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Staci Swedeen

Staci Swedeen

CORVALLIS — Playwright Staci Swedeen will be at Oregon State University next week for the five-day run of her play, “The Feeble-Mindedness of Woman.” The play within a play tells the story of  Gerty Cori, the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in science.

She plans to speak at several OSU classes.

Swedeen, 56, grew up in Mount Vernon, Wash., and moved to New York City in the 1980s to find acting jobs. Among her credits were an off-Broadway role in the revival of “Faces of ’52,” starring Eartha Kitt, and a small part on “As the World Turns.”

“When I got fed up with being an actress (in the ’90s), I got into playwrighting,” said Swedeen, who has always loved writing.

Among her works is “The Goldman Project,” published by Samuel French, which played off-Broadway in 2008.

Other plays by Swedeen have been performed across the country, published in anthologies and presented in festivals.

She was the recipient of the 2004 Arts and Letters Award in Drama and a New York State Council of the Arts Grant for New Plays and is a Dramatist Guild Fellow alum and core Lark Theatre member.

Swedeen loves performing her one-woman show “Pardon Me For Living” – a biting comedy involving a rabid raccoon.

She recently moved with husband Chris Skelly to Knoxville, Tenn., and has formed a new theater — Flying Anvil.

Swedeen received a commission in 2001 and wrote “The Feeble-Mindedness of Woman,” which was included in the New York City Ensemble Studio Festival in 2003.

The play hasn’t been staged elsewhere, so the Feb. 8  opening at OSU will be its Northwest premiere.

Swedeen spoke with The Entertainer Monday after responding in writing last week to the following questions:

Why did you write a play depicting Gerty Cori?

The Ensemble Studio Theater and the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation teamed up to encourage playwrights to write plays dealing with art and science. I applied for and received a commission to write this play in 2001. It was part of the First Light Festival in 2003.

An amazing actress named Isabel Keating played Gerty for me. A short time later she was on Broadway playing Judy Garland opposite Hugh Jackman in “The Boy from Oz.”

As I was writing the piece, I also got a fellowship at the Djerassi Artist Residency in California and had the good fortune to meet with Arthur Kornberg, professor emeritus at Stanford and a colleague of the Coris in the 1940s.  (Kornberg is also a Nobel winner.) While I was there, Kornberg introduced me to Paul Berg, also a Nobel winner for his work in DNA — who had known and worked with the Coris — so that was very exciting and stimulating for me as a writer.

Why did you choose to do the play-within-a-play format?

I’m cursed! It seems like anytime I sit down to do any writing it comes out as a play. Seriously, I was looking to find a theatrical form to challenge the stereotype that women are incapable of being tough, rigorous, or rational — all accepted hallmarks of good science.

Why did you choose the title “The Feeble-Mindedness of Woman”?

Regarding the title, I came across that phrase in an incredible book by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne called “Nobel Women in Science” — when she talked in one chapter about the obstacles facing women. “The Feeblemindedness of Women” was a German book at the turn of the century explaining why women should not be educated. Some gynecological textbooks of the 1940s also contained this kind of information — that women were too fragile to be educated and that it would damage their ability to bear children, etc., etc., etc.

Do you identify at all with Gerty? Have you faced discrimination or sexism in your career?

Yes, I’ve certainly faced sexism — unfortunately, it is still present in our society. I was also moved by a story my cousin Bette Korber, a scientist and tops AIDS researcher, told me some years ago — about being actively discouraged from entering the scientific field. That really stayed with me because my cousin is quite brilliant. How many women, looking for guidance, are turned away because of stereotype and prejudice? So that was also a seed for this play.

Besides watching your own play at OSU next week, what else is on your schedule while you’re in Corvallis?

I’ll be speaking to a few classes and seeing a NYC acting friend who is now living in Corvallis. After the show I’ll make my way to Seattle to help a dear friend celebrate her birthday and to see my brother, who lives in our hometown of Mount Vernon.

What’s your next project?

I’ve recently moved to Knoxville, Tenn., and with a creative colleague am starting a theatre. We’re calling it the Flying Anvil Theatre — after the Appalachian tradition of putting gunpowder between two anvils, lighting the spark, and seeing how high it will fly! It’s somewhat crazy, improbable, and completely possible – which seemed like the perfect symbol for us.  Hey, y’all, watch this!

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