Contact Theatre’s new production The Bell Curves confronts the technology that will change the world

"It has massive implications..."

By Ben Arnold | 15 April 2024

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One day, we could be free of disease, free of the genetic echoes that pass through the generations, often bringing suffering with them in their wake.

Thanks to the gene editing technology CRISPR-Cas9, the world could and likely will change forever, meaning we can take out genes which can determine anything from hair colour in future generations to eradicating disability and disease using so-called ‘molecular scissors’.

It could soon become commonplace everywhere from reproduction to the food chain.

But with it comes myriad ethical questions. Who will control this inordinately powerful technology? And should it be democratised so that anyone is able to use it?

It’s a subject that has fascinated and sometimes haunted Manchester-born playwright Keisha Thompson, after encountering via a TED talk, which ‘blew her mind’. 

The Bell Curves

Her play The Bell Curves, presented by Contact Theatre, fictionalises and confronts some of these ethical questions, centring around her protagonist Nana, a budding biologist, who wants to use her research to secure her future with her partner, Henri. But at what cost?

The play is supported by a grant from The Future of Human Reproduction, an innovative, interdisciplinary research programme, funded by Wellcome, and is to be presented at the Ascension Church in Hulme later this month.

The location – which adapts the church’s main worshipping space – offers up not only a place to perform this thought provoking piece, but also brings to the fore the potential religious ramifications of the ethics at the centre of this pioneering technology which will likely change the course of science and medicine as we know it.

“My interest in this technology is about the equity of it,” she says. “It’s very powerful. It has massive implications, as I mentioned, around eugenics. And one of the questions I’ve been trying to ask myself through this is that is any kind of progress like this that involves engineering or editing inherently eugenic, and is that inherently bad.

The Bell Curves Keisha Thompson

“That’s the narrative that we know so far, that to change the body in a way, to make a decision about what’s right or wrong and what should be inherited and what shouldn’t, it becomes dangerous really, really quickly.

“So how can we have a conversation that feels a bit more nuanced, and more like a level playing field.”

Keisha also rounded on two of CRISPR tech’s pioneers being female – the scientists  Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, and has made her cast all-female accordingly.

“I was really excited by that, that it was female led,” she goes on. “When I got the opportunity to write about it, I felt like it was really important to have an all-female cast and to recentre the story, and also consider having a protagonist that represents a black woman, a woman of colour who is studying science, and see where that story would take me.”

The play was originally commissioned by Manchester’s Box Of Tricks theatre company, and has also received support from Opera North, the Eclipse Theatre, Pilot and York Theatre Royal.

To select a place of religious gathering to present it seems both apt and thought-provoking, with debates over religion, ethics and science frequently intersecting.

“I wanted to do it in a church space, because, one, it felt right to do it in a religious space, but I also love doing stuff offsite, I love going into unusual spaces, and leaning into the authenticity of that,” she adds.

“And also I specifically heard about this church and realsied that they do such amazing work, and they’re so community based, that I want to bring people here.

“I think this is a good way to get people to engage with religion and science.”

Contact Theatre’s production of The Bell Curves is on at the Ascension Church in Hulme from 18-20 April.