Posted by Rob Knies

Royal Court TheatreThis spring, London’s Royal Court Theatre issued a most peculiar press release, announcing the forthcoming production of Ten Billion: An Exploration of the Future of Life on Earth, to debut July 12.

“Scientist Stephen Emmott and director Katie Mitchell deliver a new kind of scientific lecture,” the release read, “highlighting key issues being lost in translation in our discussion of the environment.”

The first name caught my eye immediately. Emmott is the head of Computational Science at Microsoft Research Cambridge—in addition to being a professor of Computational Science at the University of Oxford. His work takes a pioneering approach to tackling fundamental problems in science, particularly those in predicting the future of the climate and the future of life on Earth.

Mitchell’s name was not as familiar to my benighted American brain, but a quick trip to the web set me straight in a hurry. She is, I learned, not only an officer of the Order of the British Empire, but also a veteran director of the Royal Shakespeare Company who has directed productions by Euripedes, Chekhov, Strindberg, and Genet—and operas by Mozart and Handel. In 2008, London’s The Independent newspaper referred to Mitchell as “the closest thing the British theatre has to an auteur.”

Microsoft researchers are known for their propensity to collaborate, but this pairing seemed a bit audacious even for one of them.

It seems that Dominic Cooke, artistic director for the Royal Court Theatre, would agree.

“When Katie Mitchell approached me about this project,” Cooke was quoted as saying, “I was excited. Once I’d met Stephen, I knew it was something we had to do. It isn’t a play, it may not even be described as ‘theatre,’ and we have never put a scientist centre stage at the Royal Court before, but it could just be one of the most important projects I’ve ever worked on.”

Halfway through the release, I was hooked. I reached out to Emmott to learn more about his “dramatized lecture,” a co-production with the Festival d’Avignon. How, I inquired, had such an unlikely combination come to pass?

“I met Katie Mitchell about 18 months ago,” Emmott explained. “It became clear very quickly that there was a need—potentially an opportunity—for doing something different and even unique at the intersection of science and art to increase and widen the accessibility of science and scientists to issues concerning climate change, resource loss, pollution, energy, and food and water security.

“The one thing that links all of these is us—our remarkable and very recent status as the species that not just now dominates Earth, but is actually having a significant effect on Earth itself. From our early discussions, this Royal Court opportunity has materialized—all due to Katie!”

From chatting with Emmott, it appears that he and Mitchell have hit it off swimmingly.

“Katie is one of the most impressive, compassionate, clever people I’ve ever met,” Emmott stated. “As a consequence, I’ve no idea why Katie wants to work with me, because I share none of those characteristics, sadly. Notwithstanding this, we have developed a wonderful working relationship. It’s constantly one of bouncing ideas back and forth with each other, and I’ve learned a lot during this.”

Well, then, any reason to be concerned?

“That someone actually turns up to listen!” Emmott quipped, but don’t believe him. Ten Billion is scheduled for 22 performances at the Royal Court between July 12 and Aug. 11, and the first seven already are sold out. For Emmott, an opportunity to address such a serious concern is no laughing matter.

“I hope that this might change the way those who come to this think about the problems that we all face,” he said, “that our children will face, and that our grandchildren will—even more urgently—face.”