Science: can it be art?

November 13, 1998

An advert in The Stage prompted playwright Tom McGrath to team up with his geneticist daughter to prove that science can produce decent theatre

Science on Stage and Screen", said the Wellcome Trust's advert in The Stage. The trust was inviting applications from artists interested in science. I took one look and thought, "this is for me".

I am a playwright based in Edinburgh. My daughter Julie, based in London, is a research scientist working in genetics. It was not just that we had the combined resources to make a feasible application. I had wanted to write a science play for years.

I never subscribed to the idea of the "two cultures"; sciences on one side, arts on the other. Specialisation produces communication difficulties, but this can happen within the arts or between scientists working in different fields. I used to receive a publication called Leonardo which encouraged an overlap between arts and science thinking. This promised a more complete state of mind.

In the small club theatres where my first plays were shown in the 1970s, many of the audience were working in the sciences. Characters in the plays might include lawyers, teachers and social workers, but never a scientist. So-called "modern" theatre seemed to take place in a self-created world where science did not exist.

My first attempt to introduce science into the theatre was The Android Circuit, in which a cosmonaut makes love to a female android, merging human and machine. The set glittered with a rainbow film. Artificial birds twittered on the soundtrack.

The audience was wary. They did not like science fiction, they said. There were lots of preconceived notions to break down. Nonetheless, the play was enough of a success to go to London where it played as part of a "fantasy theatre" season at the ICA.

My next effort, Animal, played the Edinburgh Festival in 1979. The action was based on field studies of the behaviour of chimpanzees - called "the anthropoids" in the play. A female human watched them through binoculars and made notes into a dictaphone. The anthros represented our underlying animal nature, the denial of which leads to such trouble, while the woman represented the western observer, peering through different types of lens. The audience loved the uninhibited creatures, but were less interested in the human.

In that play I had wanted to make what I called a "structuralist sequence" in which the action was frozen while the woman was seen to look through not just one lens but several. She puts on a pair of spectacles. She peers through a magnifying glass. She uses binoculars, eventually a microscope. I was trying to convey something at an ideas level but by visual means. The director was none too keen on this non-dramatic development, so the idea was dropped. But it haunted me - an insight from another dimension.

Meantime, my daughter, a heavy-metal fan, surprised us by winning the school prize for biology. A few years later I helped her type her thesis, which used phrases like "in vitro". One phrase was "McClintock et al". Who is this McClintock, I asked her.

So she told me about Barbara McClintock, an American geneticist, whose approach was radically different from that of the males, and earned her much scorn. Whereas the men liked to remove what they considered to be inessential and view a gene in isolation, she was all-inclusive, trying to understand things by looking at them in their whole environment. Eventually her work led to breakthroughs in genetics and in her eighties earned her a Nobel Prize.

Soon after I heard a radio programme about women in science which brought things nearer home. It talked of the difficulties of having to work with short-term contracts, the frustrations of trying to get enough consistency of location to pursue your line of research. Different types of technology are located in different parts of the country. No sooner have you learned to use one than you have to take up another contract elsewhere.

Over a number of years I got a sense of daily life in a research lab from my daughter. We are not talking about double-helix high-fliers here, of course. This is the more general world of research laboratory science, the world most scientists inhabit. For every experiment that yields an interesting result, thousands do not. Scientists try this and that, following group strategies or individual hunches. Sometimes there are clashes between the two, or someone gets over-eager and makes claims they cannot substantiate.

In this respect there's "good science" and "bad science". Then there is the accidental. An experiment can be set up and going for months. Someone mistakenly changes a temperature and the whole thing is spoiled. Only now and then is there a sense of triumph - an experiment yields important results, the lab's work is recognised with further funding. It reminds me of the arts.

Hence the click in my head when I saw the Wellcome advert in The Stage. I rang my daughter, who by this time had become Dr Julie Webb, one of a research team based in the Institute of Child Health, the research institute associated with Great Ormond Street Hospital. What did she think?

Genetics is, of course, a sexy subject these days. The promotions lady in the Royal Lyceum Theatre, where I have an office, left a press cutting on my desk about the cloning of pigs. I read somewhere about genetic make-up - temporarily changing the colour of your eyes by somehow ingesting a gene. As I talked with Julie the subject matter deepened. Genetics also raises sharp moral issues.

On the day before making an oral presentation to the Wellcome Trust, I visited the lab in Great Ormond Street, met many of the people who work there, viewed the minute accuracy of their equipment and looked down a microscope at an illuminated visual wonder which turned out to be a cluster of leukaemic cells.

The idea continues to grow. I became interested in the problems of introducing healthy genes into a human being - the problem of delivering them. I decided the central character would be a female scientist. Yes, Wellcome gave me an award - it enabled me to realise the possibilities I have glimpsed over the years. Safe Delivery, the play is called. Watch out for its prototype at the Edinburgh Science Festival next April.

Tom McGrath is associate literary director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. With his daughter Julie Webb he won Pounds 36,000 from the Wellcome Trust Science on Stage and Screen Awards 1998-99.

Other science/art collaborations funded by the Wellcome Trust in the coming year include:

* Colour Visions, a film about how we see colour by independent production company Mentorn Barraclough Carey, working with Frances Ashcroft of Oxford University.

* A television programme about dementia by the Cast Iron film company and Mary Marshall of the Dementia Services Development Centre.

* A play about how the brain works by Devon-based theatre company Forkbeard Fantasy, working with Emil Toescu of Birmingham University.

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