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Renaissance Theaterworks Honors Overshadowed Scientist Rosalind Franklin in ‘Photograph 51’

Renaissance Theaterworks Honors Overshadowed Scientist Rosalind Franklin in ‘Photograph 51’
Photo Credit: Cassandra Bissell as Rosalind Franklin and Josh Krause as Ray Gosling in Renaissance Theaterworks' "Photograph 51." Photo by Ross E. Zenter.

While few people outside the scientific community may be familiar with the work of Rosalind Franklin, the chemist was a household name for actress Cassandra Bissell.


Bissell’s mother, Sherrie Lyons, is a science historian with a bachelor’s degree in genetics from University of California Berkeley and a doctorate in the history of science from the University of Chicago. Lyons has three published books, including a scientific biography on English biologist Thomas Huxley and an introduction to the basics of evolution.


“As a woman in science, (Franklin) was a figure that was important to her,” Bissell says. “Whenever DNA would come up, or Watson and Crick would come up, my mom would be like, ‘but also, Rosalind Franklin!’”


Bissell will portray Franklin in Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler. Directed by Suzan Fete, Renaissance Theaterworks co-founder and artistic director, the show follows a group of scientists on the verge of discovering the DNA double helix at London’s King’s College in the 1950s.


In 1962, Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins received a Nobel Prize for the discovery. Since Franklin had already passed away from ovarian cancer, she did not get included in this honor and is therefore often left out of the history books. Franklin worked on the X-ray diffraction images of crystallized DNA, most notably the play’s namesake, Photograph 51.

Trevor Rees as Francis Crick, Nick Narcisi as James Watson and Neil Brookshire as Maurice Wilkins. 

“Part of what was so amazing about the structure was that you could see in it how it replicates,” Bissell says. “There are plenty of molecules you can look at and it’s not clear, but what is so incredibly beautiful about the DNA double helix is that you immediately see these two chains and how they split apart.”


Watson and Crick published the first article to describe the double helix structure in the scientific journal Nature after viewing Photograph 51. Wilkins showed the photo to the pair without Franklin’s knowledge, but if this didn’t happen, Watson and Crick wouldn’t have been able to prove this structure.


Bissell’s connection to the play’s scientific theme runs deeper than learning about Franklin from her mom as a child. Bissell’s grandfather, Harold Lyons, invented the first atomic clock in 1948, thanks to the physicist’s work on microwave frequency standards. Also like her character, Bissell was born into a Jewish family.


“She was basically cloned for this play,” Fete jokes.

Neil Brookshire, who plays Wilkins, a scientist that often clashes with Franklin, describes the play in two parts: the story of how the structure of DNA was discovered, and the story of how the different people involved remember this discovery.


 “It’s not clear who is right or wrong, ever,” Brookshire explains. “I don’t think it ever will be. I think in some level if you take away all the science, this is a play about personalities getting in the way of each other and in the way of themselves.”


In Ziegler’s author’s notes, she warns artists that some actors have found too much research detrimental to the performance. Ziegler took her own perspective on the story and admits to changing timelines, facts and events. Brookshire justifies this by referencing an interview with Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter for the 2015 film Steve Jobs. In the interview, Sorkin explains that his job as a dramatic writer is not to break down events exactly as they happened, but depict the drama of the circumstances.

Cassandra Bissell as Rosalind Franklin. Photo by Ross E. Zentner. 

“What I find is the research has filled in some of the gaps,” Brookshire explains. “Even though some of the facts may have changed, the attentions and the through line of my character are consistent. Shakespeare did that and we still go see Henry V.”


Photograph 51 continues Renaissance Theaterworks 2018-2019 season dedicated to strong scientific female characters. The season kicked off with Native Gardens by Karen Zacarías in October and will conclude with Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven by Reina Hardy, marking the company’s first full production from a resident playwright in Renaissance’s Br!NK New Play Festival March 29 – April 21.


“I have a degree in nursing so women in science has always fascinated me,” Fete says. “The joy that all the people in this play get from being so close to this amazing discovery and the feeling of it being such a triumph for humanity is wonderful.”


Photograph 51, presented by Renaissance Theaterworks, runs Jan. 18 - Feb. 10 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. For tickets visit or call the box office at 414-291-7800.


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