Merging Art and Science: The Mold that Changed the World

Robin Hiley, Sheila Grant, and Jess Conway from the creative team of The Mold that Changed the World.

How do you take a story about doctors, petri dishes, and long hours of arduous lab work and turn it into an exciting, accessible performance that builds awareness around a critical public health concern?

As an agency of storytellers with clients in the healthcare space, Artemis Ward ponders these types of questions daily. So when the opportunity to see a powerful example of an answer rolled into DC from the British Isles, we rushed to the box office.

A musical about Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin — and bacteria’s growing resistance to what many believe is a miracle cure — The Mold that Changed the World began a five-night run of shows at DC’s Atlas Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, October 18. The performance features a volunteer chorus of local scientists and healthcare professionals performing alongside a touring cast from London’s West End. After selling out the legendary Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2018 and 2022, this will be the production’s North American premiere.

Ever on the hunt for insightful conversations with creatives of all kinds, AW recently met up with a few of the visionaries behind the production. Read on to hear Jess Conway (producer and violinist), Sheila Grant (movement director and choreographer), and Robin Hiley (composer, lyricist, and artistic director) share their experiences with turning a message of microscopic danger into a bold onstage production.

You’ve written a very powerful play on an unexpected topic: the discovery of penicillin and bacteria’s growing resistance to antimicrobials. How’d that come about and how has your knowledge on the topic evolved?

Robin Hiley: I was approached by an infectious disease doctor who was a keen amateur musician herself and understood the power of bringing this story to life through theatre. A little bit of convincing later, I gravitated toward [Alexander] Fleming, being a very famous Scot — and penicillin, obviously, is where it all started.

Over six years now of getting to know the issue and meeting people who are really passionate about it, I’ve become passionate about it, too. On a human level, whether it’s on the cast or a relative, many of us know people who’ve battled resistant infections — but when all you see is stats, you don’t really have any connection to it.

Jess Conway: It’s quite exciting to be part of an initiative that gives a voice to that. We’ve been to some conferences on AMR [antimicrobial resistance] and there’s tons about the science of it, the issue, and all the possible solutions — but there’s not very much about how to communicate that to the public. So I feel like that this could be the start of something where the arts actually find a place in sharing the message.

You’re producing a performance that’s entertaining and exciting, but there’s also an important message attached. How have audiences been responding to the show?

JC: We often say seeing is believing with this project. Because people often ask, what is a musical about antimicrobial resistance? And you can’t explain it, but when you get people in that room — in the same place at the same time — there’s a collective feeling of responsibility by the end of it that really makes the show special.

A photo of two performers on stage with a dark smokey background
Jeremy Rose and Emily Bull performing The Mold that Changed the World as Alexander Fleming and Rose. Photo Credit: Robin Mair

What’s one of the most unexpected discoveries or experiences you’ve had working alongside real-world healthcare professionals?

RH: There’s a moment in the show where we portray a death from a microbial infection, and we’ve had a real microbiologist perform that role. Seeing her perform that scene was really powerful because you realize that, oh, she’s actually seen that happen.

Sheila Grant: From a movement perspective there’s been some great moments with staging and physically — for instance, in some of the First World War scenes, we move soldiers injured by shrapnel. Initially we would lift them from the arms, but a nurse from the ensemble corrected us that they would move them on a blanket as not to disturb the shrapnel. This kind of expertise has really lended some authenticity to the performance.

Also, you know, our cast of local healthcare professionals have quite a lot to learn in terms of stage directions and movements in just a few days of rehearsal. So I ask them to bring a notebook to write some things down, and their notes are so detailed! It’s really quite incredible, but when you tell them, they say: well, you ask a scientist to take notes…

As the creative force behind this production, what does a successful run look like for you?

JC: It’s twofold really. You know, there’s engaging the policymakers and the funders to show them the importance of funding the arts and taking the show forward. And then there’s also finding the people that we can communicate this message about AMR to, or that are already receptive to that sort of message.

RH: Having so many people high up in medicine and healthcare in the ensemble is a really great part of it — and something that we do our very best to hang on to and remember that it’s not necessarily about artistic perfection, per se. I mean, having 11 professional actors and movement artists from the West End gives you a standard — but the local grassroots aspect of it is very, very important.

I’ve been saying to everybody that we’re not actually just working with amateur thespians who are here because they just want to be part of this show. We’re actually bringing two groups of professionals together. One group is in their element, and it’s their job as an actors to give a voice to the professionals who are not in their element, but who have the knowledge, who have the message to get out.

The Mold that Changed the World runs October 18–23 at the Atlas Center for Performing Arts in DC and November 1–6 at Pullman Yards in Atlanta.

To score tickets for the performance and learn more about Robin, Jess, and Sheila’s work bringing this critical public health message to life through arts and emotion, visit the show’s website.

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