Staminalia: A Dream and a Trial

Written and directed by Valeria Patera. Commissioned by the consortia ESTOOLS and NeuroStemcell, among others. 27 May, Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon

Good theatre needs good conflicts — and stem-cell science provides plenty. Written and directed by Valeria Patera, the play Staminalia premiered at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon on 27 May during the final meeting of the ESTOOLS consortium. Funded by the European Union, the consortium has pioneered tools for human embryonic stem-cell research over the past four years (

The production is based on philosopher Armando Massarenti's Italian-language book Staminalia (Guanda, 2008; see Nature 456, 444–445; 2008), which describes the fierce political disputes that have erupted over stem-cell research in Italy. The play was also inspired by Elena Cattaneo, a leading stem-cell scientist at the University of Milan who is a prominent voice in the Italian public debate.

The play is in two parts: a trial and a dream. The trial unfolds as a dialogue between a stem-cell scientist and her religious fundamentalist daughter. The walls of the scientist's university have been tarnished with graffiti equating stem-cell labs with Auschwitz, and the harsh confrontation between mother and daughter exposes two incompatible views of the world and of our place within it.

The dream is the most convincing section of the play; drama thrives when clashes are whispered rather than shouted, when tension is evoked rather than declared. A tense piece of modern ballet conveys the unease unleashed in the sleeping mother by her daughter's accusations. Two dancers — playing supportive angels and doubt-mongering demons — sculpt the space, while images of stem cells and Catholic clerics flash onto the screen behind them.

The contrast between the near-naked dancers and the shrouded cardinals with faces distorted as if in a Francis Bacon painting powerfully conveys the clash between two views of the flesh — joyful and liberated versus sinful and oppressed. A further contrast is in scale, between the macroscopic bodies on stage and their molecular equivalents on the screen, the latter a dance of cells lit up with the markers that have become the epistemic and aesthetic canon of stem-cell science.

Dance, drama, ethics — and biotechnology. Credit: http://WWW.DAVIDEDORTONA. COM

These juxtapositions highlight how, in modern biology — from genome sequencing to synthetic biology — we understand life through the same tools that allow us to redesign it. Science has developed beyond mere observation, beyond the paltry task of discerning “the seed from the oak tree”, as the mother describes it in the trial. The dream reminds us that we understand bodies by breaking them apart into components and that this microscopic gaze brings with it the power of molecular intervention. The more we learn about cells, the more we are able to manipulate them — and the more options society has to use them.

Which options should we choose? In the age of simple observation, nature was considered a source of moral norms. With the advent of molecular intervention, nature has become a source of tools with which to transgress its own limits. Staminalia captures this tension well. The dancers' bodies are natural both in their near-nakedness and in the perfection of their movements, achieved through years of training. The play prompts us to ask whether our response to them would be different if artificial enhancement of our bodies could replace countless hours in the gym. In the age of synthetic genomes and cell-fate reassignment, will we be able to tell natural from unnatural? And does that matter?

We will need the best of our collective creativity to align the scientific and social innovations of the molecular age. Staminalia is thus a fitting celebration of ESTOOLS, a consortium that has put bioethical analysis and creative public engagement at the forefront of its activities.