A while back, my dear friend Patrick Kilpatrick prodded me to consider, here on my blog, the ways in which scientists and those of us who make theater might be similar to one another. I said yes immediately; as an extremely science-friendly playwright, I hoped that in thinking about the subject, I’d find at least a few similarities. You see… secretly I wish I WAS a scientist. (Don’t tell anyone. This is just between us!) I even tried to be a physicist, in fact, when I was younger, but I didn’t have what it took. So the thought that I might actually be a “theater scientist” of some sort had me immediately tantalized.
Having admitted my biases—but unsure about how I might correct for them—I shall now proceed to attempt to answer the question at hand: sadly (for me), I don’t think we’re anything like scientists at all.
Consider the term scientist. A fair (I believe) definition: anyone who uses the scientific method to acquire new knowledge about the nature of existence. I would venture to guess that there aren’t many theater practitioners who fit this description. Oh, there may be a few folks who use the scientific method to devise new means by which a scene might lit, for instance, but in the main? The day-to-day work of theater seems very different to me.
But I had to consider the question in a slightly less abstract way, too, before I gave up entirely.
How, in practice, do scientists do what they do?
- They hypothesize about something they believe might be true.
- They devise experimental means by which they can gather evidence in support of (or in contradiction to) their hypotheses.
- They conduct the experiments they’ve devised.
- They analyze the data gathered by those experiments.
- They write up and share the results of their work.
By contrast, how do I do what I do when I make plays?
- I imagine a new story that doesn’t exist… one that may or may not, incidentally, observe the known laws of the physical universe.
- I design a simulation of that story (i.e., write a play).
- I work with others to create a variable simulation of that story (i.e., produce the play). Note: I consider the production a “simulation” of the real thing because the real thing only exists in my head; I call it “variable” because no two performances are the same.
- I observe the effects of the variable, simulated story on audiences.
- I adjust the simulation as desired to create different effects (though I would argue that we are only barely beginning to know how to do this) and re-run it for several weeks.
Again, very little in common. The key difference is this: an experiment is designed to either disprove or support a hypothesis. Simulations—productions of plays—aren’t designed to disprove or support anything. There is no hypothesis at all.
The bottom line, for me, is that while scientists are trying to acquire new knowledge about the universe, I’m trying to share that knowledge. I consider it my job to create new memes (not internet memes, mind you, but the real thing) that will out-compete what I believe to be some of the most destructive memes in our culture. I am, in other words, much more like the stuff an evolutionary biologist might study than an actual evolutionary biologist.
Which makes me wonder… might an evolutionary biologist have something to teach me about my work? (Or the social science equivalent: whoever studies how memes propagate?) I would like to believe that might be possible. And that perhaps by studying with such a person, I might become a real scientist after all.