Revealing research's secrets on stage

Eva Amsen, a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry at the University of Toronto and Hospital for Sick Children, reviews a new science play, The Lab.

Jul 28, 2006
Eva Amsen
What do you get when you cross multiple personalities, clandestine embryo research, and glow-in-the-dark accessories? The Lab, a one-man play that premiered this month at the Toronto Fringe Festival.The story of The Lab begins when a recent arts graduate replies to a newspaper ad in search for a summer job and ends up in a secret lab. His lack of any science background isn't a problem, and he can go straight to work after being taught the main, rather ominous rule: "You can't tell anyone what we do here." In this dark comedy about lab personal dynamics and the opacity of scientific research in our culture, writer and performer Matthew Payne takes center stage as six characters. Remarkably, the "stage" is not in a theatre, but is rather a darkened tractor trailer in a parking lot. The audience sits on wooden benches along the walls while Payne paces the floor, alternating his roles in rapid succession, and sometimes playing more than one simultaneously. He distinguishes his characters by giving each a personal prop that lights up in the dark, such as a glowing heart in the pocket of a lab coat, and by switching between accents from Texas, Newfoundland, Russia, and elsewhere.As further instructions are given to the newbie, the audience feels like they are in his shoes. We never find out what the lab is working on, but we are told that there is a secret gestation room where technicians are counting embryos growing on solid medium in petri dishes. The work is not just figuratively kept in the dark, but literally as well: The lights are off for the duration of the performance. The lab slowly becomes the protagonist's life. Later, when he becomes increasingly anxious to leave, he finds that the lab's denizens might not let him go so easily.In some respects, The Lab has authentic moments. Although the entire premise of a mobile stealth lab is far-fetched, as well as the expediency of growing thousands of light-sensitive embryos on solid media, smaller aspects of the daily lab work are quite accurately portrayed. The various researchers are not stereotypical "mad scientists" -- they come across as normal, dynamic everyday people, thinking about dates and talking about their home towns. When the student is shown how to work in a laminar flow hood, the explanation of sterile technique could have come straight from a lab training manual. Also recognizable is the new student's nervousness during his first day in the lab: Most scientists can probably recall that overwhelming moment when it finally hits home that you have to remember everything but don't yet understand what you're supposed to do. The newbie is very scared of making mistakes, and debates whether or not to mention them at all. In a recent interview, Payne revealed that he had based the play on personal experience, so he may have felt this deep-end feeling himself.But in other aspects, The Lab displays some clear departures from reality. Payne seems to be preoccupied with hierarchy, and while it's true that real labs do have pecking orders, Payne's technicians are little more than lab slaves, useful for counting embryos and not much else. The idea that junior members of a lab wouldn't know why they were performing their tasks, no matter how menial, or know the overall thrust of the research, is not realistic. Moreover, the student's mistakes all turn out to be fortunate research advances -- another old myth about science that is generally inaccurate. But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of The Lab is the fact that scientific research is portrayed as a grim, mysterious, and unknowable pursuit. Payne has said that this is part of his view of science -- researchers unravel mysteries, but most people have no idea what the results are. In some ways, this is a useful warning bell for scientists, who may not be aware of the obscurity of their own craft and of the unease it may cause. We can assume that Payne is not alone in his views of science, and most of the audience will not be scientists, so this play may only reinforce this feeling of unease among the general public.The Lab will play at the Fringe Festival in Victoria, British Columbia, from August 24th to September 5th 2006. It was directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones and produced by the Canadian theatre group SKAM from Victoria, British Columbia, of which Payne is the production manager, and is now starting to tour.Eva Amsen is a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry at the University of Toronto and Hospital for Sick Children, studying signaling pathways involved in melanin synthesis and transport. Eva Amsen eamsen@the-scientist.comLinks within this article:N. Russell, "'The play's the thing...'" The Scientist, July 21, 2006 Toronto Fringe Festival Kaplan, "Cultured mystery," NOW: online edition, June 29, 2006 Fringe Festival SKAM Amsen et al., "The guanine nucleotide exchange factor CNrasGEF regulates melanogenesis and cell survival in melanoma cells," Journal of Biological Chemistry, Jan 2006 PM_ID: 16272156.University of Toronto, Department of Biochemistry for Sick Children, Program in Cell Biology