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April 13, 2012 / osullivankate

Theatricality of Science

Black and White image of the front of a theatre.

Is the Theatre a place for Science?

Theatre and Science seem like odd bedfellows. As a student of science and an actor, I am regularly made aware of this. Theatre however can make science accessible to an audience who (in normal circumstances) would have no interest.

Many plays have been written about science, scientific discoveries and scientists – not all of them successfully. But what is it that makes a science based play a success?

Some of the more successful science-based scripts – Arcadia and The Disappearing Number – use the intricacies of the plot and the lives of the characters to explain and replicate the science that is being discussed. Arcadia looks at thermodynamics, a concept explained somewhat by one of the characters but able to been understood by looking at the play as a whole. The Disappearing Number uses the intersections between people’s lives represents finding patterns within mathematical series.

Attempts are consistently made to explain the science in many science plays. Here’s a tip – it doesn’t work. This is not an audience who care about all the intricacies of the science. They care about the plot, the characters, the overall experience.

To quote Alexis Soloski in the Guardian article – “Rather than making the scientific stuff intelligible to the average layperson, perhaps writers should let it remain difficult, let the audience struggle a bit, allow certain principles to remain complicated and elegantly remote.”

In order to write a truly successful play about science, care must be taken not to lose our way in the intricacies of the science or within the required aspects of theatre. The two aspects must be used together – character traits and plot points used to spark the audience’s interest, set and lights used to further both aspects and so on. If the science overpowers the theatricality (or vis versa) the audience become disengaged with the content.

What do you think – are you inclined to go and see theatre based in science? And if you have, what did you find were the merits or struggles with the production?


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Leave a Comment
  1. tobiasgrey / Apr 20 2012 7:16 am

    I recently went to see Arcadia, after having studied it in high school, just to see what it was like on the stage. I have to say I enjoyed it immensely.
    Not only does it mention fantastic and often beautiful concepts (thermodynamics in physics or chaos theory from mathematics) it integrates them into the plot. Causality and entropy become characters on the stage as the action flits from the past to the present day, and cause and effect doesn’t always occur in the same direction. It gave the production this sense of playfulness and poignancy that it would not be able to attain otherwise – and it also forces the audience to put their thinking caps on to consider the themes of the play and it’s message. It’s a script that wants to make people think.
    The play also commented on the VALUES of science in society, and in particular the decay of enlightenment values to give rise to the romanticism movements of the 18th and 19th centuries.
    The concepts in the play weren’t those that were overtly complex, and were only covered briefly – so as to give you a basic awareness of what they are and how they related to the dramatic action. And that’s they way you’d need to go about it – to make the concepts borrowed from science immediately relevant to the dramatic action. And in my opinion, for Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’, as performed by the Black Swan company, it worked.

  2. tahliajade / Apr 20 2012 7:44 am

    I agree with you 100% that theatre can make science more accessible to those who would usually not be interested.

    Personally, I haven’t really been to see much theatre ever before. I never went with my parents as a kid and I don’t really have an interest to go and see it now as an adult either.

    I am, however, as a science student, very interested in science (at least those pertaining to my areas of study and future study). So what I am suggesting is, that perhaps it works the other way as well. If a play or another form of artistic representation was centred on science or a science related topic, I would probably be more inclined to go to see it.

    So while it brings a science and educational aspect to the theatrical members of society, it could also bring a more social and artistic aspect to others who might be lacking in artistic skills or talent (like myself haha) and possibly are incapable of visualising a scientific theory or topic in any other way.

  3. maria93 / Apr 20 2012 8:24 am

    I agree that science plays can make the science more accessible to the general public.
    However I have been to the theatre often and find that a positive overall experience depends more on the characters and their performance, the impact of the songs and dances as well as the script rather than a learning experience.

    I don’t see how incorporating science into this experience would work as I have found that in plays where the story gets a little bit too long the audience loses interest and gets tired.
    Although I have never seen a science play, I wouldn’t feel more inclined to go see a play just because it is about science.

    Great post!

  4. elenav90 / Apr 20 2012 8:47 am

    I’m also a fan of theatre and acting, honestly I think science does not belong in your average stage production. The purpose of theatre is to entertain, to distract people from their reality, or engage them into a different one, rather through emotion than intellect. I guess a story which treats some science can be acceptable, provided that this science remains in the background and the focus is on character and/or plot development.

    However, I’m sure that many intelligent and stimulating plays exist which deal with some partly scientific topics. But I see the treatment of actual science more appropriate in specific shows like those of Scitech – seen by a selected audience who chooses to view them out of interest on the subject itself rather than people who are looking to be entertained.

    Although considering science theatre makes me more curious about it, I haven’t come across anything like that in Perth but maybe I’ll keep an eye out in the future.

    • osullivankate / Apr 20 2012 10:44 am

      I agree with you that for your everyday production which is about people etc. a science bent may not be appropriate – but what about plays like Arcadia (recently on at the State Theatre Centre), or Copenhagen etc? What about plays about scientists like Darwin? Where does it become appropriate or inappropriate? And do you feel that it is appropriate to ‘educate’ an audience who don’t realise they are being educated?

      • elenav90 / Apr 22 2012 11:48 pm

        I like your point about educating people without spelling it out to them 🙂 Perhaps this should actually be happening more!
        I guess many non-scientific plays ‘educate’ to some degree, through the moral of the story. After all, that’s why many famous kids stories were created, isn’t it 🙂

  5. gracerussell1 / Apr 20 2012 9:29 am

    I would have to agree with elenav90 that science does not belong in an average theatre production. The two don’t go hand in hand. Simple. However I do think that scientific knowledge should not be emitted on purpose. If people want to understand the difficult or unusual territory that sometimes science can be, a short mention or notion in a theatre play could provoke further investigation at the audiences own time. Therefore not directly addressing science but indirectly making an audience intrigued and interested and thus spreading the knowledge of science.
    Well written blog post – I enjoyed reading it.

    • osullivankate / Apr 20 2012 10:46 am

      I agree with you about the provoking of further inquiry. Although I didn’t note it above, I went and saw Arcadia at the State Theatre Centre about a month ago – and then went and read up on the science it contained that I didn’t have an understanding of.

    • lodoubt / Apr 20 2012 2:06 pm

      Not that this is necessarily my view on the matter, and in fact I feel I agree with you and Kate, but have you considered that this may be something we have a bias in? “Let the plebs look up the finer details in their own time” seems like a dangerous direction that we COULD unconsciously be taking this.

  6. alistairsisson / Apr 26 2012 12:00 pm

    Thanks for writing a brief post!

    A friend of mine recently wrote and directed a play that was kind of based on science, insofar as it was mocking scientists. It was actually very funny, and I was impressed. (It was about two scientists in love who try to prove their love to the world by colliding with eachother at high speed à la Large Hadron Collider, for those of you playing at home.) Anyway, I think all of these comments about science and theatre not mixing are wrong; sure, we should’t try to explain the goddamn theory of relativity with amateur actors, but so long as there is a worthwhile story to tell, who cares whether it is based on, inspired by, alludes to, (etc.) science? And if that play happens to get people interested in the science? Great! But if it doesn’t? Who cares, you haven’t lost anything.

    One more thing I want to say is that I get sick of people ’round these parts taking science too seriously, as something that can only be treated with the utmost formality and respect. That’s boring! Science can be playful, whimsical and witty; there’s no reason why it can’t be in a play, in a (fictional) book, in a videogame, whatever.

    So yeah, good job.

    • osullivankate / Apr 26 2012 1:06 pm

      “Science can be playful, whimsical and witty; there’s no reason why it can’t be in a play, in a (fictional) book, in a videogame, whatever.” – I thoroughly agree. There is no line in the ground about what mediums can and cannot be used.

  7. stinaboroe / Apr 27 2012 5:02 am

    Love this! It goes hand in hand with what I am doing my Masters in which is combining science and art. I think theatre, like the arts (or even being part of the arts in fact), is another great tool of communicating science, and if it is done successfully, it can aid to increase awareness and understanding about science to a broader public. If bold and edgy, which the arts are often notorious for, it can also be used as a powerful tool to question and criticise science and how it is done, and why, and if it is right or wrong.

    Well written and well done on merging the story with your own story for a personal touch.

  8. djasudasen / Apr 27 2012 7:17 am

    My two cents worth is that Science and Theatre can work.

    I agree with one of the comments above that often the success of a play is dependent on how well the actors pull it off – so with the right script and actors, there’s no reason why the same can’t work for a play about science.

    I love going to the theatre and if there was a play about science I think I would be even more inclined to see it since it ticks two boxes I am interested in. I haven’t had the opportunity to see any of the plays that were mentioned above but next time something is showing in Perth let me know and I’ll go with you!

    In the last few years popular science books have made it to the top of many bestseller lists. It’s not scientists alone that are buying them. It’s the general public. They ARE insterested in science. Sure, there might be many people who couldn’t care less about the content and so choose not to read them. Likewise, these people should “choose” not to watch our play about science.

    I think the theatre is yet another avenue to effectively communicate science to the general public in an interesting way. That’s the whole point about science communications isn’t it?

  9. kflint93 / Apr 27 2012 9:07 am

    I loved the concept of this piece- before having read it (and the comments that followed), I would have been openly skeptical of mixing science with the theatre. Indeed, I can’t think of any show that I’ve seen that specifically incorporates science into the show.

    For me, science is an exact and precise art. The facts are the facts, there aren’t really multiple ways of interpreting the results. Theatre, on the other hand, is completely up to interpretation. Directors, actors and production teams interpret the script and the audience interprets the performance. More often than not, these interpretations are not the same.

    An interesting idea would be to represent the qualities of science in a play. Qualities like how some small change in external factors can so intensely alter the results of an experiment.

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