An interview with Mariam Motamedi-Fraser on What a Mouse Knows
Mariam Motamedi Fraser is a Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research explores the theoretical, methodological and political/ethical implications of recent developments in the animal sciences for social science thinking and vice versa. She has written on the theoretical opportunities and risks that arise when different epistemologies and methodologies meet, and has used interdisciplinary, practice-based arts collaboration in her own work, such as in a year-long exhibition with Dr. Nirmal Puwar [2015-2016]; in architecture with artist Marjetica Potrc [2005-2008]; and in music with the artist Bruce Gilchrist [2004-2005]).
Why did you want to use theatre specifically to share your research Maisie?
It was a combination of things. It started with some of the emotions in my interview rooms. Under the surface of our talk it often felt like there were personal traumas, ethical doubts, professional frustrations, that weren’t captured by transcribed words on a page. I found that dramatically interesting, because on the one hand the world of laboratory science is very smooth, dispassionate, objective, and so on. But then you have a group of people who care about animals but who often have to harm them in order to understand and improve their welfare. That seemed like quite a troubling and interesting paradox to explore.
Another reason is because the animal laboratory is so alien to most of us, and so polarising. We rarely see that world depicted in a complex way, with fully human or animal characters. Drama is brilliant for drawing out that complexity, because a decent play will play with the sympathies of the audience. The person you start out identifying with, you end up being horrified by and thinking ‘well, there for the grace of god go I’. That gives you insights into why, under what conditions, people make seemingly incomprehensible choices. I’ve got a background in theatre as an actor and have written and produced a little, and I thought that theatre would allow me to explore these conflicts and emotions, these “matters of care”, in a very embodied, live way.
What inspired the story of What a Mouse Knows, and could you say something more about the title?
I suppose I wanted to play with the idea that there is something about another being, another subject, that is always fundamentally unknowable, however much you try and pin it down. In my work as an animal welfare campaigner, I usually assumed that the more we knew about animals the better we could treat them. But during my PhD I grew to question that. Francoise Wemelsfelder, the pioneering animal welfare scientist who introduced me to my research site, told me that she believes that unknowability is actually constitutive of an animal as a subject. But that’s very different to how most science works, which reifies everything as matter and ignores or suppresses the subject within that. So the title reflects that – that there is always an aspect of being a mouse – and, as in the play, a person - which is forever unknowable.
And that objectivism, the reification of the animal, is very much part of animal welfare science …
Yes it is, but again, this sense of something always escaping that reification was also there, not with all, but with some of my research participants. A couple of the senior welfare scientists talked about often being perplexed by their mice’s behaviour. That was a surprise to me. These animals are probably the most studied creatures in the world, I was speaking to their experts, and yet that behaviour was constantly described as random, unpredictable, even deceptive. I found that paradox really interesting. There was an intriguing sense that objectivist animal welfare science had become the victim of its own success. The answers welfare scientists gave just encouraged more difficult questions, with more problematic experiments, like how many positive animal experiences could offset a negative one, in the pursuit of a cumulative life experience measure. I felt that there could be a kind of madness in this relentless pursuit of the measurable in animal minds. I wondered what would happen if the stakes were raised on a character’s pursuit of knowledge, of objectivity, to the point where they go too far. And if the mouse just constantly always evades being interpreted.
Music is a recurring theme in the play, and unites the characters. Where did this come from?
One of the scientists I spoke to, someone who was incredibly logical, precise and experienced, speculated about the possibility of gauging mouse emotions through music, by translating their physiological responses in some way. It was an offhand comment, but I thought this was such an interesting, sensitive idea, and from someone who definitely didn’t seem like a “bunny hugger”. And I couldn’t help wondering how that would work, what the mouse would sound like. I had this image of him developing a human version too, that could help explain the actions of perplexing people. So that’s where the idea came from. And I liked the idea of music drawing Edward and Annalise together throughout the play, it was a way of softening that relationship and making them confront the past.
You used fully scripted, fictional dialogue. What do you think was gained, or lost, by straying so far from the original data?
Yes, I did, although some dialogue is taken from the transcripts, and I tried to make the play as true to the research site as I could. I obviously took a fair amount of dramatic licence with some things. But yes, it’s a fictional scenario, with fictional characters and dialogue. I suppose I felt that with an imaginative free rein, it would be easier to try and create a story that the audience would be immersed in, with human and animal characters that people cared about. I think without an emotional connection, it’s really difficult to think deeply about an issue. I didn’t want to create a worthy but boring “issue play”. Fiction, I think can be truer than fact, when it speaks to the emotional truth of people’s experiences.
In terms of what was lost…well, the play isn’t that representative of an ordinary working day at the lab. The stakes are deliberately raised by dreaming up some extra-ordinary scenarios. I tried at least to have some accountability to that by writing the play myself. I know other academic researchers have collaborated with writers, and some have worked well together but others have struggled when the end result wasn’t what the researcher wanted or intended. I felt that at least it was only me that bore responsibility for that.
In the play, the issue of how best to handle the mouse is a key source of difficulty and disagreement. It leads, ultimately, to a turning point in the play. Was this question of handling also a controversial topic in your research site?
Yes, it was. For decades people have handled mice by picking them up by the base of the tail. And a researcher called Jane Hurst did a series of experiments which showed that this is actually very stressful for the mice. So for example, she found that mice handled by the tail were more cautious in an unfamiliar environment - they would flatten themselves to the floor, be less exploratory, and stick to enclosed spaces. But mice handled through guiding them into a clear plastic tube, where they are not touched, were more confident. The data was apparently really clear that it was better for the mice. But it wasn’t enough. The scientists I was talking to said they were facing a lot of opposition, from human-benefit scientists who were worried about the comparability of data from happy mice to stressed mice, and from the animal care staff, who were worried that tube handling would slow down their handling of thousands of mice. It really showed me how difficult it can be to get even small, basic improvements to animal welfare in the lab.
I was struck, during the play, at the audience's absolute silence whenever any of the actors mimed handling the mouse. It was incredible – it really took me by surprise. You decided not to have a visual representation of the mouse, but to use naturalistic mime, followed by a very stylised, anthropomorphised appearance in Edward's hallucinations. How and why did you come to that decision?
I always wanted the representation to be quite minimal, because I felt the audience’s imagination would do a far better job of filling in the gaps than anything I could get made, and I certainly didn’t want to use live mice. I explored the use of moving spots of pinpointed light, briefly. But for this production, it just felt far simpler to have the actors mime handling Angel. And I think when their eyes follow the mouse as it moves, when they coerce it into the tunnel or tip it into their hand, I do think you really ‘see’ it! And yes, I think the audience was really focused on that. They wanted to do the work. It was really interesting!
The Mouse Apollo is a deliberately bizarre figment of Edward’s imagination. But there was indeed a Mouse Apollo in Greek mythology, a murine version of the god of art and music. Mice were sacred in Ancient Greece, because they were believed to have the power of life and death; they could destroy the harvest and starve a town, they could multiply at an astonishing rate. Some even thought they led dead souls to Hades. I suppose I wanted to rehabilitate that mystery and power somehow. I wondered what the Mouse Apollo would make of laboratory mice.
What was your experience of working with the actors and the director? And what role did you play in rehearsals?
I really wanted good actors and a good director, and was incredibly, incredibly lucky. I’d seen Ed Madden’s direction in an amazing play called Yellowfin at the Southwark Playhouse, and when I was thinking about hiring a director, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to send him a sample of the play and see if he was interested. He was directing at the likes of the National Theatre, so I really did not expect him to say yes to such a tiny project. But happily, he did! He was a fantastic support, guiding me through some of the practicalities, and it’s mostly down to him that we got the amazing cast that we did – Nancy, Ian and Lydia – because they already knew him, and trusted him. The actors were so generous to take part – it was a really small gig for such experienced professionals, but they were all so warm, and curious, and generous.
In terms of rehearsals…I deliberately didn’t hang around too much. For a start, there was so much production work for me to do. And I didn’t want the team to feel hampered by having the writer hanging around, I wanted to hand it over and trust their interpretation – that’s part of the joy of it, I think. I popped in occasionally. And that really helped me develop the play further actually – they were so good that I knew if something didn’t work, it was likely to be my fault, not theirs. So after the first run-through, I went home and cut ten minutes off the play. I’d realised some of the scenes were really dragging because I’d just written too many damn words! It was a really good learning experience. None of the words matter if the audience are bored and the actors are struggling with mouthfuls of text.
Did your research participants play any part in the play’s development?
Well on one level, they are responsible for it, of course! I only had a play because they talked to me and showed me around. But I didn’t develop the actual play with them, that kind of devised work is great but isn’t really in my skillset. I did send the play to my gatekeeper before I gave the team the final version. I was very nervous about it! He was very kind, corrected some terminology, and made lots of helpful comments about things I had slightly misunderstood or hadn’t thought of. He was also, understandably, very concerned about making the play safe. He was really concerned that I might get a lot of criticism from animal rights activists for showing or talking about certain things. That hasn’t yet happened.
But at the end he told me, “I read this, and I felt, I know this person [Edward]. I know who he is, I identify with him”. And that, for me, was the biggest compliment anyone could give.
Do you feel that the performance achieved what it set out to do?
I really hope so. I think people were really drawn in by the characters and the human emotional drama, they seemed to really engage with that. I certainly got audience members attending who would never have read any of my research papers. I don’t know how much the themes or the messages came across, I didn’t ask enough questions about that. I’d like to take it to more venues with animal welfare professionals, I think that would be really illuminating, and probably also more challenging.
What did you learn? Would you do anything differently?
Well I learned how to write a play! And that it’s such a collaborative effort. I owe a huge amount to the playwright Brian Mullin, who ran a course I attended at the City Lit in London, and to my classmates on that course who commented on my drafts. It’s really thanks to them that some dodgy writing didn’t see the light of day, and some of the good bits are down to their ideas. And I could easily work for several more months with the actors on the play, improvising things or getting their feedback on what works. There’s nothing like seeing it, or feeling it on its feet for learning how to improve it.
What I’d do differently…. I’d definitely budget for a production assistant. It was really stressful towards the end, trying to organise everything from the music and multimedia projections, to the programmes, props, costumes and catering. And I think I’d also think harder about how to document the whole process. I felt I could have done a better job of that, but the production side was just so overwhelming.
But people are still talking to me about it, which is wonderful. I hope it might be able to have a future life, and I can get those lab coats (and mouse heads) down from the attic!
Well it was a great privilege for me to be a small part of it Maisie, I loved every minute, and I too hope that it has a future life!