The MACH 33 Experience: Aubrey Clyburn’s AXIOMS

The staged reading took place in Frautschi & Mie Rehearsal Hall on March 1st. The cast, from left to right: Molly Goldstein, Wendy Worthington, Adela Paez, Peter James Smith, and the author. Not pictured, though he was essential, is stage manager Eric Han. (Kevin Delin)

“What if we could prevent miscommunication, heartbreak, and social isolation simply by cracking the universal human code? Mathematics is, after all, the language of the universe, and aren’t we stardust? Carbon-based? Aren’t we numbers, too?”

So ruminates protagonist Eliza in her “apartment-slash-mind palace,” the appropriately heady setting for most of Aubrey Clyburn’s AXIOMS: a theatrical exploration of number theory, neurodivergence, and the psychoemotional tyranny of talking stuffed animals, among other things of that ilk. With a cast and crew composed of people in and around the Caltech/JPL community, the play was developed into a staged reading performed as part of the MACH 33 theater festival earlier this month.

The script, one of three chosen by Directors Brian Brophy and Arden Thomas among seventeen submissions, was deemed a shining example of a “science-driven” play; i.e., a piece of theater that makes science “feel more alive, exciting and tangible” by enhancing “our emotional response to science and scientific inquiries.” Particularly as someone involved in its production, I can’t overstate the marvelous extent to which AXIOMS puts these Caltech-theatric virtues on full display. (My roles, I’m so privileged to say, having included one of the psycho-torturous stuffed animals.)

After selection, each piece was then assigned a science mentor, director, and cast with whom to prepare a reading. The other two pieces, as sad as I was to miss them, looked wonderful: titled _FIVE DEGREES ABOVE POLARIS _and S P A C E, they followed a female astronomer in an ideological brawl against the Catholic Church and the semi-historical adventures of thirteen exceptional female astronauts, respectively.

For Aubrey Clyburn, part theater nerd and part math aficionado, this strain of STEM-driven art embodies the empowering union of two seldom put-together passions. “Well, you have this theater major and math minor. What if you wrote a math play to put those together?” queried Aubrey’s mother during the fateful conversation that would later prove AXIOMS’s origin story. The math-oriented nature of the play did initially give her some anxiety about its appeal, as Aubrey shared with the author: “Are people going to respond to this? Or are they going to hit a wall as soon as they hear ‘associative property’?” And yet, though a Techer is unlikely to be the kind of person repelled by axiomatic math, I’m far from the only one who would attest to the play’s emotional resonance.

For Adela Paez, who played Eliza in the reading, AXIOMS’s mathematical references were far from its most striking element: “To me, what spoke to me first was the loving relationship [between Eliza and her best friend Blaise]. … Math came third, you know? That all came last to me.” Kevin Delin, the physicist, writer, and multidisciplinary extraordinaire who directed the reading, speaks similarly of his experience: “There’s a very strong human element in this play. … I think it’s easy to stereotype science-driven plays, but this was a real play about human beings, and it was told in a sensitive, unique way with humor.” May the MACH 33 festival be a monument to how science and art are not at all irreconcilable, but rather convergent toward a holistic exploration of what it means to be human—at least given the writing, acting, and directing needed to make that happen. (“I could not have found a more perfect director,” Aubrey stated of said extraordinaire.)

Given the play’s premise, onlookers may assume that what scientific mentorship provided was mathematical. Rather, the mentor assigned to _AXIOMS _was Brenna Outten, a graduate student studying human emotion and social cognition at the Adolphs Lab. “They reached out to Adolphs because they know he studies emotions, and my lab works with a lot of people with autism,” she explained. Through Brenna’s input, Aubrey was able to further refine the play’s depiction of neurodivergence and, more broadly, the challenges of being a human among humans. The final draft of AXIOMS thus had that much more of an emotional impact on its audience, and its viewers that much more seen. This was certainly evident in the post-show talkback, as well as in the experiences of the cast. “It opened me up to how I talk about my sister, who has Down syndrome,” Adela remarked. “I know that [we see things differently], but this play helped me see that even more: that I need even more patience, and to help her a lot more than I do in realizing that, sometimes, I take our relationship for granted because we’re sisters who see each other every day.”

As much as I would love to see the play attain the Broadway fame that it deserves, the future of AXIOMS is currently uncertain. “Some of that is at the whims of the theater gods,” Kevin said. “We would like to see this be picked up by a theater, and eventually it will get enough reads and it will be. … The important thing with any art is that you keep going up to bat.” The perseverance, enthusiasm, and sheer talent of people like Kevin, Adela, and Aubrey make me, at any rate, all the more passionate about doing theater at a place like Caltech. Far from being suppressive of or discouraging toward art, the STEM-driven culture of an institute like this one can instead be conducive to an entirely new paradigm of artistic expression, one that sees mathematical logic, love, and autism as component parts of a beautiful whole. It’s a spellbinding phenomenon that speaks to the basic reasons we stage anything at all. And, as Kevin sagely put: “The magic of theater—it’s transient. You miss it when it happens, and it’s gone.” Let this article be a reminder not to miss the next time.