An interview with the director: Kirsty Housley

We are delighted to welcome back theatre director Kirsty Housley with her new show, presented by Penny Dreadful,  How To Be Immortal on Friday 21 & Saturday 22 February at 7.30pm. You may remember Kirsty’s recent productions Bandages (TEG Productions) and Thirsty (Paper Birds), which were also performed at Live Theatre.

You can also read an interview with the writer of the show Mira Dovreni 

What can people expect from the show?

How to be Immortal is a play about death, or rather, what’s left behind when someone dies.

It takes two central stories that are both true and explores them from a cellular level outwards.

We follow the extraordinary story of Henrietta Lacks, and the discovery that her tumor cells could live and go on dividing forever outside the human body. We follow the story of her daughter Deborah as, thirty years later, she tries to come to terms not just with her mothers death, but her legacy. And we follow Rosa, as she uses music and science to try to come to terms with her partners death.

As the stories unfold, we find out how DNA can affect our lives, but also how the lives we lead can affect our genetic legacy.

We hope that our audiences might begin to see the science in every aspect of our lives, deaths and loves, but also to find beauty in that science.

Oh, and there’s an original piece of music written from DNA coding, and a squeezebox. Which is always good.

The show was created with the cast and in collaboration with scientists from UCL and Manchester University. How did this impact your direction?

To be honest, I think their input affected the dramaturgy and the writing more strongly and clearly than the direction. What was interesting, though, was how an understanding of some fairly complex scientific material became vital to all of us, not just to Mira (our writer).

For example the sequence of the genome became a piece of music. The design was infused with the feeling of the lab, and the animation is often used to bring the science to life. So a shared understanding was really important.

And in order for the piece to have truthfulness and conviction, we needed to have a pretty robust understanding of genetics, epigenetics, proteomics, cancer and how the field has developed from the 1950’s to the present day.

We read a lot of heavy books, and often thought we’d come to an understanding of something. Then we’d go away, try to explain it to someone and realize that we hadn’t grasped it at all. Then we’d call the scientists!

One thing that really inspired me, aside from their incredible knowledge, was their deep passion for their work. That excitement; that drive, was what we really tried to bring in to the piece and hopefully convey to an audience. Because it’s pretty mind-blowing stuff!

Can you tell us a bit more about the original music that has been composed especially for the show?

Yes. I’ll try.. (see above where an assumed understanding crumbles to dust in the face of questioning!)

So… our entire genome is made up of just four base elements. And these base elements are represented by letters: A T G and C. Those letters are grouped into threes and each three forms an amino acid. So, you can use these patterns (how frequently does a letter occur? How many different ways can you form the same amino acid? How many times does that amino acid occur) to form a musical code, and then a piece of music. Without giving too much away, it turns out that there’s a lot more to it than that, but I don’t want to spoil the story! Essentially though, we’re unbelievably simple (four letters! For the whole genome! Amazing!) and ultra complicated at the same time, and the music reflects that. Obviously we’re not playing the whole genome – that would go on for days. Instead Barney, our composer, took a small section from the end of a chromosome and used that to create the formula.

Is there a difference directing something that is based on a true story to something that is fiction?

For me, undoubtedly. There’s a sense of responsibility. But it’s about knowing that as you adapt and dramatise true events, you have to make choices. We couldn’t put Henrietta’s entire life onstage, nor Deborah’s or Rosa’s. So by chosing to tell their stories, you’re accepting from the off that you’ll take some dramatic license in order to make the story as clear and impactful as possible.

For example, in our piece Deborah develops a friendship with a scientist called Dr Lengauer. Now this did happen, but she also built a very important friendship with another scientist called Dr Patillo. In our piece, those two characters become one person. Both of them played hugely important roles on Deborah’s journey, and we felt it was more important to use dramatic license to combine their contributions, rather than erasing one strand from her story.

Now, both Deborah and Henrietta’s stories are becoming more known, but Rosa’s story isn’t, and won’t ever be. It’s a personal story and we felt very responsible for telling it well. At the same time, it needs to become it’s own entity – you’re not trying to create a carbon copy of reality with actors having to impersonate someone they’ve never met. It’s a balancing act.

The story of Henrietta Lacks centres around her exploitation, how do you balance telling her story without contributing to that exploitation?

That’s a really interesting question. I almost feel that we don’t tell Henrietta’s story. We couldn’t. For years the scientific community and the world at large didn’t know who she was. Two of her children are too young to remember anything about her. And the family that do remember her talk about her a lot, but there’s still a sense that we can’t ever know her. That we’re one step removed. We also chose to focus on Deborah, and her journey is towards knowing and accepting. And we didn’t want to undermine that by making Henrietta fully ‘knowable’ from the beginning.

The play is really about presence and absence: what remains and what’s missing when someone dies. So at first we really focused on creating a sense of absence for Deborah.

Instead of being a flesh and blood presence from the beginning, Henrietta reveals herself slowly throughout the piece. At the start, we know her as HeLa, and by the end, she’s a woman called Henrietta who we can hear and see and feel for. We know what her cells did for medical history, but we also know how much she loved her daughter, her blues, her dancing….

She becomes a woman, not just a sequence of letters. So in that way, we’ve broken the tradition and given her a voice of her own.

How To Be Immortal is, at Live Theatre, on Friday 21 & Saturday 22 February at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £14-£10over 60s concs £12-£10other concs £5. There is a free Post-Show Discussion, with Kirsty Housley, after the Friday performance at 9.15pm. Find out more and book tickets here or call Live Theatre’s Box Office on  (0191) 232 1232..

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