When Playwright Anna Ziegler was commissioned by Active Cultures Theatre to write a play about female scientists, she knew nothing about pioneering biochemist Rosalind Franklin. Even though Ziegler lacked any kind of science background, she soon discovered that Franklin’s life was pure dramatic gold.
During the early 1950s, Rosalind Franklin, PhD was a genius British biochemist and x-ray crystallographer. Her X-ray photographs of DNA played a critical role in discovering the double helix structure of DNA. While she conducted her research at King’s College in London her Photo 51 was key to understanding the mystery of how life is passed down to generations and the basic structure of DNA.
And yet this was also a time when women were navigating the challenges of being the lone female scientist in the room. In 1941, when Franklin graduated from Cambridge, women were not even awarded degrees. It wasn’t until 1947, when Cambridge changed its rules, that Franklin could receive it. She also received a PhD in Physical Chemistry from Cambridge.
Ziegler was so taken with Franklin’s life she wrote the play Photograph 51. “She was someone who was both brilliant but also got in her own way. She was a great lens in which to investigate gender and the world of science at that time,” says Ziegler about this trailblazing scientist who was never fully recognized for her discoveries. “…this brilliant woman could get so far in her field in the 1950s and yet be hampered by the same things that got her as far as they did. Her determination and brilliance also made her stubborn and guarded.”
Photograph 51, which opened in London in 2016 to great acclaim starring Nicole Kidman, has now been revived in audio form. Audible Theater and the Williamstown Theatre Festival have joined forces to produce Photograph 51. The play stars Anna Chlumsky as Dr. Rosalind Franklin and is directed by Susan Stroman. David Corenswet, Stephen Kunken, Aasif Mandvi, Omar Metwally and Ben Rosenfield round out the cast. The play is one of seven audio shows that is part of Williamstown Theatre Festival season on Audible.
“A woman as independently-minded as Rosalind is pretty irresistible,” says Chlumsky of playing this visionary who struggled to be taken seriously. “She was educated to have a career in the sciences at a time where women weren’t only an afterthought in higher educational institutions, but purposefully discouraged. She knew her mind was a precious tool not to be wasted. And though she actively searched places in this world where fighting wasn’t necessary she fought for its freedom and agency her entire life.”
Chlumsky shared more.
Jeryl Brunner: What would you like people to know about Rosalind Franklin and how will listeners be inspired by her story?
Anna Chlumsky: It is encouraging to discover that Rosalind has posthumously become a bit of a feminist icon for those who know her field. The fact that so much of the information we have of Rosalind is via the memories of her male colleagues brings a whole new meaning to the notion of, as I say cheekily, “feminine mystique.”
Brunner: How much research did you do?
Chlumsky: I pored through The Dark Lady of DNA, the biography by Brenda Maddox, to which Anna pointed me. Maddox does an incredible job of filling the blanks of Rosalind’s personal life and the influences which may have shaped her. She was meticulous as well as ferocious in her pursuit of answers, process and life’s design. Rosalind had a dry wit and a knack for finding enjoyment in her personal life, while perhaps saving these things for only the people in her life she could truly trust her heart to.
Brunner: What is cool about Williamstown Theatre Festival?
Chlumsky: I love, love LOVE Williamstown. The organization is fantastic at championing theater and fostering the love of what we all do through their amazing apprenticeship program. Some of the loveliest and dedicated people I’ve worked with have been at Williamstown. And the caliber of art is top notch. It’s a thrill, an honor, and a total respite to spend a summer in the Berkshires making art. The Audible experience, of course, was completely different from that. However, the cast and creative staff were every bit as excellent, regardless of the location of the work.
Brunner: Had you worked with Anna Ziegler, Susan Stroman or your castmates before?
Chlumsky: This was my first time working with everyone. While I cherish those two weeks in closets and isolated office booths, I do sort of pine for the idea of spending a whole summer with them. What an awesomely talented group of people to Zoom with together. I can only imagine what it would have been like to be on our feet in person.
Brunner: What was the process of getting the accent right?
Chlumsky: I have always adored dialects. I’m sure to the annoyance of many in my personal life. Ha! This was a dialect we had to do detective work on and build on our own, as I didn’t hear any audio recordings of Rosalind. There were great clues all around the Maddox book: The time period. Rosalind’s Kensington upbringing. Her schooling as well as an understanding of how much speech and class meant to her. There are descriptions from other people about the way she spoke. I listened to interviews of Rosalind’s relatives. And so we went from there. Barbara, our dialect coach, kept me within the left and right limits. It was very fun to do.
Brunner: What are you doing to stay sane and creatively nourished right now? How are you getting through this time?
Chlumsky: I have been very fortunate to finish filming a Netflix limited series [Inventing Anna] on a super Covid-19-safe set since September. So I feel very lucky to be doing work. Before that, it was a steady stream of Met Opera and Hamilton that gave me just the littlest reminder of how wonderful it is to sit in those audiences.
Brunner: What do you miss most about live theater?
Chlumsky: You know, it’s funny. This whole year I’ve said to anyone who’ll listen how much “I miss theater.” But I have sort of left it at that. I haven’t really thought about the reason. I supposed it is so much a part of me that it’s like discerning what I miss about a necessary bodily function. But it’s worth it to try and answer. I think I miss the ritual of people gathering together to commit to receiving a story together. I could say so much more, but it would probably all boil down to that. A theater is a sanctioned meeting ground for communally exploring the human condition. Be it in song, in dance, in spoken narrative. That is what we’re doing.