Stephanie Clayman (from left), Matthew Zahnzinger, Elaine Mangelinkx, and Cassie Chapados pose for a photo on the Beyond Words stage.

Stephanie Clayman (from left), Matthew Zahnzinger, Elaine Mangelinkx, and Cassie Chapados onstage at the Central Square Theater where “Beyond Words” is being performed.

Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Parrot tale

‘Beyond Words’ dramatizes story of former Harvard researcher and famous bird

4 min read

In the original stage production “Beyond Words,” animal cognition scientist Irene Pepperberg comforts her research parrot, Alex, during a thunderstorm. She swoops the bird ­— played in costume by a human ­— into a gentle waltz as music plays, speaking softly about her lonely childhood.

The moment makes clear this is no ordinary researcher-subject tale.

“Beyond Words,” by playwright Laura Maria Censabella, premiered Thursday at Central Square Theater in Cambridge. A retelling of the life and work of Pepperberg and her famous African grey, the story has close Harvard connections not only through its real-life protagonists, but also through the cast and crew.

Stephanie Clayman, who works as a research group coordinator in Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, stars as Pepperberg. The play’s director, Cassie Chapados, is technical supervisor of productions in the Theater, Dance & Media program. Department of Physics lab administrator Elaine Mangelinkx helps stage manage the show, and engineering and applied sciences faculty assistant Matthew Zahnzinger performs in the chorus.   

Pepperberg, now an adjunct research professor at Boston University, was a longtime lecturer and research associate in Harvard’s Department of Psychology (2005-2021), conducting animal cognition and communication research with African grey parrots and publishing several studies about their abilities to grasp concepts such as numbers and colors.

Irene Pepperberg working with Griffin in 2013.

She earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1976 — not in animal biology, but rather, chemical physics. The play delves into Pepperberg’s career-change-turned-leap-of-faith when she pivoted to studying animals after becoming fascinated by primate learning experiments. In 1977, she purchased a year-old African grey parrot named Alex, short for Avian Learning EXperiment, with whom she would conduct three decades of research before his unexpected death in 2007.

Actor Jon Vellante plays Alex, taking the arc of the bird’s life from humble pet store dweller to internationally known wielder of more than 100 words and the cognitive abilities of a typical human toddler. “Beyond Words” conveys the barriers Pepperberg faced as a woman scientist in the 1970s and ’80s, struggling for scientific recognition while navigating academic politics, chauvinism, and the end of her marriage.

“What I love about the play is that yes, of course, it tells that story, but it also explores what a relationship is. [Irene and Alex] had a really profound relationship,” Clayman said.

“Beyond Words” is based on Pepperberg’s memoir, “Alex and Me,” with dramatic liberties taken, according to Censabella. “Characters have been slightly altered, made composites or wholly invented, and scenes and timelines have been adjusted or streamlined for dramatic purposes,” her playwright’s note reads. “However, I have tried to adhere to the emotional truth of Irene’s life as well as scientific accuracy,”

In a blog post, Pepperberg reflected on the decision to allow her life, and Alex’s, to be dramatized for the stage. “Although I had always been exceeding[ly] careful never to think of him nor ever treat him as a ‘feathered human,’ I realized that by having a human assume his persona, one might thereby have a glimmer of how Alex might have responded had he had the ability to fully express himself in the ways that humans do,” Pepperberg wrote.

Chapados, who supervises student productions at Harvard’s Farkas Hall, including the upcoming “The Barbarians,” is freelance-directing “Beyond Words.” The production is part of the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT program, which explores the intersection between art and science.

To Chapados, “Beyond Words” is a love story, “but not in the traditional way at all.”

“It’s about all the different kinds of love that can exist in your life,” she said.

“Beyond Words” runs through April 14.