Staging Science, Provoking Thought
Carl Djerassi’s newest play Insufficiency brings the dramas of academia and research to a wider public
"Two men die within 21 minutes of each other’s demise. Both are non-smokers. Cholesterol levels below 180. No particular health problems. Both professors in the same institution...and both having sipped champagne some two hours before their death. And not just any champagne."
So begins Carl Djerassi’s Insufficiency, a new play focusing on the chemistry and physics of bubbles, and in particular on a brilliant but unorthodox researcher studying them. Jerzy is a youngish (early forties) associate professor struggling for both recognition and tenure within a chemistry department in an unspecified university in the U.S. What infuriates his colleagues is his refusal to publish his results in conventional journals, and also his accepting funding from non-traditional sources – Dom Perignon in this case. His professional intransigence contributes to his downfall, as the bad blood provokes a loss of support in a tenure meeting, leading finally to tragedy.
The need for tenure? Publish or perish? The ethics of funding? Catty departmental politics? Hardly the usual fare served up for theatre-goers, but familiar themes in Dr. Djerassi’s writing. Djerassi, the Vienna-born chemist responsible for the development of the contraceptive pill while at Stanford University, has published many novels and plays dealing not with science, but with scientists. His assertion that the lives of scientists, the regular hustle and bustle of academia, can be every bit as dramatic as the more familiar professions of medicine, law, and journalism, serves a didactic as well as a theatrical purpose.
By focusing on the everyday lives of scientists, we get the opportunity to see them as the all-too-human people they really are, and not the faceless automatons in thrall to big business as they are sometimes presented.
"How would you describe his work – in your words?"
"Jerzy worked on beer and champagne and..."
It’s early evening on a hot day in June, and the first rehearsal for Insufficiency is underway. Unlike the play’s formal debut in London in September, this version is being performed by actual scientists – members of the Vienna Biocenter Amateur Dramatic Club at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA).
Heather Esson, a Canadian postdoctoral researcher, is cross-examining Freia von Raußendorf, a German PhD student, in one of the courtroom scenes. Scripts in hand, they pace around the auditorium that only a day earlier was hosting a seminar entitled "Recent advances in yeast biotechnology – from humanised yeast, to synthetic immune systems in yeast". It’s a slightly surreal feeling.
Insufficiency was performed 26 June, followed by a Q&A session with Djerassi on the themes in the script. Having scientists perform a script about science to a public audience is very much keeping with Dr. Djerassi’s theatrical oeuvre, a niche that he’s occupied for over twenty years. From venue to cast to audience, it’s the real thing.
"I prefer to start with the more seductive ‘let me tell you a story’ and then incorporate real science and true-to-life scientists into the tale," says Djerassi. "And if such a tale is presented on the stage rather than on the printed page, we are dealing with ‘science-in-theatre’."
Always on Stage
Another summer evening, and I’m discussing the production with Djerassi in his apartment in the 3rd District, only a short hop from the Vienna Biocenter campus itself. The room is bedizened with the paraphernalia of authorship – books, stationery, paper – and a faint breeze from the open window stirs the pages of the texts we’re holding.
Djerassi is engaged but undemanding, happily consenting to change the gender of one of the characters, and swearing to abide by a policy of no interference in the upcoming production. Still, it feels as if we’re re-enacting one of the scenes from the script – the sympathetic but authoritative elder professor gently guiding the younger acolyte. He promises to drop in on one more rehearsal before the performance, and offers general words of encouragement.
"You don’t really think that I will use these results for my tenure case? That I will tell them about the special polymer coatings that will permit timed release of bubbles? Even the uncoated nanoparticle stuff is more than sufficient for proving my credentials."
Back in rehearsal, and we’re discussing how best to stage one of the experiments in the script. Actors and beer are old acquaintances, but it’s not the usual etiquette to be frantically spooning the foam off a beer and into a separate glass without any imbibing whatsoever. Then there’s the demonstration involving salt and Diet Coke to get right.
An unspoken joke ("How many PhDs does it take to...?") hangs in the air. The mood is positive, excitement and curiosity mixing in equal measure. We’re curious to see how a non-scientific audience reacts. Whatever the outcome, so long as they’re stimulated to think about scientists as something other than fantastical Frankenstein figures, then Dr. Djerassi’s latest bit of science-in-theatre will have served its purpose. That’s something worth celebrating.
With champagne, of course.
by Carl Djerassi
World premiere 20 Sept. – 20 Oct.
directed by Andy Jordan
Riverside Studios Theatre
Box Office: 020 8237 1111
For more on Carl Djerassi, see "Carl Djerassi: The Poet of Progressive Science" in June 2012 TVR.