An Experiment With An Air Pump

Fall, 2015
Written By: Shelagh Stephenson
Directed By: Jules Odendahl-James

 What price would you pay for knowledge? When does notoriety become infamy? How can or should the ethical boundaries expand or contract in cutting edge scientific inquiry? How does gender and class influence the perception of and pursuit of knowledge? What extended burdens or opportunities do women possess in professional fields? An undergraduate cast of actors from an array of majors explored these questions in this 1999 work by UK playwright, Shelagh Stephenson (Downton Abbey). One grand house is occupied by two families both teetering on the edge of century change: New Year’s Eve 1799 and New Year’s Eve 1999. The 200-years apart storylines overlap as a set of unusual bones is uncovered and action is propelled forward in each time frame by a character’s quest for scientific achievement. Stephenson was inspired in part by the 1768 painting, “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” by Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’, and the production team used Wright’s work, other tableau vivant images of the 18th century and the notion of a “cabinet of curiosities,” as inspirations for the scenic, lighting, and movement design.

 

Directed by Jules Odendahl-James

Set Design
Sarah Krainin

Costume Design
Sonya Drum

Asst. Costume Design
Derrick Ivey

Lighting Design
Cecilia Durbin

Sound Design
David K. Garner

Props Master
Tim Domack

Stage Manager
Morgan Hoit

Fight Director
Jeff A. R. Jones

Voice/Movement Coach
Dana Marks

Dramaturg
Jihwan Hwang

CAST
    Susanna Booth        Roget
    Faye Goodwin         Isobel
    Chloe Hooks            Maria
    Karley Jarin              Susannah
    Phillip McClure        Tom
    Justin Paley              Phil
    Paul Popa                 Fenwick
    Madeleine Pron        Harriet
    Jefferson Thomas     Armstrong
    Corrine Wallace         Kate
    Harmony Zhang        Ellen

Light Board Operator
A. J. Szilagyi

Sound Board Operator
Caitlin Wells

Scene Shop Supervisor
David Berberian

Scenic Painter
Miyuki Su

Set Construction Crew
Veohnti Afokpa, Sophie Alman, Kaitlyn Jaeck,
Steven Lewis, Peter Moran,
Akshat Podar,
Monica Turewicz,
Cassandra Williams

Costume Shop Supervisor
Kay Webb

Wardrobe/Props Assistant
Kristian King

Costume Shop Crew
Brittany Halberstadt,
Reilly Johnson,
Adair Jones,
John Sittu

Graphic Design
Natalie Nobles

Promotional Videography
Cassidy Seggern

Photography
Les Todd

 

 

Exploring Science in Theater:
Scientific Rigor and Humanistic Empathy
    
    The inspiration for this play comes from a painting with a similar title, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Derby (1768). In many ways, the painting serves as a summary of—or rather an introduction to—the play’s central question: What price are we willing to pay for knowledge? An Experiment with an Air Pump not only encourages us to think about the success and ethics of scientific advancement but also questions its purpose, placing us in the shoes of both the passionate young scientist as well as the concerned elderly man.
    Our action takes place in the same large mansion in Newcastle—a city in Northumberland county in northeastern England—alternating between two historical times: 1799 and 1999, during which scholars were on the threshold of astonishing discoveries in scientific disciplines ranging from theoretical mathematics to chemistry and physiology.
    In alignment with the era’s zeitgeist, the play’s scenes in 1799 center around the activities of Dr. Fenwick, a prominent physician, and his two assistants: Roget, a man of “delicate sensibilities” (yes, it’s the man behind Roget’s Thesaurus) and Armstrong, a ruthless logician. Over the course of the play, the characters experience conflicts stemming from scientific philosophies that differ sharply from one another. And such ethical clashes aren’t manifested only through heated exchanges. For instance, both Roget and Armstrong woo their patron’s physically malformed servant, Isobel, with very different intentions. Meanwhile their advisor must learn to practice more of what he preaches a little closer to home with regards to the betterment of society, as his daughter and wife struggle with the gender and societal norms that constrains their freedom to think, feel, and pursue what they truly want.
    Life is no more settled in the play’s late 20th century scenes. Scientific discoveries happen “so fast we’re falling over ourselves,” and these advancements reach deeper and become more intricately involved in our lives than ever before. As you can see in the printed timeline of medicinal advancement, late 20th century was an era especially bursting with discoveries in genetics. Stephenson sets her 1999 scenes in the thick of this new world with a focus on Ellen, a successful geneticist who has developed a revolutionary technique for detecting genetic abnormalities in a fetus with little to no risk. We meet her in the throes of recruitment to a new job by the head of a biotechnology company. The offer is to perfect her technique by using pre-embryonic cells and mass market the results to hospitals all over the country and the world. Ellen’s arguments with her husband, Tom, an English lecturer who has recently lost his job, mirror the debates she imagines captured in the Derby painting.
    From our 21st century standpoint, it’s not difficult to see how even the “radical” science described by Ellen’s prospective employer has become commonplace. Owing to the development of genetics and technology, perinatal clinics and fetal genetic diagnostic centers are widespread in both developed and emerging nations. While many people have benefited from such institutions, personal, political, and medical debates over health and reproductive technologies, including abortion, have not subsided, nor have the ethical questions surrounding the production and use of fetal cells tissues, or what an individual may decide upon receiving genetic test results. As our 1799 protagonist notes as the clock strikes midnight at the dawn of the 19th century: “I thought it would be a golden night, full of hope and anticipation, and instead, this. Groping blindly over the border in a fog of bewilderment.” Whether 200 or 20 years ago, the promise of the future must confront the very real complications of the present and resist any blinding nostalgia for the past.
    For those of you who are aspiring doctors or scientists, we offer you the opportunity to reflect on scientific and medical ethics through the lens of theater. For the humanists in our audience, we hope that you will notice the interrelated history of arts and sciences. We also hope our production will inspire you to reexamine the relationship between arts and sciences, their shared manifestation of humanity’s creativity, and the balance between scientific rigor and humanistic empathy.
                
                    -Jihwan Hwang, dramaturg

Jules Odendahl-James  is a dramaturg and director with an MFA from UT-Austin and a Ph.D from UNC-Chapel Hill who has made theater in the Triangle for over a decade. In addition to directing Air Pump, this season she will dramaturg for We Are Proud to Present a Presentation … by Jackie Sibblies Drury at Playmakers Repertory Company and Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray) by Kimber Lee at Manbites Dog Theater and direct Jennifer Haley’s The Nether also at Manbites Dog where she is an Associate Artistic Director. At Duke she serves as the Director for Academic Engagement for the Arts & Humanities and teaches in the Theater Studies department. She serves as the Research Director for Ladies of the Triangle Theatre, a gender parity advocacy group, and as the Southeast Region Vice-President for Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA).