Science has been much on my mind of late, thanks to a visit I made not long ago (with a dozen or so other playwrights and theater makers) to the National Institutes of Health. Three hours considering the potential intersections between genomics, bioethics, medicine, and storytelling with some of the most accomplished scientists and artists in the country was invigorating and inspiring, but it also left me with questions.
Early in our conversation, a few people around the table started talking about art and science as if they were non-overlapping magisteria, to appropriate the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s well-known term: distinct worlds that operate according to different principles and that address different aspects of what it means to be human and to understand the universe. This struck me immediately as an inaccurate over-simplification, and I tried to articulate why.
A play, I suggested, is merely a hypothesis. The production of that play is an experiment, I continued, and we repeat that experiment multiple times. By the end of the run of that production, we have data, and that data either supports our initial hypothesis or refutes it.
Of course, as soon as I said all that, I immediately worried that few of my colleagues in the theater would be likely to subscribe to that notion, which perhaps constituted wishful thinking on my part. The truth is, we don’t generally think of plays as hypotheses; we attach far more certainty to them. And we don’t often treat productions like experiments; that might even be, I imagine, an uncomfortably scientific metaphor for some artists, many of whom would prefer to think of theater going as a ritual.
But what if we did embrace a different metaphor for what we do? What might it mean if we thought of ourselves, at least in part, as theater scientists?
Would we find a way to be a bit more detached about the outcome of every new play we produced? Scientists don’t expect every experiment to result in a major discovery. Many of them, in fact, don’t. But a negative result is still a result: something to inform future experiments. The very notion of success and failure almost doesn’t apply; the goal is to learn. After all, as anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote, a scientist isn’t supposed to be someone who “gives the right answers,” a scientist is supposed to be the person “who asks the right questions.”
What if we made it our primary goal to learn from every production? (Not our only goal, mind you, but the most important.) And by “we,” of course, I mean not only those of us who make theater, but those of us who watch it, too. What if we set out not to express a point of view or to have our own biases confirmed, but to discover? What if, in other words, the primary purpose of the theater was the same for both theater and science: to understand the universe more clearly? Not to entertain, not to divert people, not to make money or sell tickets, though we might in fact do all of those things along the way, but to inquire into the nature of existence.
Do you worry we might lose some sense of “magic” in our work by adopting a scientific approach? I suspect some of us would, but I don’t. I’d like to think that, in the era of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Cosmos, we’ve put an end to the idea that science (as a practice) is anything but absolutely wondrous. None other than Einstein said that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious, the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” We don’t erase mystery by thinking scientifically, we embrace it.
Finally, what if we thought of ourselves as theater technologists, rather than artists? I’m thinking about technology here as the application of scientific principles and methodologies to practical needs. By calling ourselves artists, we get to hold onto esoteric ideas about ourselves: the foibles and superstitions and quirks that make us, we like to think, exceptional. But maybe we aren’t actually all that exceptional. Are we? Really?
Maybe all we’re doing is just making and sharing stories, and maybe that’s something we could collectively get better at by embracing the rigor and evidence required by science. Because isn’t it possible that some of those oddities sometimes get in our way, rather than (or in addition to) inspiring us? I think it is possible. And I think it would behoove us to figure that out.