An interview with Seattle playwright Paul Mullin

October 7, 2013

The Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR.org) puts on many great events, from the Student Bio Expo to Community Conversations. In their newest program, Science On Stage, they are currently hosting staged readings of The Sequence, a play by Paul Mullin. I attended the first performance last Saturday and loved its mix of scientific and human drama. Unable to stay for the post-play discussion, I instead emailed Paul some questions. His responses are posted here with his permission.

logo for The Sequence Paul Mullin

GC: A lot of your work addresses the intersection of art and science. Have you always been interested in science? If not, when did science come alive for you, and why?

PM: I have always been interested in science. My father, who died before I was born, was working on his PhD in physics and was apparently a freak for math and the periodic table. My mom took her degree in biology and worked in a lab before getting married and working in the home full time.

I have always loved understanding how the world actually works. I love the rigors of the scientific method: the testability, the constant and never-ending process of correction and integration when new understandings are introduced to the fray. Science, at it its best, provides an invigorating model for how to proceed in all other disciplines of a free and evolving society, including the arts. I have often said that I wish we artists applied more of the rigors of science to determining which of our works succeed ultimately and which do not. It’s not a perfect 1:1 correlation between the disciplines of art and science, but there is much more room for correspondence than most artists are willing to admit.

GC: You have speculated that the late Curt Dempster of Ensemble Studio Theatre commissioned you to write The Sequence because “he recognized in Craig a kindred spirit: a kinless prickly genius who gets things done.” Can you tell me a bit more about how this play first came into existence? For example, its development was supported by a grant from the Alfred Sloan Foundation, right?

PM: So in 2001 Ensemble Studio Theatre produced the off-Broadway premiere of my play, Louis Slotin Sonata, which dramatizes the true story of a Los Alamos physicist who, while performing an unnecessary demonstration of a criticality test on a plutonium bomb core, accidentally gave himself a lethal dose of neutron radiation. He died nine days later. After the success of that production, I was invited by Curt Dempster to submit additional ideas for science plays. I wanted to work on something about human consciousness and sent in a proposal. (I would finally complete this effort a decade later, with my play Philosophical Zombie Killers. I just recently staged a public reading, info here: http://www.paulmullin.org/just-wrought/philosophical-zombie-killers/). At the time, however, Curt was more interested in a completely different subject. He had seen Craig Venter on The Charlie Rose Show and, as I have said, I imagine he recognized a kindred spirit: an arrogant, monomaniacal genius who had the raw guts to want to change the world. I knew nothing about the story, but after doing some initial research I was quickly convinced that there really was a play here. The detail that sold me for good was learning that Venter had secretly used his own “genetic material” as Celera’s sample for sequencing. The lofty fog of scientific endeavor suddenly cleared as this act of sheer human outrageousness snapped everything into crisp dramatic focus. There was a story here. Boy oh boy, was there a story! We agreed on the terms of a commission and I dug into researching and developing The Sequence.

GC: The Sequence is in some ways a small-scale production, with only three characters: genomics researchers Francis Collins and Craig Venter, and journalist Kellie Silverstein. The small cast obviously makes casting and staging easier. Were there additional reasons why you thought this story would best be told from the perspective of these three and these three alone?

PM: You’re absolutely right, of course. The primary reason I chose to make this play a three-hander with rudimentary production demands is that these days new plays are rarely considered for staging in any case, but even less so if they make vast technical demands, or have huge casts. That said, I also wanted to imbue this story with an intimacy and clarity that has been lacking in many of its presentations that I encountered while researching it. All the books, for the most part, chose to illustrate the race as this vast enterprise, as indeed it was, but my experience with audiences is that their eyes tend to glaze over when bombarded with “vastness”. They want to know how the story matters to them, and for that I chose Kellie as their proxy.

GC: My own interests include the use of music to support science education. Let’s assume for the moment that there was funding to stage a big-budget version of this play. What kind of music, if any, might be included? On the one hand, it might be entertaining, say, to represent Collins with the folk-rock music that he fancies, and Venter with some harder-driving stuff. On the other hand, the script is so packed with intense dialogue that songs with words might be a momentum-killer.

PM: I think The Sequence works well as written and wouldn’t be likely to want to alter it significantly, especially since it can be done, and has been done in its world premiere, in a much bigger way than this current reading. Check out some of the pictures from the Pasadena production at The Theatre @ Boston Court, here: http://www.bostoncourt.com/events/55/the-sequence

All that said, I love adding music to my plays, and Louis Slotin Sonata, which is by nature a much “bigger” show, actually has a huge song-and-dance number in its second act. You can hear what that sounds like here: https://soundcloud.com/paul-mullin/sodom-saki-full-length; and see what it looked like here: http://www.jenniferzeyl.com/costume.php?show_id=37 .

GC: As a scientist, I appreciated the fact that The Sequence covered substantive scientific content. For example, some good explanations and analogies were offered to contrast Venter’s shotgun sequencing with traditional sequencing. Not everyone cares about that stuff, though. Did you struggle at all with the question of how much science to include in the play?

PM: I struggle with this question with every science play I write. And once the play is written, I struggle again with artistic administrators that want to neuter the play and make it just another what I call “Einstein in Love” play, i.e. a story that has an ostensible scientist as its main character but hinges in no significant way on any actual science: a plug-in play. To me, the science is integral to the science plays I have written: just as crucial to the rising action of the story as politics is to a Shakespeare history play or as sex is to a Joe Orton farce.

Today’s theatre artistic administrator distrusts science because he doesn’t understand it. It’s a systemic distrust of objectivity and testability, because, of course, if you let those ways of measuring into the system of theatre, then you have to answer for the immense failures of American theatre over the last 50 years in a meaningful way beyond shrugging and hand-wringing. Bad artists hate science because you can’t bullshit. Of course, you can’t bullshit good art either, but you can often bullshit long enough to have a career, if not a life for your art beyond it.

GC: I have read Francis Collins’ book The Language of God and have had a couple of email exchanges with him, and I found your script generally consistent with his personality. Still, you took some liberties in turning the real-life person into a character in your play. For example, Collins the character is sometimes more condescending to the journalist than the real Collins may have been. Have you gotten any interesting reactions on how he and Venter were portrayed, either from Collins and Venter themselves or from people who know them well?

PM: By and large, the people I have encountered who know Collins or Venter or both have been very complimentary about the accuracy of my portrayals. Collins himself told me that he thought he got off easy compared to my rendering of Venter. I find this amusing, since in the theatre world at least, Venter is considered the star of the piece, the cherry role to play for actors. Of course, I think they are perfectly weighted against each other just as they were in the actual events, but then, it’s my baby and I love it.

Collins is a mensch, a truly wonderful person; but I don’t think for a second that someone who has run the Human Genome Project and then NIH after that, is not capable of the kind of condescension or deviousness that he exhibits at rare moments in The Sequence. I suspect the side of Collins you saw, was the one he allowed you to see, the same side he allowed me to see when he most graciously and generously agreed to join an impromptu post-play discussion of a reading of the play at George Mason University.

Venter, not surprisingly, has played his cards closer to his vest during the long development of this play, though I have fielded questions from his PR person, and was asked to send a copy of the play early in the process — a request that, at the time, I declined because the play wasn’t ready to share. I believe representatives of his attended the Pasadena production, and since he didn’t sue me, I have to think he wasn’t utterly outraged by his portrayal. Then again, maybe my work is just too small potatoes to worry about.

GC: The Sequence addresses a range of ethical issues relating both to tests for genetic diseases and to the funding and reporting of research. A favorable review of a 2008 Pasadena production of The Sequence commented, “[Collins and Venter] cheat, lie, manipulate the public, and generally have a good time doing so, sometimes with hilarious results.” Personally, I didn’t find your characters to be terribly unethical. To what extent are these characters intended to be morally ambiguous?

PM: I’m with you. I don’t find them all that morally malignant. These are top tier players of a hardball game. As an actual baseball player once said, “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” I tried to illustrate what I came to believe after a long and deep period of research: that both of these men did whatever it took to best serve humanity. They simply had starkly different views how best to do that, ethically and efficaciously. They both believed that their side winning the race would be better for everyone. These divides in perspective continue to exist up to this very day in the discussion of ethics concerning genetics and genomics.

GC: One of the main concerns of The Sequence is the role of news media in presenting science to the public. In her introduction to the play, Reitha Weeks mentioned that you are not a scientist but work at Amgen. What do you do there? Are you a media relations guy?

PM: I am an administrative coordinator in the IS division at Amgen. I am neither a scientist nor a PR person. I am a glorified secretary, though I don’t know how glorified you could consider it. I book travel, meetings, and generally assist people on my team with the administrative aspects of working here. I began this job after finishing The Sequence and, even though Amgen gets mentioned in the script, it is simply a fluke that I landed here as opposed to some other company: a fluke that I am deeply grateful for every day. It’s nice to have a job, and Amgen is very kind to its employees. Life is weird sometimes, and sometimes fate seems to have a rather prosaic sense of humor.

GC: Sitting in the audience a few rows over from you, I think I heard you say that you wish there were more efforts to combine science and art. Are there particular models or examples of this that you think work especially well?

PM: Not many. We are going to have to change the minds of the people who make the decisions about what art gets advanced — what plays get staged — if we want this situation to change.

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