Living Chemistry

Susan Marie Frontczak in character as Marie Curie.

Susan Marie Frontczak in character as Marie Curie.

Actress and storyteller Susan Marie Frontczak visited CHF in April as part of the first-ever Philadelphia Science Festival. Her one-woman show, Manya: A Living History of Marie Curie, depicts the life of the Nobel laureate from childhood to the discovery of radium. Frontczak left an engineering job at Hewlett-Packard to pursue storytelling and theater. Since 2001 she has transformed herself into such historical figures as Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Shelley, and Irene Castle for audiences around the world. Before her performance Frontczak spoke with Chemical Heritage’s Anne Fredrickson about her craft.–AF   

AF: What first attracted you to Marie Curie’s story?

SMF: When I was nine or ten years old, I read a juvenile biography of Marie Curie that had an image of her with a whole mountain of rock, with her digging through it to get this tiny little piece of radium. That image really stuck with me; even then I admired her perseverance.  

AF: You’ve said that it can take two to three years to develop your living-history characters. What was the process for Manya?

SMF: I wrote the script based on her writings, her letters, her vocabulary, and my understanding of her life. I went to Paris. I got permission through her granddaughter to look at the archives, hold her lab book, and look through her letters. And I read everything I could get my hands on. Historical accuracy is of high importance to me. I wanted the piece to be scientifically accurate but also understandable to nonscientists. I wanted people to realize, “Oh, this was a real human being.”

I also had to figure out my own justification for Marie Curie to stand up and talk to an audience for forty minutes or two hours. It’s not the kind of thing she would volunteer to do. That’s why Manya is set in 1915. During the war Curie actually solicited funds from people—not 100 or 300 or however many there are in my audiences—but from a handful of people sitting in a parlor. I pretend [the crowd is] this handful of people, there to help support the Red Cross and its mobile X-ray units, which Marie Curie helped develop. I let that be the framework: “You said you’d come to this fundraiser so long as I tell you my story. All right, I’ll tell you my story.” That’s an artifice, but through that framework we go back in time with her.

AF: Are there other aspects of her life you hope people will take away from your performance?

SMF: Different themes run through the show—and they speak to different people. Some people, for example, don’t know she was Polish. They walk away thinking, “Gee, I had always thought she was French.” Some people pick up on the fact that she was a lifelong teacher, and some notice more personal themes: her constant struggle for laboratory space or the fact that the Curies did not like being famous. Marie Curie wrote that their “lives were altogether ruined by honors and fame.”  

AF: Your performances draw scientists, nonscientists, families. How do you manage such mixed audiences?

SMF: When my audience includes children, I make the program more interactive. And there are always some lovely ways in which the audience members inform each other. I love having scientists, especially chemists, in the audience. There is an excerpt from Curie’s writings that I paraphrase in the show: “We used the adjoining yard for chemical operations that produce clouds of hydrogen sulfide and other irritating gases. But when it rained, we brought these inside.” To the nonscientist it sounds very matter of fact. But as soon as I say “clouds of hydrogen sulfide,” the chemists in the audience groan. That lets the people who aren’t chemists know that it was dangerous and that she didn’t regard the danger. Having that mix in the audience means they really teach each other without realizing it.

For more information on Manya: A Living History of Marie Curie, visit storysmith.org/manya.