No Belles at the Edmonton Fringe Festival

Portal Theatre 1No Belles

Westbury Theatre, August 14, 16, 17, 18, 20, 22, and 23.
More information:

An interview with Michael Phillips, Artistic Director of Portal Theatre.

Describe your show in 5 words.

Stories of women in science.

Alright, now that we’re intrigued, what’s the longer description?

It’s all about the statistics. Only 16 women have won a Nobel prize in the sciences. The other 559 have been men. And, this is the case, even though one of the very first people to win the prize was a woman (Curie). While a lot of the Nobel winners, both women and men, have fascinating stories, this small cohort of women made truly amazing discoveries, and most people don’t even know their names. We tell stories of the women who discovered HIV, who discovered drugs that has literally saved millions of lives, who discovered nuclear fission, who helped unlock DNA, etc. These are big, important discoveries, and their work and their stories matter. The show reminds us of who they were, why they were important, and the impact they’ve had on everyone’s lives. So, we tell these stories, in a variety of ways, with a good amount of humor.

Where did the inspiration to write and produce No Belles come from?

A t-shirt. (Yes, really.) My wife, who works in the sciences, went to a chemistry conference and returned with a t-shirt that had five important women scientists on the front. It struck me that I only knew one of them (Marie Curie) and had never even heard of the other four. So, just out of curiosity I started reading about them and found their stories to be absolutely fascinating. Some (most!) of them were real characters, and some (most!) had to negotiate working in a field where there were very few women, and all of them were interesting in terms of their science and their stories. It was a very easy jump to decide to make a show that told those stories.

Why is it important to you/your company to produce a show focusing on women in science?

It’s important to me personally, because I have always had an interest in the intersection between science and the arts, and in exploring how theatre can deal with science in interesting, fun and entertaining ways. And, let’s be honest: the sciences, and really, a lot of fields, are still very male dominated. So, drawing some attention to the women who have been able to thrive in that world is important. Even the theatre, as egalitarian as it is, has an imbalance in roles, and types of roles, for women. So this show seemed like a great first step for the company. In terms of the actors, none of whom are scientists, doing this show became important to them because the more they researched these scientists, the more inspired they became. It’s been a big, fun, exciting learning curve for all of us.

You mention the show is staged simply – three women, three stools and a stage. Why choose to stage the show this way?

There’s a practical reason, and an artistic reason. When we were making the piece, the plan was to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe. So, almost out of necessity, we had to do the show relatively simply. It’s possible to have a set in Edinburgh, but shipping it is expensive, and most venues can’t accommodate complicated sets anyway. (We played in a 60 seat house with a tiny stage, so simplicity was a virtue.) Artistically, we decided early in the process that we wanted this show to be storytelling, and we wanted it to be as straightforward and honest as possible. We didn’t want anything cluttering the stories, and we wanted a very direct connection with the audience. So, while the actors don’t simply sit and talk, the stools represent a groundedness in the production. This is also why the actors come out a bit early before each show and chat with the audience as they are getting settled – we want, right from the start, for the show to feel personal and direct, a discussion with the audience. (There’s actually four stools – I play live music in the background. 🙂

Anything else you want people to know about the show? People who’ve been involved with it? Other great Fringe shows to see this year?

The only other thing about the show that I’ll mention is that while it is a bit feminist in nature, it’s gentle in its approach. We acknowledge the disparity in the sciences, but we really focus on the fascinating stories of the scientists.

In terms of other shows: we have an Oregon contingent this year at the Fringe! The Wonderheads are back with Loon, and they are wonderful. They’re kind of legendary at the Fringe, for good reason. Their work is so charming it’s ridiculous. And Eleanor O’Brien, who won the CAFF lottery this year, is doing her one-woman show Lust and Marriage. I saw it in Portland, and she, and the show, are fabulous. A really good show.

The 34th Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is August 13 – 23. Get your tickets at starting August 4.

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