Penny Dreadful Productions

Welcome to the Theatre of The Famously Forgotten

Saturday 25 January 2014

How To Be Immortal - Q&A with writer Mira Dovreni

How did you come up with the idea for How to Be Immortal? What was the inspiration?
I read a book about Henrietta Lacks' immortal cells at the same time as a friend of mine was loosing her partner to cancer. They had just had a baby together, and the combination of these 2 events made me think about the parts of us we leave behind when we die, and what form they take.

So Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 and left her cells behind ; they are still growing today and each one of them contains her DNA - the blueprint that made her who she was. Her family were never told so I started to wonder how that would make me feel - if I found out my mums cells were still growing 30 years after her death... At the same time my friends baby was starting to smile in exactly the same way as her father  had done when he was alive. How did she know? Did she remember - or was it genetic?

I also started to wonder about the different ways we connect to people we have lost.  And why this is so important to us. The play is an exploration of some of these ideas and questions.

Are there a lot of science references in the show, will audiences be able to follow it?
The science in the show is always connected to something - its never just facts. It links to the characters, the story, or the music, so audiences will always have another way in to understanding it. Also as an experiment we wanted to see if we could portray the science in new ways, ways that make you feel something as opposed to just understand it intellectually.

Its like the app we are designing "Sounds like DNA" Well we are not designing it - an extremely clever scientist is - but the basic idea is that you put in some simple genetic information like your height, your sex, your build, are you feeling stressed, in love, able to take decisions easily and so on - and the app will play you a piece of music based on your own DNA!

In the scratch performances at the Lowry, audiences said they loved the way the science was shown, and could they have some more please! Which really surprised us! I think non-scientists are fascinated by things like cells and DNA and how all that works - so hopefully they will be able to come away from the show with more of an understanding of some of these things - almost by accident. None of the creative team and definitely not me (the writer) have any particular knowledge of science or genetics, so the test was if we could understand it so would the audience!

How did you work with scientists from different institutions?
We discussed the initial idea with 2 UCL researchers (University College London) who had loads of ideas about making science into stories or art - and then they show'd us their lab, very exciting! and let us see HeLa cells in action (Henrietta Lacks immortal cell line).

Any questions we had in rehearsal they were able to answer immediately, and also help us out with practical queries around what happens when cell lines are taken from cancer patients, and who is allowed access. We also consulted a medical historian to get some kind of perspective about how researchers and medical institutions obtain samples (what permission is needed etc) and how the science community felt about what had happened in the case of Henrietta Lacks. Its a very interesting area and one we hope to explore with audiences in the post show debates. For instance what happens if your cells are responsible for developing a highly profitable drug by pharmaceutical companies? Is it right that you have no share in the profits? You'd think so but in a recent case in America a doctor made 3.5 billion dollars from someone spleen, and when the guy found out he took him to court - and lost. The judges said he was cured of his condition so what was he complaining about!

Can you explain how you made music based on a sound code interpreting DNA?
genetic sequence is a bit like binary code, except it uses 4 letters instead of 2 numbers. They are C,T,G, and A in loads of different combinations. The code for all our genes is written in triplets of these letters, e.g. CCT, GTA etc and these triplets combine to make a 'recipe' for our cells to make amino acids. Amino acids make everything we need, build our bodies, our blood, our nerves our chemicals, the lot.

So to write the music we took a small section of human DNA coding and then we gave individual notes to the 21 different amino acids. We then used the number of times a 'triplet' of letters occurs (CCT, GTA etc) to give the notes their rhythmic values, ie CCT is a quaver etc.  Using this formula we  then transcribed the section code into a musical score. Does that make any sense?

There are true stories at the heart of the show. Could you tell us more about them? 
So the Henrietta Lacks story is beginning to be better known thanks to a book and also recent publicity when her genome was put on the internet without anyone asking the family permission.

She was a 31 year old west virginian who died of cervical cancer in 1951, when her daughter Deborah was 2. Deborah couldn't really remember her mother, and the family never talked about her death - as in those days cancer was something a  bit shameful (hard to believe isn't it) When Deborah was thirty she discovered that the sample doctors had taken from her mothers cervix had become the first cells to keep on growing outside the human body. They grew and they never stopped. They are still alive today - the first immortal cell line. Along the way they have helped us crack the human genome and are responsible for testing and creating pretty much every modern medicine in use today - including every treatment for cancer that exists. Imagine finding that out about your mum! That is Deborah's story.

The second story is a friend of mine who had her daughter at the same time I had my first child. the difference was that her partner was dying of cancer at the same time. It was such a terrible wonderful time for her with someone leaving the world and someone just entering it - and one of the problems she was having was finding ways for her daughter to have some connection with her father - after he had died. It was heart breaking.  My friend was also a musician and this was one of the ways she managed to keep a link to him for her daughter and herself.

The final story, which is told in a more comic way, is that of the scientists who made such a ground breaking discovery - they literally discovered the secret of immortality. I mean we could all live forever - if we didn't have bodies that is!

How will the audience feel? Is it sad, moving, funny…
All of these I hope. I find it really funny in places and I always cry at the end no matter how many times I've seen it. That might just be me as I am a pushover and also I have quite a big emotional connection to the piece, but I have seen some of the team brushing away a sneaky tear as well. This is the first time I've written something that isn't comedy so its a bit of a shock that people aren't laughing all the way through. We shall see...

With thanks to Ashlie at Jacksons Lane Theatre for the questions