Science in the Theater

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.

12 thoughts on “Science in the Theater”

  1. When I first read the title, I had assumed that you would be writing about science plays (which already intrigued me, given a recent piece of mine) but was perhaps even more interested when you were proposing science as an allegory for how we make theater.

    The sort of “science” you are talking about, of course, is a medieval and renaissance notion of science– which was any pursuit in which some rational principles were applied. This understanding could be applied to anything from theology, to the study of the natural world, to practical matters as the crafting of laws or the crafting of tools.

    As you point out, a play is repeatable– except in rare instances, there is a script that can be performed, there will be rehearsals for any given production, and multiple performances in any given run.

    One might consider of a play to be analogous to a theory or hypothesis and the director as the primary investigator.

    Particularly interesting, is that this paradigm of viewing theater as analogous with science can easily be extrapolated to the role of the critic who asks: Is the experiment (that is, this particular production) well-designed? Is the underlying hypothesis (the play) supported by the production? Does the conclusion (perhaps this production’s interpretation, perhaps the story itself) fit the data (the actual dialogue and stage business.)

    1. I almost titled the piece “Putting a Little Laboratory in the Oratory,” but I thought that was both too cute and, well, wrong.

      I love that you weighed in on this. And especially given the fact that you write both FOR the stage and ABOUT what’s on stage, I appreciate your comment.

      I really do wonder what criticism might be like within the confines of this allegory. Scientists can be particularly BRUTAL critics of one another’s work — to a problematic extent at times — and there’s no peer-to-peer equivalent in our industry. (Present company excepted.)

      I think our critical language would have to expand in some ways to be able to ask whether the experiment supports the hypothesis and whether the hypothesis is sound. But I really think we’d be clueless, all of us, when discussing the data. We have no vocabulary for that conversation.

      1. Scholars (both in the sciences and outside) can be very brutal in their criticisms of course. We can hope that these– but I’d like to hope that one would come out of training in the liberal arts and sciences with the understanding that having a theoretical or interpretive disagreement, or finding flaws in an experimental design, is not tantamount to a personal attack– but such disagreements are discouraged in the arts so all sorts of weird motives are often attributed to critics. (I have heard of a dramaturgy professor who describes certain critics as “hating playwrights” while lecturing to undergrads.)

        I don’t know if we actually need to have a technical vocabulary for criticism beyond what already exists, but certainly given what appears to be a recent uptick in hostility to the very practice of criticism in the theatrical blogosphere– to a point where some artists who have likely never practiced criticism are attempting to redefine it to a point where it is defanged (I am referring to the “New Crit” being championed at HowlRound) — I find your analogy to be a particularly helpful way of pointing out that criticism plays a necessary role: identifying what does and does not work. We can’t just assume that every play is brilliant because we like the theme or the director, anymore than we can assume every experiment results in a brilliant discovery, just because we like the hypothesis or the equipment.

  2. Great post, G. In a way, theatre practitioners do seem to function much like behavioral psychologists; so extrapolating that to the hard sciences that genuinely ask what we are (e.g., particularly quantum physics and the various flavors of biology) doesn’t seem that far a leap. In really great art, there seems to be this profound experience of knowing, of realization, that seems somewhat analogous to the wonder inherent in discovering another clue as to why the universe acts as it does or the rush from an equation that behaves beautifully. As with artists, I think scientists ultimately want to succeed with their work, but they also gain from their mistakes: another possibility scratched from the list brings one closer to the solution, and it’s there that theatre people can learn from chemists and microbiologists. Sometimes you have to blow it before you figure out to do it right. Fearing to fail is a greater betrayal of the process than actually making a mistake. And I think gifted scientists know that, as in the arts, a certain poetry underlies our reality.

  3. I really love this analogy. As a theater-maker married to a physicist, we have a lot of conversations at our house about how science and the arts are, really, so very similar. I do think we in the theater world could learn a lot from the process of peer review used by scientists, not because it is perfect, but because it has served the scientific community very well thus far and our system for critique (it’s bigger than critique, but I don’t know what else to call it) has, in my opinion, not really pushed the field forward in the same way, or with the same positive overall effect.

    I also think there is a respect in science (and tech, actually) for experimentation- and the realization that to have breakthroughs, we must fund many projects, and pay people to spend many hours, on pursuits that will NOT necessarily have the ideal outcome. There is a willingness to put energy/money towards trying new things that might just not work, and that is something we in the arts world need to tap into on a grand scale. There is not enough funding for devised work, or company-based models where artists can work together extensively over a long period, or to put theater in new and difficult places, or take the time and resources necessary to invite new, unsure audiences into the room.

    There are so many different parts of this conversation that are really rich in possibilities! I love it. We have so much to learn from each other, scientists and artists, and we often build unnecessary walls between each other.

    1. I agree that criticism in the form of peer review (or the ultimate criticism– the falsification of a given theory or hypothesis) has helped push science forward. I think the problem in the arts, though, is not a failure of criticism, but a certain antagonistic attitude that some artists have towards critics and criticism that is sometimes even encouraged in school.

      1. I absolutely agree, Ian! The problem is at *least* as much our attitudes toward criticism as it is the quality/structure/delivery/etc of the criticism itself. It is just as tough for scientists to hear criticism of their work, I believe, but they seem to have a better understanding of how “personal” criticism (i.e. about their work) is part of a bigger picture. Sometimes artists have an (IMO, unhelpful) attitude that their work is somehow much more personal than other types of work, and therefore should be shielded from the same types of criticism we would use in other fields.

    2. I love your response, Isabelle, particularly the thought that we need to adopt a mindset of widespread investment in many small experiments most of which are expected to fail so that we benefit from those that don’t.

  4. I also love the science analogy and in particular the necessity of multiple failures to arrive at success. My question would be how do we get audiences invested in that kind of experimentation in which their entertainment isn’t assured? Or do we avoid audiences altogether because the impulse to entertain is too hard to resist? I think part of why we were invited to NIH in the first place was that the scientists and researchers there are seeking ways to reach a broader audience to educate them about their work. In effect, we’re seeking the greater freedom to experiment away from the pressures of a general audience — a place where peer review would carry much greater weight than butts-in-seats. Some theaters are invested in these kinds of endeavors already, but not enough.

    1. Audiences make everything tricky. I wish we could do without them. Wait… đŸ™‚

      In all seriousness, I feel like this is clearly a point at which the metaphor almost breaks down. Especially if we consider audience members as subjects on which we are experimenting. BUT…

      If we think of them instead as part of the experiment itself, everything shifts for me. I have to tease that thought out a bit more in my mind… but that’s where I’ve landed. For now.

  5. Nice article!

    As someone who’s received (and given) criticism as a scientist and as a writer, I see some stark contrasts in the different mindsets. I will feel very differently about your criticism of the play based on my most recent mid-life crisis than I will your criticism of my quantum hall effect measurements. Science strives for Truth. Gravity affects everyone the same, regardless of race, color, or gender. Part of the appeal and importance of art is that truth not an absolute for all people at all times.

    Science is an extremely homogeneous community – we are all trained and thus socialized within a very narrow range. Giving and getting feedback is done in a fairly prescribed, somewhat formal manner that goes right for the weak link and doesn’t value social niceties. It takes time when you enter the community to learn not to take this type of criticism personally – or at least to not let it paralyze you. You come to realize that people provide criticism because they want what you do to be right, and it’s a compliment that they took the time to think about your work and help you make it better. It’s a long process.

    You’ve hit one of the hardest thing for non-scientists to appreciate, which is that science experiments fail far more often than they succeed. But we learn more failing than we do from succeeding. But even scientists don’t do very well proposing experiments with a low chance of success, so you have to be very careful how you couch this.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this!

    1. Thanks!

      I was hoping that you (and a few others I know who are, like you, doubly-trained) might weigh in. I’m not sure I agree with your distinction between Truth (the scientific kind) and truth (the artistic kind). Actually, I’m sure I don’t agree with it. But I’m also sure I can’t (yet) elaborate on my thoughts in that area. I will try… another time.

      I’m interested in what you say about science being a homogeneous community. Is that any more or less true than art? I wonder whether an objective assessment of racial diversity and gender parity in both fields would find them radically different from one another. I honestly don’t know. Nonetheless, I think artists could learn from the okay-with-criticism mindset you’ve suggested is common among scientists. I know I could myself.

      I also think your push-back on scientists proposing experiments with a low chance of success is an important clarification.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts…

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