Women at this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival are donning their lab coats and space suits, and wrestling with cryogenic freezing, GMO apocalypses, atomic particles, and neurobiology.
Female characters are delving deep into sci-fi and science—a sign, perhaps, that women have fully busted into these once male-dominated fields in force?
“I find that in the science and technology world there is quite a bit of the attitude—even in very progressive fields—that women aren’t good at science,” says Mily Mumford, whose Fringe solo show Distractingly Sexy is precisely about that topic. With an undergrad degree in neurobiology and a master’s in interactive technology, the multitalented Vancouver actor and playwright behind sci-fi–happy works like Frankenstein, 1945 and Generation Post Script is speaking from experience. “It’s been dominated by males for so long they believe women can’t do it—even though neuroscientifically there’s no difference in the brain.
“But women have been in science since Egyptian times—and we don’t really learn about them.”
Tracing that history with barbed wit, Mumford says she was surprised herself by the sheer number of women in science and technology through the centuries—several whose stories she relates and embodies in her reflec-tive one-hander. At one point, for example, she becomes Hypatia, a Neoplatonic scholar in ancient Alexandria who was a powerful astronomer and mathematician.
Mumford intermingles tales from the past with contemporary observations from her fields.
“A woman in science is sort of treated like a unicorn,” says Mumford, an alumna of Victoria’s hit Atomic Vaudeville theatre troupe whose new project, Nebula Company Theatre, is wholly devoted to the intersection of art and science. “Even if it’s not blatantly sexist there’s this misogyny of ‘You’re weird! What do I do with you?’ ”
If Mumford is rooting out the unsung women of scientific history, Victoria actor-writer Ingrid Hansen’s Interstellar Elder is ready to expose a different kind of female in the future: what the show dubs, in its subtitle, “a badass grandma in outer space”.
The cocreator behind past Fringe hits like Kitt & Jane and Little Orange Man has challenged herself to create a play almost entirely without words (except for a speaking computer whose voice sounds eerily similar to the SkyTrain’s
robo-voice). In it, Hansen uses her considerable physical-theatre skills to play a 300-year-old astronaut, the sole guardian for a ship full of cryogenically frozen human beings (played by you, the audience). They’re Earth’s last survivors, thanks to ecological disaster wrought by “Prime Minister Bieber” and his forced overplanting of genetically modified Swiss chard. You heard that right.
“When I was doing my research and watching a lot of science-fiction, I noticed something I’d never really thought of before: where are the older women in science fiction?” Hansen tells the Straight from Edmonton, where she’s appearing as part of a national Fringe tour in which her strange and stylized show has generated major buzz. “I still don’t know the reason for that: is a lot of it created by men? I don’t know…”
Her character was inspired by her own “mischievous” grandmother, Hansen reveals. “She would get into these misadventures at her seniors’ home,” she relates. “She would steal things from nurses’ stations and take things from other people’s closets.…One time she was wearing a hot-pink party dress she found in someone else’s closet—in the middle of winter.
“At first we were exploring this character in a seniors’ home,” she adds of the play. “And then we ended up taking her to space: a very different kind of isolation, where she’s literally the only person alive.”
She describes the piece as a blend of science and magic realism, though it’s partially based in fact. “I did do some research into the Mars One Project—which is absolutely ridiculous! And Prime Minister Bieber is directly inspired by the orange guy down south.”
Hansen may look to real-life research, but she takes artistic liberties that push Interstellar Elder to another whacked-out level entirely. Granny’s space suit is a neon-pink ’80s ski suit Hansen nabbed at a Montreal thrift store. (“It’s a sweat machine. I carry electrolyte packets.”) In Edmonton, due to challenging sightlines, she’s added six-inch-platform Moonboots to the ensemble. Much like a smart scientist or interstellar traveller, this artist has learned to modify and adapt on the fly.
For her part, Caroline Sniatynski, the playwright behind Acceleration at this year’s Fringe, came to a healthy artistic compromise with the daunting physics at the heart of her drama. Her work is, after all, set in the Swiss lab where, in 2012, the world’s elite physicists are searching for the elusive Higgs boson particle—a sort of mysterious missing link in quantum physics. One of them is Elise, a scientist whose sister disappeared a year ago, meaning she is caught up in two obsessive searches—one professional and one deeply personal.
“I embarked on the piece without really knowing how I was going to handle that [the physics],” Sniatynski tells the Straight from her Vancouver home, pointing out that she was always fascinated by how science connects with the rest of the world. “It soon became clear that I am not a physicist, but then that actually became an advantage. I had to constantly approach the material as a nonexpert.…The result is that the search for the Higgs boson and questions about science are present and inform the world, but what I was really interested in was the human element.”
Accelerator turned out to be about some very human questions. “What do we know?” Sniatynski asks. “And when we don’t understand something, how can we go forward anyway?
“I’m interested in scale: the world of particle physics is huge, vast, and incomprehensible to a certain extent,” she continues. “The protagonist here, with her sister missing, is sort of the narrowest focus possible—grief and loss. So there’s a world that’s very big and very small. And there’s the idea that size alone doesn’t make things more or less comprehensible.”
Looking at her work alongside all the other plays at the Fringe this year that feature women and scientific themes, Sniatynski notes that the combo couldn’t be more timely.
“Women and science are both under attack right now,” she comments. “It’s interesting how things have become more topical now that I’ve written it. It’s not contained specifically in the play, but in this time, there are questions around the value of the search for things like the Higgs boson and the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.”
Luckily, you don’t have to step into a laboratory or read up on quantum theory to connect with any of these female-driven creations. “I create a play so that even if you don’t understand that [science], you can still engage in the play,” Sniatynski says.
Distractingly Sexy is at Studio 16, Interstellar Elder is at the Waterfront Theatre, and Acceleration is at the Revue Stage as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival from next Thursday (September 7) to September 17.More