Reading The Water

A woman exploring the mysterious life and death of her scientist father.

Originally produced at HERE Arts Center
as part of the American Living Room Festival.
Original production team:

Written and Performed by Monica Hunken
Directed by and Devised with Laura Newman
Dramaturgs- Nadia Foskolou and Benjamin Cerf
Sound Design-Monica Hunken
Lighting Design- Ayuma “Poe” Saegusa
Photos by Fred Askew 

Reading the Water, written and performed by Monica Hunken, is a surreal journey of a woman exploring the mysterious life—and death—of her scientist father. An intimate portrait of the unknown father unfolds as the young woman travels through tales of deep-sea dives, top-secret government experiments, madcap relatives, lawsuits and an untimely death. 

This one-woman show attempts to uncover the life of an introverted scientist in love with the sea, and is a personal investigation of identity and loss. An engineer at Hughes Research Laboratory (HRL) in Malibu, California for several years until he began to develop health problems, the author’s father died from lung cancer that he attributed to long-term exposure to heavy metals at HRL. In the last year of his life, he took HRL to court, a battle that the author’s mother continued to fight, but subsequently lost after his death, leaving her to raise two daughters alone. 

The author returned to California to interview and film her father’s co-workers, friends and family in an effort to better understand the circumstances of his death and to learn about the man himself.

The story unfolds in the form of an exhilarating investigation: it begins underwater during a scuba dive, shifts into a confrontation with the corporate institution itself in an imaginary boxing match, then delves deeper as the author interviews his eccentric, scientist colleagues. The author transforms in and out of each character seamlessly, even managing a four-person conversation. Although the play upholds a documentary style, surreal movement sequences suggest the father’s deteriorating health. The author maintains momentum with highly physical storytelling. Interspersed with excruciating family moments, the experience reveals heartbreaking, and sometimes conflicting, truths. 

After a gripping personal account of the father’s death from the mother’s perspective, the show closes with film clips and intimate family photos that serve as cinema verite, revealing each character depicted in the performance.