Anna Ziegler is a multiple award-winning American playwright. Her plays have been produced across the world, from New York to Berlin to London, and include Boy, Another Way Home, Dov and Ali and Photograph 51. Photograph 51 was a critically acclaimed success in the States and transfers to the West End of London in 2015. The play focuses on the work of Rosalind Franklin, the discovery of the DNA double helix and her famous ‘Photograph 51’. For the West End run, the role of Rosalind Franklin will be played by Nicole Kidman.
Human relationships play such a huge role in scientific discovery
On becoming aware of Rosalind Franklin
Well, I’d like to say it was when I was a kid growing up, that I learned about her in school, but I did not. I was newly a playwright, I had graduated from grad school and I was offered a commission to write a play for a small theatre in the States and they had a specific assignment for me: it was a play that was going to be about three female scientists, none of which I had heard of, two of whom had a sort of local connection - the theatre was in Maryland so two of them had Washington DC/Maryland connections - and then Rosalind Franklin, because she was amazing and they wanted her to be in the play too. And it was sort of a strange assignment to be given because these three women didn't know each other, they lived around the same time. So I researched all of them, I tried to write this play where there were some stories that sort of wove together, I guess, and in writing it I really…I mean, I was fascinated by Rosalind Franklin and I was shocked that I had never heard of her before; I felt like her story was important and inherently dramatic and it really occurred to me pretty early on that she deserved her own play, so I basically asked if they wouldn't mind if I disregarded the assignment that I’d been given, and disregarded the Maryland connection and the need for the connection to Maryland, and then rewrite the play, and have been sort of in love with this character ever since.
On Rosalind Franklin as a character
I mean, I think it’s a fun…it is difficult but I think it’s a fun challenge; it’s a pretty juicy part for an actress and I think the fun of it is in not having to seem…not having to try to be likeable; I don’t think that that was what Rosalind Franklin was about. She was very dedicated to her work and being the best scientist she could be, and I think there is a huge dignity in that. I think as entertainers we are, all of us, trying to be liked a lot, it sort of goes with the territory but I don’t think that, at least for this particular scientist, that was her priority, or at least it’s not the character’s priority in the play.
Right, I guess most people were in the “Oh, who?” category, yeah, I suppose it did become important at a certain point to let people know about her, but I think not for the reasons that people might assume. I guess, to me, yes she played a role in the discovery of DNA that has been somewhat overlooked, though I think more recently not as much; I think she has gotten a lot of credit for her part in the discovery. I mean, to me, what’s fascinating about Rosalind Franklin is that she was a brilliant scientist who lived at a time when it was very hard to be a female scientist, but it was elements of her own personality that I think stood in her way more than any element of the environment or the circumstances, and I think that’s what I find really interesting about her, that she was able to get as far as she did in this very difficult climate because she was so headstrong and independent, but that those same qualities, that sort of need to work alone and not necessarily to be so trusting of her colleagues, at least at this point in her life when she was at King’s College, those were the same qualities that actually made it impossible for her to crack DNA. So I think theres this juicy metaphor, the idea that it was in her own DNA, her own nature, her personality, precluded her from cracking DNA. I just think that’s very interesting.
On Photograph 51
It’s the story of really just a few years in Rosalind Franklin’s life, the years when she was at King’s College working with Maurice Wilkins in the lead up to the discovery of the double helix, which of course Watson and Crick made. There were other drafts of the play that included more of her life, actually: that went into her time in France a little bit more before she returned to England, and then where we saw some of the years that followed the discovery, but actually in the play I have taken some dramatic licence and some of the events that historically happened after that discovery [we] now have happening in the lead up to that discovery so it’s hopefully a kind of tighter, more dramatic vessel that doesn't feel like it’s spanning too much time and is pretty focused on that race.
I mean, I guess I didn't really even think of it as science, I mean, of course it is a play about scientists and this race obviously, but to me I guess it seemed so much to be a play about human connections and foibles and inability to connect and it didn't seem to me, or at least the way I was able to think about it so I didn't get too daunted, because I don’t have a science background, was to think about it as a play about human beings and human relationships and in that way I approached it in the way I would approach any subject.
On changing perceptions of science
Early on it occurred to me, and I think this is probably quite obvious but it hadn't occurred to me before, that human relationships play such a huge role in scientific discovery. I think I had imagined that there are geniuses that make these tremendous discoveries and then the world benefits, but in fact, as with any industry, it’s actually the collaborations or dynamics between people that lead to these innovations and I think it was sort of a strange eureka moment for me, discovering that.
It has certainly opened…I feel like I have been…yeah, I mean I guess just most simply, my interest in the scientific world has grown so much. I have gone from someone who was probably terrified - in college I took the fluffiest science courses - in order to get back to listening to podcasts that are about science and will read the science pages in a much more interested way, in part because I think… I’ve met so many scientists as a result of working on this play and I feel like I now have a closer, more personal relationship to the world of science than I really ever expected I would or really deserved to but it’s been just the most wonderful, unexpected new part of my life.
On art and science
I think I probably did (see them as different), and the revelation of course is that they're very close, I mean, the fun thing about working on this play is that at some point in the process, the actors will always say, oh I see, this play is as much about, let’s say, the process of putting on a play as it is about anything else, because it’s really just about whether and how people get along, and I think that the sort of quest for meaning in life is so…I mean it’s universal but is certainly a major part of both the arts and science and trying to understand where we are and what we’re doing is just a common element in both of those pursuits so it starts to seem so much closer.
On scientists seeing the play
We had a bunch of panels of scientists who came and responded, some informal and some in more formal ways, and it was really interesting for me, it was really interesting to see that, especially women scientists, would come and say oh, this is exactly the way it still is, 60 years later, and then I would say younger generations of women scientists had felt that things had progressed more than I would say, for whatever reason, the older women had. It was really interesting, there were some predominantly male scientists and journalists and thinkers who made it clear that they didn't think Rosalind Franklin should be the centre of her own story, that she was not the centre of the story and therefore should not be the protagonist of the play, and I thought that was really interesting, this sort of ingrained notion of who should be at the centre of a story. So that, I think…I was sort of surprised by that reaction in some cases, but in general it has been really fun and rewarding to engage with the scientific community about this play, it has been a real unexpected joy for me.
On humanising science
I think it is a matter of increasing importance and I think is reflected in the drive to stimulate more artists to write about science. There’s certainly the Sloan Foundation in the US that has been a big supporter of mine, and I’m working on another play for them that also has science at its core, and I think that that mission is a really admirable one; not that I think that the arts can sort of solve that equation of humanising scientists, but it can certainly go some distance, and I think it’s a worthy one.
On using science in theatre
Yeah absolutely and I think also is a fairly new revelation for me, this sense that we’re on a sort of constantly changing sense of our place in the world and how the world works, its shocking and its very destabilising to imagine that what we feel now might be entirely different you know, even two decades from now. I just had a child and, so this play is very much about nature and nurture and I read a lot of books about child rearing over the ages and what people felt was the right way , whether to breastfeed your child, whether they should have them take naps, when they should learn to walk, all these sorts of things and its all changed vastly over time and at any given time, everyone thought they were absolutely correct and so, there’s something comforting in it too from a personal and in an interesting artistic way that nothing is quite as solid, the right answers are more elusive which I think, as a parent and as an artists can actually be sort of a nice and sort of stimulating idea.
Photograph 51 plays the Noel Coward Theatre September 5 - November 21 2015 with tickets starting from just £10. The play is directed by Michael Grandage and stars Nicole Kidman (Rosalind Franklin, Will Attenborough (James Watson), Edward Bennet (Francis Crick) and Stephen Campbell-Moore (Maurice Wilkins). More info including ticket purchases can be found here.