Ellen Denny and the “Wonder” of Harriet Brooks’ life and legacy

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Ellen Denny

Ellen Denny is venturing into the past . . . and it’s brighter than she imagined. After reading about the accomplishments of Canadian nuclear physicist Harriet Brooks – who also happens to be her great-great aunt – she has written and is co-producing with Emily Pettet a new play, Wonder, which combines science, history and biography. Wonder debuts in a development workshop in Toronto on February 5 – 10, directed by Sarah Kitz.

The plot centres on Brooks’ experience as a scientist, who was forced to abandon her career because she got married. “The play is set a century ago, but unfortunately, it feels all too current,” Ms Denny observes. At the first public reading of her script at Museum London, she recalls being “blown away” by the emotional connection that people of all ages and experiences felt to the story.  The bottom line: “we all make sacrifices in this life.” Brooks’ sacrifice was enormous, and feels eerily immediate. The playing field remains unfairly tilted, requiring women to work much harder than men for opportunities, salaries and recognition in the same fields.

Brooks was born on July 2, 1876 in Exeter, Ontario. Under the guidance of Nobel-Prize winning, New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford, Brooks became the first woman to complete her Masters Degree at McGill University in 1901. She went on to become the first Canadian woman to work in nuclear physics alongside such internationally renowned physicists as J. J. Thomson and Marie Curie. In fact, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Chalk River, Ontario recently named a $113-million research facility in her honour. And two years ago, SciXchange at Ryerson University established the Harriet Brooks Internship (HBI) program to support diverse high-school youth through a weeklong program featuring scientist spotlights, leadership skills, and activity development. Brooks was even shortlisted to be depicted on the new Canadian $10 bill. Yet despite such recognition, Ms Denny laments that few Canadians not working in science know Brooks’ name.

The idea for Wonder first took hold while Ms Denny was reading Harriet Brooks: Pioneer Nuclear Scientist by Marelene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham. The biography includes excerpts from Brooks’ letters, including one to the dean of Barnard College, who was threatening to terminate Harriet for getting married. Brooks was firm and forthright in asserting that “It is a duty I owe to my profession and to my sex to show that a woman has a right to her profession and cannot be condemned to abandon it merely because she marries.” Ms Denny marvelled at the strength of those words, and felt immediately that “[Brooks’] was a voice we needed onstage”.

When she embarked on writing Brooks’ story for the stage, it was without a specific form in mind. She decided to “let the story dictate the form”. Over the course of many drafts, that form has continued to reveal itself. “This is certainly not the fastest way to write a play,” she notes wryly, but it “felt right for this particular project”.

Harriet Brooks

The first scene she drafted was a traditional dramatic scene between Harriet and her fiance Bergen Davis. This two-person dialogue was straightforward  historical realism. “As I learned more about Harriet’s work on radioactivity, however, a second style of storytelling suggested itself, one that utilized the entire cast as a chorus, both in voice and movement.” These choral sections incorporate the physics Harriet was using, in order to chart her emotional state and drive the action forward by embodying her internal decision-making.

As Ms Denny delved deeper into the story, the other people in Harriet’s life began to fascinate her as potential characters. One such personality is Brooks’ friend Prestonia Martin, an independent and well-educated woman who campaigned against women getting the vote. “That feels bonkers to me in 2018,” Ms Denny shakes her head.  It was an “excellent challenge to get inside her brain and write her side of the argument”. And of course, there is the famous Russian revolutionary Maxim Gorky, whom her aunt met at Prestonia Martin’s estate in 1906, when Wonder is set. “People thought I was making that bit up at first,” Ms Denny smiles, “ but Harriet and Maxim were great friends!”

Process-wise, Ms Denny acknowledges that raising a “play baby” takes a long time, and requires a lot of help and a lot of resources. She has been “chipping away at this project for five years now”, not least because she is an in-demand, Dora-Award nominated actor, whose full performance schedule takes her regularly to theatres across the country. Over that period of  time, Wonder has attracted an “ever growing list of people”, and she gratefully acknowledges all who have lent their support along the way. Moreover, “what is so exciting about this moment is that Team Wonder is expanding faster than ever before.” Her co-producer Emily Pettet helps to handle the “constant producing demands”, which allows Ms Denny to step back into the role of playwright. Then there is her “absolute dream-team”: Director and Dramaturg Sarah Kitz, who directed the acclaimed inaugural production of Ellie Moon’s What I call her this fall, and Movement Dramaturg Cara Spooner. They are leading the workshop and helping the script grow to its full potential. Both the process and the product have Ms Denny excited: “I am learning so much along the way, and am truly humbled by the opportunity to share my ancestor’s story.”

Wonder is readying for its first workshop this February, which will conclude with an invited sharing for the Toronto theatre and science communities. The earliest that a full production would premiere is 2020. Whether that will be through an existing Canadian  company or as an independent production remains to be seen. Whatever the case, Ms Denny is fully committed to “doing whatever it takes” to bring this story to an audience. “There have already been so many tremendous actors who have given their talents to this show’s development (at read-throughs in my living room), and I’m thrilled by the team we have assembled for the upcoming workshop. Honestly, I could cast this thing ten times over.” Already looking to the future, she hopes fervently that the script will have a life beyond its first production, and that more than one set of artists will interpret it: “This is a play I would love to bring to audiences across Canada, because Harriet was a trailblazing force in our history.”

Poster Design for Wonder by Ellen Denny

Indeed . . . and a hundred years on, the play relates closely to the experiences of women today. Ms Denny proffers the adage that the more specific something is, the more universal it becomes. While universities try hard to attract female students into traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering, computer science and aviation through internships and targeted promotions, the statistics remain remarkably imbalanced. “It’s easy to say that women face barriers in science – but it’s also easy to dismiss that fact and get on with our busy lives,” Ms Denny notes. “I think Wonder will generate empathy for this issue by focusing on one Canadian woman and the specific barriers she faced. It is often easier to examine ourselves at a distance, and in this case that distance is time.”

For Ms Denny, Wonder is as much a play as a love letter to an inspiring, spirited ancestor. Appropriately, her final thought on the topic is a heartfelt “thank you” that she sends a century into the past: “None of this would be possible without her bravery. I love you, Aunt Harriet!”

© 2019 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

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