Casey Preston, a local actor who excels at playing men who are not very intelligent, is in fact very intelligent (that’s the “acting” part, you see!) and wrote an absolutely brilliant response to the beginning of my science-theater manifesto. He’s a little bit skeptical of the endeavor. Here’s what he had to say–much to chew on and I wanted to make sure no one missed it:
I have a number of thoughts floating around in my head about science theater due to being an actor, having a graduate degree in the sciences, having done dramaturgy and acted in science based shows, and having watched more than a few. Mostly, I think theater about science is a trap.
Here are just a few brief thoughts:
1) Almost invariably, actors speaking about scientific concepts sound like they do not understand what they are saying. It is like speaking in a foreign language and having a vague idea of the concept, but not a firm grasp or conceptualization of the actual words.
2) When a show is about competing ideas, the director and actors often try to enhance the drama of the debate. After all, theater is about conflict, right? But, if you are having a passionate argument about science, you are doing science wrong. The scientific method is about testing ideas, not arguing about them. Turning science into a competitive debate is fundamentally misunderstanding and doing a disservice to science. This is how we end up with the fiascos of climate change and vaccinations.
3) The vast majority of audiences don’t want to go to a show whose fundamental purpose is about teaching them about science. Most people don’t enjoy science. Sure, they like entertaining shows that touch on scientific themes, but actual scientific research is boring.
4) Science and research is a very introverted activity. Therefore, shows about these topics have to find artificial ways to make it interesting. Of course, this is the nature of theater, but it also fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the scientific process. Also, most scientists are quite introverted and this can make public presentations by scientists boring.
5) Almost all scientific based shows seem to have this eureka moments of discovery. “Oh my goodness, I just cured polio!” Great theater, but it misrepresents how almost all actual science works.
All that being said, the scientific shows that seem to get produced the most and are the most successful are generally biographical in nature. The scientific themes are not driving the plot and it is still a character based show. Often these shows fall into the trap of having big arguments and conflict around scientific concepts and eureka moments of discovery, but it is still entertaining.
Most people with a decent science education have long ago learned to disregard all science in movies and television so that they can still enjoy the story. The science in entertainment is always junk. I realize that this is the basic point of your blog post- that it doesn’t have to be junk. But, as any decent writer will tell you, the reality of the situation is driven by the emotional life of the characters, not the external physics or processes of the environment. This is why I, personally, preferred the absolute scientific unreality of Snowpiercer, to the almost reality of Apes. I kept questioning the science in Apes, like why people all congregated in the fort and how their power worked, whereas in Snowpiercer I could just accept that the physics served the story and the characters.
Finally, I think the real market for science based theater is educational theater for elementary and middle school. Parents and some schools are willing to pay for theater if they think their kids will learn something. Much more so than they are willing to pay to go see science based theater themselves. Also, the basic science at these levels is much more exciting and the joy of discovery more immediate.
Good luck with your endeavor. I think it is a worthwhile cause, but I also think it can be very hard to do science theater well.
I don’t think Casey has put the bullet through the head of science theater, but he’s certainly identified a lot of the problems with it. His first point, about actors not knowing what they’re saying … yes. I’ve seen that. But I’ve also seen Bryan Cranston as Walter White. It’s not inevitable. One thing I’d like to see happen in Boston would be for actors to know where to go to research science-heavy roles, and for local scientists to open themselves up to be “shadowed” by actors looking to learn.
His points about the tension between science and story are harder to reconcile. One of the reasons I chose to study narrative in grad school was because of my increasing realization that the human mind puts events in story form–it just does–but reality is under no obligation to conform to narrative constraints. We see stories even when they aren’t there. Show people a bunch of shapes moving randomly around a screen and ask them to narrate, and you’ll get a story–”The big circle is chasing the little triangle so it’s hiding with the squares …” And we have culturally conditioned expectations of what a “good” story is. And that high-conflict, big-moment, dramatized “good” story, as Casey rightly points out, is often very untrue to the science of the thing.
Does it have to be? That’s the question. Must story always traduce science? This is what Central Square Theater’s “Emilie” is about.
And if you can tell a story about whether “storifying” is a problem in science, then obviously stories aren’t all bad. But are we making a mistake to get the concept of “science theater” all hung up on stories anyway? Maybe stories aren’t the way to do science theater. Casey is right that tales of great discoveries that are realized to be such in the moment, and scientists with bigger-than-life personalities, and vivid yet comprehensible-to-the-layperson arguments are thin on the ground in real science.
But both science and theater operate under the rubric of demonstration. Scientists have to show their results. They set the stage for a thing to happen, and watch to see if that thing does happen, and try their best to make it happen in a way that will convince everyone else that they, too, saw the same thing, and it means what the scientists said it meant. If that’s not show business, I don’t know what is. There has to be something in that.