Inspiration for a play can come from pretty much anywhere. Seldom, however, does it come from points in the universe hundreds of light years away from Earth.
For her new play Ear to the Edge of Time, Alana Valentine turned her attention to the far reaches of the observable universe and to the scientists who spend their professional lives fathoming its mysteries.
One scientist in particular piqued Valentine’s playwriting interest: Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the trailblazing British astrophysicist credited as the first to precisely observe and analyse pulsars, dense, fast-spinning white dwarf stars emitting powerful beams of radiation, like stellar lighthouses.
The discovery was recognised by the awarding of the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics, but here’s the rub: it didn’t go to Bell, who was a research student at the time. Instead, the Prize went to her thesis supervisor Anthony Hewish and astronomer Martin Ryle. Bell’s name didn’t appear on the award at all.
Ear to the Edge of Time says Valentine, doesn’t address that particular controversy head on. Instead, it takes Bell’s case as a jumping-off point to raise questions about politics and gender in the science community.
“The play is based on lots of conversations with women in science who said they were sick of always having to be gender activists in a very male-dominated field,” says Valentine. “They all just wanted to be extraordinary scientists without thinking about their gender. My play is asking whether taking that stance is even possible.”
The world premiere production of Ear to the Edge of Time, produced by Sport for Jove, stars Gabrielle Scawthorn as Martina, a young radio astronomer who makes an important discovery, only to have the credit for it taken over by a senior male colleague.
Airing her frustration could stymy her career but as Martina wrestles with the dilemma, the decision about whether to go public is taken out of her hands when a poet (played by Tim Walter) who meets her at the Parkes Observatory, publishes a poem about her plight.
“She becomes what I call a reluctant activist,” says Valentine. “The character I’ve written is fragile and conflicted and not part of that you-beaut sisterhood.”
Why the reluctance?
“There are plenty of women in power in technology, engineering and science who are not necessarily stepping up on that gender stuff,” Valentine says. “They’re often not as gung-ho as we sometimes see in other areas. There are women who want to work on quotas or putting women scientists into positions of leadership and authority within the industry.
“But there are also others who continue to contest that. I wanted to air some of the conflict within the science community with a female character who is not completely resolved about what gender means in relation to her professional life.”
Scawthorn, who jokes she has “lots of big words to master”, says she met a real-life counterpart of her character.
“I met a woman in London who is a scientist and she is working on a cure for malaria,” Scawthorn says. “She goes to work every day, and she is the only woman in the office and the only person under 35. While we were talking, she said she was out of practise speaking to women. That was so interesting to me.”
New plays on science themes are rare in Australia and Ear to the Edge of Time has taken some years to get to the stage, despite being awarded the STAGE International Script Competition for the best play with science and technology themes in 2012. The judging panel included Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights.
“The British seem to be able to do it [produce science-themed plays] and do it really convincingly,” Valentine says. “Look at [Michael Frayn’s] Copenhagen. The whole second act was virtually impenetrable to non-scientists but audiences loved it. But it’s very hard to get plays like that on stage in Australia.
“I guess it boils down to programmers feeling that audiences can only be entertained or informed. But I believe you can do both. Plus, I think people who have put lots of information in their plays tend to work harder to be entertaining, so it’s a bit of a paradoxical situation.
“People who have read the play said, ‘Oh I felt much smarter after I read it but I didn’t feel like I was being lectured to’. I think if people liked Nick Payne’s Constellations, they will like this. There is a lot about pulsars and the beauty of space.”
Ear to the Edge of Time is directed by Nadia Tass.
“I think Alana has done a beautiful job juxtaposing poetry against science,” Tass says. “She captures the essence of the issues through the poetry.”
Tass wants the audience to see how it is for women in science.
“I want them to debate whether Martina should accept the circumstances or speak up. Should people accept they are part of a team and that the team should get the reward and not the individual? But what happens if the team leader is always male?”
The production is also something of a reunion for director and lead actor: Tass directed Scawthorn in e-Baby at the Ensemble Theatre in 2016.
“I feel she is the right person for Martina. Gab has the range and the ability to be on stage and not ‘act’. I think she is so gifted. She brings her whole self. She understands what discovery is.”
Ear to the Edge of Time plays at the Seymour Centre, October 11-27.
A forum, Is Art More Truthful than Science, will be hosted by the Seymour Centre on October 16. Panelists include Alana Valentine, Geraint Lewis (Professor, astrophysics, Sydney University), Zdenka Kunic (Professor, astrophysics and artificial intelligence, Sydney University) and poet Tricia Dearborn.