Existing in different realities

An interview with playwright Jonathan Spector

Josh Costello: Aurora commissioned you to write a play as part of our Originate+Generate program. Tell us about that process.


Jonathan Spector: I had approached Aurora about applying together for a grant. We didn’t get the grant, but it was around that time Aurora was starting the O+G and Tom Ross invited to me to write the play as part of that program.


JC: Early on you told us you were interested in writing a play about parents and vaccinations. Why did that grab your interest?


JS: I’d had the experience a few times in the Bay Area of talking with people who I know are super smart, highly educated people with whom I agree on 99% of issues and then being shocked to discover that on this one thing we existed in different realities. So that was interesting to me.


Also, unlike gun control or abortion or climate change, beliefs around vaccines don’t track closely with political beliefs. There are vaccine skeptics on both the left and the right (although they get there different ways).


My work is usually heavily rooted in a sense of place and since this was a commission for Aurora, I wanted to write something that would be a BERKELEY play, which I had not done before.


JC: You did a bunch of research on this. How did the research inform your writing process?


JS: I did a fair bit of research, and interviewed about a dozen people ranging from friends who are vaccine skeptics to public health doctors and vaccine researchers.


Ultimately, the further I got into the play, the less relevant a lot of that research was, since ultimately the questions around the science of vaccines is much less interesting to me than the

question of how we make a community with people who believe in a different truth than we do.


JC:How does the vaccination issue relate to the problem we’re having as a society right now with truth?


JS: One trend the internet has exacerbated is the decentralizing of authority and expertise. Like, before the internet there were a lot of subjects that most people didn’t know much about and on some level were willing to just defer to experts on. Whereas now you can go online and find whatever information you are looking for – which is great in many respects, but also tricky because of how prone we all are to confirmation bias.


We saw this play out in an extreme way in the election, when it often felt like some portion of the country live in a different reality than other portions. I had a guy at the autoshop tell me – without any hint of irony - than although he had some misgivings about Trump, he knew Clinton had murdered 19 people, so at least Trump was better on that count.


What’s tricky about all this, is that the decentralizing of institutional authority is largely a good thing - since that authority was mostly held in the hands of a narrow band of society by wealthy white men. So on the one hand, having only three networks with three nightly news anchors who are all rich waspy white guys is going to lead to a very narrow sense of what counts as “news”, but once you dismantle that institutional power, what tools do you have left to stop powerful interests from pushing things like Fox News or Breitbart to create a alternate reality that best suits their interests?


JC: It’s a huge dilemma. So how does this relate back to EUREKA DAY?


JS: Part of the way it relates to the play is specifically around vaccinations, it’s very difficult to engage in a factual debate with someone. There’s a virtually endless pool of information that someone can point to to back up whatever they claim. And to try to refute someone’s claim you have to dive down a rabbit-hole of researching various articles and studies, which ultimately is always a waste of time because even if I find this thing which utterly refutes that thing, it’s not going to change anyone’s mind.