All my life I’ve been entranced by the magic of the stage, but I never had the confidence to try and make a living in the theatre. Instead I became a science writer, while performing or directing occasionally as an enthusiastic amateur. Last year I had the opportunity to put the two halves of my life together.
May 2010 was the centenary of the birth of Dorothy Hodgkin, Britain’s only female Nobel-prizewinning scientist, whose biography I had published in 1998. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where she had conducted most of her prizewinning work, planned to unveil a bust of her. Could I, the director asked me, think of something we could do to make the centenary celebration more of an event?
On the road
Inspired by a recent performance of Jane Cox’s one-woman show about Barbara McClintock, The Longing to Understand, I offered to write a one-woman show about Dorothy. The Museum found funds that enabled me to hire a professional actor (Miranda Cook), director (Abbey Wright) and creative team to put it together. The première of Hidden Glory at the centenary celebration on 10 May was performed in front of Dorothy’s daughter, 92-year-old sister and many other relatives and former colleagues. Almost immediately we began to get enquiries about taking the show elsewhere. By September, with the help of a grant from the Royal Society of Chemistry, we were in a position to begin a small national tour.
With hindsight I should have realised that once a show is designed, directed and rehearsed, the biggest job is that of the tour producer. As I had failed to budget for one, I ended up doing it myself. All other writing projects were shoved onto the back burner as I tweaked the design of the flyers, searched for cheap accommodation, or lay awake fretting about whether anyone would come.
Happily my fears were unfounded, largely because of the help and support we received at each stop on the tour. In Manchester and Otley we were under the wing of science festivals, which provided venues and marketing. Bristol University invited us to appear as part of its popular ‘Twilight Talks’ programme for the general public. In Cambridge and York, where we had enthusiastic supporters within the universities, I booked commercially-available performance spaces, crossing my fingers that we would be able to cover our costs through ticket sales. By the time the curtain came down on the tour on 20 November, we had done ten performances in eight venues and were still in the black.
What of the future? The problem with a show like Hidden Glory is that you can’t just take it off the shelf and dust it down for one night every few months: it’s not reasonable to ask an actor to hold herself available for such a schedule. I applied for funding to perform longer runs at three science festivals and two arts festivals in 2011, including Edinburgh, but was unsuccessful. I was told I needed a producer...
Wouldn’t it be great if some public engagement body could set up a unit devoted to getting small-scale, science-based theatre performed around the country? The management side (including fundraising – some subsidy is invariably necessary) is where there could be a real benefit for small companies in sharing resources, while preserving creative diversity. Such a unit could also act as a matchmaker for scriptwriters, theatre companies and scientific organisations that want to commission new work.
Science festival organisers are increasingly willing to include theatre in their programmes; audiences like the emotional engagement that theatre can offer. What are we waiting for?