Shanan Custer on Emilie: 'I should have paid more attention in science class'

Matt Sciple and Shanan Custer.
Matt Sciple and Shanan Custer.
Photo courtesy Theatre Pro Rata
Actor Shanan Custer may be best known for her comic work -- including years with the Brave New Workshop, Minnesota Fringe Festival performances, and a hosting stint last year at the Ivey Awards -- but she takes on a different kind of role in Theatre Pro Rata's Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight. 
In the play, Custer plays Emilie du Châtelet, an 18th-century woman who shattered boundaries as a scientist in a hidebound society. Here, we find her in the afterlife, using the scientific method to examine her past, including her time as as Voltaire's lover. The play is presented in a non-traditional, but fitting, setting: a science classroom at St. Catherine University. 

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City Pages: How did you get involved in this production? Did Pro Rata come looking for you?

Shanan Custer: Carin Bratlie, the artistic director of Pro Rata, sent me the script and I read it and got really excited about it.  Later, I found out that she sent it to me by design figuring that I'd love it and want to work on it. She was right. I still can't believe I'm actually doing this wonderful, beautiful play.    

CP: What kind of challenges did the character bring, and how did you work on those?

SC: I think the biggest challenge has been to try and get a feel for the universe that playwright Lauren Gunderson created to tell the story of this woman. My strategy has been to really trust the rehearsal process and live with the script.

Emilie du Chatelet actually lived, worked, and created in an era when women were hardly expected to know how to read. Emilie's contributions to science are quite remarkable on any level, but Gunderson doesn't just focus on the science or just on the woman.

The play moves fast, and Gunderson tells the story in such an interesting and dynamic way that I need to know Emilie inside and out so that I can transition in and out of all of these intricate moments in the play. Did I mention I was doing all of this in a corset? There's a lot going on.  

CP: Performing in a college science classroom -- will that bring back any uncomfortable memories?

SC: This is a great question because the space we are performing in has an even deeper significance to me. I attended St. Kate's and took classes in Mendel Hall, which is where all of the science classrooms and laboratories are located. I remember taking biology exams in the classroom we're performing in. So yes, there's some terror there. 

CP: What is the audience going to get out of the experience?

SC: I think our audiences will see that math and physics are actually quite sexy and passionate. Force acting on force, and all of that. I've come to realize that I should have paid more attention in science class. 


Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight
7:30 pm. Fridays and Saturdays, June 7-22; 
Additional performance 7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 9
Lecture Hall 106, Mendel Hall
St. Catherine University
2004 Randolph Ave., St. Paul
For more information and tickets, call 612.234.7135 or visit online
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St. Catherine University

2004 Randolph Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55105


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