By Matt Englund
During the day, Keith Burridge, PhD, works on cell signaling and how proteins regulate cell behavior. At night, he is a playwright.
Burridge’s most recent play, “The First Woman President,” a one-woman show about former First Lady Edith Wilson, is scheduled for a four-performance run as part of the International Midtown Theatre Festival in New York City.
“Playwriting for me is a kind of escape,” says Burridge, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology at the UNC School of Medicine and member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “It’s something I look forward to. Sometimes I am working in the lab and these random thoughts about a play will come to me, and I want to rush off and write them down.”
While he typically avoids scientific themes for his plays, the initial spark that got him started writing came years ago at a particularly dramatic academic conference.
In 1981, Burridge was working out his final months as a young researcher at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research facility on Long Island in New York, and was looking forward to a new position at the UNC School of Medicine. During a symposium on the structure of the cytoskeleton, research was presented that would later become infamous in the scientific community. Mark Spector, a graduate student in the lab of the renowned biochemist Efraim Racker, offered findings on cell signaling with results that were, in Burridge’s words, “just perfect.”
Too perfect, as it turns out. Spector had manipulated some of the technical aspects of his research. The paper published in Science had to be retracted. Spector left the academy in disgrace, and a dark cloud hung over the final years of Racker’s otherwise illustrious career.
Because he knew some of the players, Burridge had a behind-the-scenes view. Months earlier, Racker had attempted to recruit Burridge to join his department at Cornell. Around the same time, Burridge had also provided the Racker lab with vinculin, a protein Burridge had co-discovered while working at the Cold Spring Harbor lab.
During the cocktail hour before the symposium’s final banquet, Burridge stood on a balcony speaking with another researcher in Racker’s lab, whose efforts would eventually bring Spector’s fraud to light. Suddenly, Burridge was struck by the theatricality of the scene.
“Socially, there are always a few interesting levels to an academic conference – people trying to impress other people, things like that – but with all that was going on at this particular conference, I immediately viewed it in the context of a play or theater,” recalls Burridge. “The whole experience was very dramatic and seeing it all was my first inspiration to give writing a try.”
Burridge imagined the story of Spector’s fraud as a play and over the next several years, he sporadically worked on it in his free time.
“It was very slow in its evolution,” says Burridge. “It was something I would do on a weekend when I wasn’t working in the lab or trying to write a grant. In the end, I gave up the project because I didn’t think it was something that would appeal to people outside of the scientific community.”
But the seed had been planted, and it finally broke through in 2007 when Burridge learned of an evening playwriting class being taught by Playmakers’ Mark Perry. Burridge signed up for the class.
“I thought: OK, I need to do this and see if I can get my act together,” says Burridge.
One of the exercises that Perry assigned was for the students to write a 10-minute play they could present to the class the following week. Burridge describes his play as coming out of him very quickly.
After reading it for the class, Burridge began to submit the play – which he called “Chocolates for Mr. Wolfowitz” – to theater festivals specializing in short plays.
Getting a play performed can be a grueling process that often can involve a number of setbacks, not unlike the hard work of experimental science. “I think in this respect playwriting and science are actually very similar: in both cases, you have to have a very thick skin.”
Though it initially met with some rejections, “Chocolates for Mr. Wolfowitz” was eventually accepted as part of a festival being hosted by a theater company in a village called Knutsford, outside Manchester, England. Burridge and his wife flew to England to see the play performed.
“Seeing the play performed was all the encouragement I needed,” remembers Burridge. “It gave me confidence that I could write something that people would enjoy or laugh at or feel moved by, so that really got me going.”
For Burridge, finding the time to write remains a challenge.
“Most of us who are in the trenches of science work very long hours and as a result have very little time,” he says. “This is one of the reasons I was initially drawn to theater. At the beginning – and this may have been foolish – I thought a play would be relatively easy to write.”
Because his subjects are often inspired by his interest in history, the writing process can involve a substantial amount of research. For Burridge’s play “The Art of Deception,” about early 20th century art forger Hans von Meegeren, he had to do a lot of research.
“I stumbled into a story about von Meegeren and it had so many interesting twists that I was intrigued. But I’m not an artist or an art historian, so I had a lot of homework to do.”
His latest play – “The First Woman President” – began after Burridge found a volume of love letters exchanged by Woodrow and Edith Wilson at Davis Library. After diving into the history of Wilson’s presidency, Burridge became fascinated by the parallels with our current political climate – there was no love lost between Wilson, a Democrat, and the Republican majority in Congress – as well as the relationship between President Wilson and his wife.
The one-woman show imagines Edith Wilson looking back on her life with Woodrow on the morning of Kennedy’s inauguration, and traces the couple’s courtship and marriage during Wilson’s presidency, as well as the often overlooked role Edith took in leading the country after her husband suffered a debilitating stroke while in office.
At the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the role of Edith will be performed actress Bonnie Roe and the play will be directed by Annie Taft, a local actress and playwright who is also an employee in the UNC School of Nursing. Selecting a director, casting the play and finding a venue in which to perform is all place Burridge in the role of a producer, “which was not something I ever expected to be doing,” he says.
With all the work he puts into them, Burridge says seeing his plays performed is always a kick. “So much depends on the actors, the director, the choices they’ve made with it. For me, it’s been wonderful to see the end result. I hope it’s going to be like that this time.”
For several years, Burridge has workshopped his plays with the Triangle Playwrights, a group of local playwrights that meets monthly. Click here for a video of Burridge discussing his earlier play “The Art of Deception” that was produced as part of our Real Doctors, Real People series.Or click here to watch a reading of "The First Woman President" that was performed at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro.
You can also learn more about Burridge’s research by reading this Five Questions feature.