved. And I do get to change a lot of stuff, and I did do a lot of rewrites while we were in the room. And we - and production-wise, we continued to make changes throughout of course the rehearsal process but even once we got into the theater and saw how things were landing once we were on stage and what was - how things were working with certain audiences, so...

FLATOW: Do the actors have input into you should change this, change that in a small production like this?

Ms. WALAT: Well, I think the biggest input the actors bring is just themselves. And like every actor brings something, you know, something new to a role, and I've learned so much from this group of actors about these characters too, you know. And I think that's kind of the fun of being a playwright, too.

FLATOW: Did you have to find actors who like math?

Ms. WALAT: No, and actually I think our actors don't like math so much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALAT: We did some practice math problems in rehearsal one day, and I think it was helpful for them because they felt the kind of the tension and frustration that some of the characters feel in some of the scenes in the play, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Do you have to have a math adviser?

Ms. WALAT: Well, our dramaturge on the project, Carrie Hughes(ph), actually was on the high school math team. So she kind of had a real - she was real adviser to us. Also our lighting designer is also - Sarah Sedman(ph) is also a former mathlete, so.

FLATOW: Yeah, because you know when we talk to other playwrights and producers and directors who do science plays, they always have some science adviser saying, you know, a lab never looks like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: The beakers go here, this goes there. You didn't have any real need for that kind of stuff.

Ms. WALAT: Well...

FLATOW: But you have to know whether the math they're talking about is real or not.

Ms. WALAT: It's good to - yeah, you've got to keep this real.

FLATOW: Yeah, I mean because that's part of the whole mystique is that, hey, they really are talking about real math.

Ms. WALAT: Right, right.

FLATOW: And especially when she gets, you know, she starts talking about Pi to 52 places...

Ms. WALAT: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: So what happens next for the play?

Ms. WALAT: Well, we'll continue at the Julia Miles Theater here in New York through February 11th. Then hopefully other theaters will want to produce it. I mean there's a lot of theaters across the country, the regional theater network, so it would be great to see the play get done again and again.

FLATOW: Well, the play is a lot of fun.

Ms. WALAT: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: I wish you good luck with it. I think every high school kid would love to see - they can relate...

Ms. WALAT: High school - well, I also think adults, too.

FLATOW: Yes, absolutely.

Ms. WALAT: I think everyone. I don't know.

FLATOW: It's a lot of fun.

Ms. WALAT: It's a play for all ages.

FLATOW: Good luck to you.

Ms. WALAT: Great, thanks so much.

FLATOW: Kathryn Walat is author of "Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen," a new play running now at the Julia Miles Theater in New York.

We're going to take a short break and come back and talk about mercury pollution in the environment and a set of hotspots of mercury in New England. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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