Women, Science and the Stage
Guest Post by Molly Freeman, Artistic Director of Smoking Apples Theater Company
Making theatre from scratch relies on unflinching determination, total belief in what you’re doing, and a good deal of perspiration. But before the lights, the sound, the characters, the plot, the script, the movement, the set, the costumes, the props, the stage itself – you need inspiration. A little nugget of a story, found probably by chance, which follows you around all day, tugging at your arm. A tantalising thread just waiting to be pulled.
Lise Meitner was just that. “The greatest scientist you’ve never heard of” and the inspiration behind the latest show from my theatre company, Smoking Apples. Born in 1878 in Austria, Meitner was a naturally curious, highly intelligent child, keeping records of her research on reflected light under her pillow at night (Editor’s note: The only thing I kept under my pillow was sometimes my hand, which would then fall asleep; not that it’s a competition). Throughout her education she continued to smash through the gender barriers raised against her, proving her worth as a scientist and in 1926 she became Germany’s first female physics professor. The rise of the Nazis forced her to flee Germany to Sweden where she received a letter from long term scientific collaborator Otto Hahn explaining that he had achieved the seemingly impossible – to split apart a uranium nuclei with a single neutron. Meitner pushed this discovery further, concluding that the loss of mass that occurred from this process was due to the creation of energy, something imperceptible to everyone except Meitner. Nuclear Fission was born, the basis of the devastating nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and nuclear energy today. Meitner was a key part of the team behind one of the most provoking and impactful scientific discoveries of our time, yet in 1944 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Nuclear Fission went solely to Otto Hahn.
As nuclear fission began to be harnessed as a weapon of war, Meitner distanced herself from the infamous Manhattan Project, declaring the atomic bomb a ‘destroyer of worlds’. Her research led her to develop one of the first peacetime nuclear reactors. Her headstone reads ‘Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity’.
In classic Smoking Apples theatre company style, we don’t like to make it easy on ourselves and this show may be our biggest challenge yet. How to translate complicated science onto the stage in an educating, entertaining & inventive way that doesn’t patronise or alienate a diverse range of audiences? Unfortunately in order to do this we first have to understand it ourselves and, having specialised in drama, it’s fair to say our brains do not naturally bend towards science. Cue lots of head scratching. In the end it comes down to how much the audience really need to know in order to enjoy the show and empathise with the character. We’re still searching for the answer to that and, terrifyingly, will only know if we’ve got it right on opening night.
Two weeks into rehearsals we have a main character – “Kate” an ambitious, brilliant young nuclear researcher in the 1980s. We have a story arc – as “Kate” delves deeper into her research she is confronted by the climate of ‘nuclear fear’, the moral dilemmas of her potential discoveries and the sacrifices she will have to make to achieve them. We have a name for the show – “New Clear Vision”. We have a prototype puppet.
For us, one of the most important elements of this show is the chance to explore the challenges faced by women in science, many of which Meitner was a pioneer in overcoming. Our research led us to some sobering reads. Women in the UK make up just 12.8% of the science, technology, engineering and maths jobs. 12.8 percent. In 2014 78.9% of the students sitting their A Level Physics Exams were boys. Last year Nobel laureate and English biochemist Tim Hunt said at the World Conference of Science Journalists “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab… you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” (Editor’s note: I always like how basically this guy is all: my number one criteria for falling in love with someone is that the person is (a) under my direct power, and (b) in my lab, as if the gender dynamics of what he said wasn’t bizarrely/normatively messed up enough.)
Family, work life balance, lack of role models, confidence & mentoring, unconscious bias, harassment. These are just some of the obstacles to career women in science, neatly stacking up and seemingly refusing to budge all the way from school level to post graduate and beyond. We want to give these statistics and reports a human side allowing the audience to experience these enormous frustrations with “Kate”. In one scene “Kate” leaves the lab and heads out to a bar but actually, that’s not what the audience sees. Instead, we use a combination of flip chart paper, bendy pipes and convex vases to create a science experiment which results in a liquid being poured into a cocktail glass (complete with glacier cherry and straw). Making use of the best chemical compound there is – the magic of theatre. (Editor’s note: I’m not a chemist but I still give my full approval to this analogy.)
Tricks and scene changes aside, in order to get the character “Kate” right we have been talking to a range of female scientists and working with various organisations who aim to encourage girls into science at school. In fact, it was a very early decision of ours to have an all female cast for this very reason. Our previous work has always had a male protagonist and this was a completely unconscious decision, one which we only recently acknowledged. This is our chance to combine the challenges faced by women in science with the challenges faced by us in exploring it.
As a woman creating this show, I’ve certainly noticed that my attitude towards developing a female puppet is very different. In rehearsals so far, I’ve found myself questioning, is she too thin, are her legs too long, what shall we do with her hair, does she need hair? These are questions that we have been through with every puppet we’ve made but this time they have a whole new meaning.
Then comes the big question; how are we going to do all this with no words on stage…with a puppet…on a budget?
Paradoxically, when you constrain yourself creatively is often the moment when you come up with the most imaginative theatre – hence why one of our best scenes came from us throwing balloons around to the Eurythmics (Editor’s note: PHOTOS OR IT DIDN’T HAPPEN). The set currently looks like a huge periodic table and we have been looking at playing scrabble with the elements (and making rude words).
Devising a piece of theatre is a bumpy road and it’s still early days. One thing is for certain however, this show will be a celebration of women’s achievements in science and an opportunity to shine a light on the challenges they face in our modern world.
Lise Meitner once said “in nuclear physics we have experienced so many surprises that one cannot unconditionally say; it is impossible.” This may become something of a mantra for us as we head towards opening night.
For more information on “New Clear Vision” and rehearsal videos head to www.smokingapplestheatre.com/show/new-clear- vision-rd/
Want to know more?
-Head to www.smokingapplestheatre.com/show/new-clear- vision-rd.
-Smoking Apples are presenting a work-in- progress performance of “New Clear Vision” on Monday 26th September at 4pm Creation Space, Oxford. For tickets please email firstname.lastname@example.org