THEATRE OF DEBATE

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Times Higher Education Supplement April 15th 2005

Animal Researchers brave the circle of friends and sceptics
The scientists looked more than a little uncomfortable as they stood in a ring of strangers and came up with adjectives to describe their feelings.  This isn’t how an ordinary day in the lab starts.
Last Wednesday, a peculiar assortment of people met in London to hammer out an issue many British universities are afraid to talk about – animal research.
As the workshop began, scientists found themselves standing alongside playwrights, campaigners from both sides of the animal experimentation debate and 15 year old school children.
The children were “intrigued” and “interested”, but others were “anxious” – and that was before they had to move around the room holding hands with people they’d never met and asking them about their pets. 
The point of the workshop, which was funded by the Association of Medical Research Charities, was to brainstorm ideas that the playwrights, members of the YMCA’s theatre company Y Touring – can turn into a stage performance that will make people really think.  The play will tour schools and should eventually reach the Edinburgh Festival.
Nigel Townsend, Y Touring’s Artistic Director, told the room – “There is a climate of fear surrounding animal research.  But, we believe a healthy, democratic society is one where people can make their own minds up”.
The debate began in earnest.  The playwrights and teenagers sat in rows as speaker after speaker took to the stage.  It was like animal research ping-pong, with statistics and emotional arguments volleyed back and forth.  Some speakers wouldn’t stop when their time was up. 
A former scientist who gives talks in schools on the need for animal research announced he was going to show a video of cats in a university animal house.  The teenagers sat forward eagerly in their seats.  One playwright started to panic “I don’t want to see this”.
In fact, the cats were rolling about happily in their cage. The playwright looked close to tears. 
Both sides claimed to have science behind them.  One speaker reeled off a list of people with Phds who believe animal experiments tell us nothing.  Others, including a young scientist in trendy low-slung trousers the teenagers might have worn, said scientists were in no doubt that animal research was necessary – nasty, maybe, but necessary.
As the morning worn on, one school child admitted; “We’re blinded by science.  Who do we believe?”  A playwright heading out of the door in search of coffee agreed; “My head hurts”.
Information overload it might have been – but at least this unusual group of people were talking.

British  Medical Journal  REVIEW April 21st 2006 Theatre

Science and art mix creates animal magic Rating: ****
The term "science play" might make many teenagers wince. But Judith Johnson's Every Breath-a science play targeted at teenagers-is likely to do just the opposite, despite dealing with a topic as delicate as the ethical dimensions surrounding the use of animals for biomedical research.
Sonny, an 18 year old with asthma, is a fervent opponent of medical research involving animals. His 21 year old sister, Anita, a scientist, is set to join a new animal research centre in their town, against which Sonny has planned to protest. Sonny also informs his sister that he plans to boycott any medication that was tested on animals, including his inhaler.
Against the backdrop of a possible relationship between their mother and an ageing former punk, an emotional argument between brother and sister about animal research-in the context of their father's death from leukaemia-incites a severe asthma attack in Sonny. His inhaler absent, he becomes unconscious, and is admitted to a hospital. We are then taken through many arguments for and against the involvement of animals, in various scenarios, as Sonny finally agrees to use his inhaler in emergencies.
The play touches on several controversies surrounding animal experimentation. The fundamental difference of opinion between Sonny and Anita lies in Sonny's belief that a human life is not, in any way, superior to that of an animal, and that every animal has the right to live, without being subject to undue humanintervention. Anita's stand is clear-knowledge is power, and knowledge gained through animals saves millions of human lives each year. At one point she expresses her own discomfort at the suffering of animals, but concedes that scientists are aware of the problem, and usually make the experimentation as painless to the animals as possible.
Every Breath was well acted. But while the character of Sonny is likely to leave a lasting impression, Anita is portrayed as a typical, if not a stereotypical and clichéd, sceptical scientist. The playwright, however, has not tipped thebalance in favour of or against the use of animal testing in biomedicalresearch. Nor has she sacrificed the art of storytelling in her focus on a scientific debate. Overall, this was an excellent blend of science and art.
The play has already completed a six week tour in several London schools, and a nationwide tour is set to begin with this year's Edinburgh festival.
Balaji Ravichandran, third year medical student Madras Medical College, BMJ Clegg Scholar
bravichandran@bmj.com
Rating: ****

The Guardian March 14th 2006

Actors make the fur fly
A new educational play on animal testing has backing from all sides of the debate

"I heard a protestor say he'd rather kill a researcher than ananimal," said a girl in a neat school uniform. "Animal testing ismurder. It's just wrong," said a second. "Can't they breedpeople to be tested on?" suggested another, beforedescending into a fit of giggles.
This is a snapshot of the rowdy and combative discussion thatfollowed the premiere of a play on animal testing last Mondayat Waverley School in Peckham Rye, south London. Every Breath, by Judith Johnson, explores vivisection through thecharacters in a dysfunctional family. The play, which will be watched by 15,000 schoolchildren across the country andtheatregoers at the Edinburgh festival, is aimed at taking theanimal rights debate out of the hands of the extremists. "The extremism is what gets picked up on all the time," says Dr Sophie Petit-Zeman at the Association of Medical ResearchCharities, which part-funded the project. She says Johnson,who has written for the TV series Grange Hill, was keen toavoid the issue of violence altogether.
The play was guided from the start by a panel representing all sides of the debate, including scientists, animal rightscampaigners and a philosopher. All, including the MedicalResearch Council, which also funded the project, were happywith the final script. "It doesn't reach any conclusions, but itdoes set out the arguments in quite a detailed way," saysPetit-Zeman.
In the play, a university is building a new facility for animalresearch. Sonny is an 18-year-old vegetarian campaigningpeacefully to stop the lab being built. His older sister, Anita, isa hard-headed scientist. As the plot develops, we learn thatshe is about to embark on a PhD involving rat experiments inthe lab Sonny wants closed.
It was a brave decision to eschew the dramatic possibilitiesthat the more extreme end of the animal rights movementwould have provided. But that choice stopped post-show discussions veering away from the core question: is it right toput the lives of our family and friends above those of animals?
Sander Van Kasteren, who was on the steering panel, is a PhDstudent who uses rats in research into techniques fordiagnosing multiple sclerosis. "As soon as you engage theanimal rights movement in dialogue, you start getting deaththreats," he says, "By focusing on the mainstream, it allows a real discussion to develop."
The animal rights campaigners on the panel are also pleasedwith the decision not to focus on violence. "That's not theimportant issue," says Alistair Currie, of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. "It's a very small minority ofpeople who behave that way."
The play's sibling feud is set alongside a love story between asingle mum, Lina, and her unsuitable boyfriend, Raz. Heprovides the comic relief that stops the play feeling like alesson. Lina and Raz's first bungled kiss had the 14-year-oldsin hysterics and his choice of T-shirt when Lina first brings himhome - "Too much sex makes your eyes go fuzzy" - had themrolling in the aisles. "Without those light-hearted bits, thewhole play could get quite bogged down," says Darren Saul,who plays Raz.
But it is Anita and Sonny who allow students to connect withthe big ideas. "The issues are discussed through therelationships between the characters, so you are learningwithout realising it," says Katie Donnison, who plays Anita. "Toget the kids responding to something emotionally is not a badthing at all."
Sonny nearly dies from an asthma attack. He has stoppedtaking his medication because it was tested on animals, butcomes to realise he is worth more to the cause alive than dead.
It is Sonny who naturally commands most sympathy. He ispassionate and likeable, while his sister comes across asarrogant and cold. Her research is not focused directly on any cure, so her rats die purely in a quest for knowledge. On the face of it, the script doesn't favour the experimentation case.
To my surprise though, it was Anita's arguments that won thekids over in the 40-minute discussion that followed the play.The proportion in favour of animal testing rose from around 30% to 50%.
"You sympathise with him, but he has to have the medication," says Paula Ledger, head of humanities at the all-girls comprehensive. "The girls are thinking, 'if it was my brother,what would I do, what would I want?' I think that's what swayed them really."
Was it difficult to make the play both an engaging story and asource of information? Yes, confesses the director, NigelTownsend. "I think the problem when we started was that wehad too much information. The scientists we were working withfelt that, if only we got all this information out, people wouldagree with them. Which is rubbish." The company's aim, he says, is to present the shades of grey in the argument and leave the students wanting to find out more.
"It gently stimulates the discussion, rather than layering it allon," says the company manager, Thom Hammond, who led the debate after the play.
The students responded with howls of laughter and shrieks ofdelight and the discussion at the end was full of passion andintelligence. Waverley's catchment covers some of the poorest London neighbourhoods. The play made sense to them.
© Y Touring Theatre Company an operation of Central YMCA , registered charity No. 213121, Tel: 020 7520 3090 Fax: 020 7520 3099. YMCA ® and Theatre of Debate ® are a registered Trade Marks of Central YMCA in Great Britain and Northern Ireland© 2008 Y Touring Theatre Company an operation of Central YMCA , registered charity No. 213121, Tel: 020 7520 3090 Fax: 020 7520 3099 Contact Y Touring