Proposition 1: “Science theater” is a thing.
Proposition 2: Boston is the best possible place for science theater to come to know itself as a thing and develop into its fullest potential. In 10 years Boston will be known for science theater like LA is known for the film industry and Chicago is known for improv.
Proposition 3: I am the person to write about science theater in Boston.
That’s what I’ve been thinking about this summer. How about you?
I gave this blog a soft reboot in early June, with the idea of writing more about the intersection of pop culture, the performing arts, and the social sciences–my usual gig, in other words. And then this happened.
Part ape, part human, part robot, without ever falling into the uncanny valley.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” didn’t make the splash it should have this summer. “Guardians of the Galaxy” turned out to be the megablockbuster action-movie-with-heart, while “Snowpiercer” hoovered up any excess intellectual credibility left lying around, and lo there was no love remaining for DPA.
Except in my heart, especially after I read this interview with Andy Serkis, the actor who played Caesar. Serkis was all over the place, in the best possible way, as he explained the technology and philosophy of motion-capture performance, the nature of ape-ness, and the political and moral dilemmas faced by Caesar and the apes he leads.
The interview crystallized something for me, something that I’m still only able to express in the phrase “Science theater is a thing.”
Andy Serkis is the best known, but far from the only actor working in motion-capture–many actors make a living doing mo-cap performances for video games. But the technology is only part of it. To play Caesar, Serkis needed to understand primate behavior and language as well as basic social psychology. It was a performance rooted in the sciences and brought to life by technology.
This, increasingly, is the change I am seeing in pop culture: Science fiction is no longer a metaphor. Think back to “Star Trek,” or even the rebooted “Battlestar Galactica”–this is what science fiction used to be. The science lives in the background, facilitating stories about prejudice or the proper role of the military or how religion can both unite and divide people. It’s not science fiction, it’s history-that-hasn’t-happened-yet.
Something has changed.
Think about the role of science in “Battlestar Galactica” or “Star Trek.” Then think about the role of science in “Breaking Bad.”
Do you see what I’m getting at? Teleporters and Cylons and holodecks aren’t science, they’re plot devices. Methamphetamine, though–that actually exists. And Walter White is a chemist to his very essence, someone who sees all of life in terms of interaction and change. The only thing that kept the show from unrelieved darkness was the blossoming of Jesse Pinkman into a competent, even gifted, chemist and engineer. (Hank’s transformation from a blowhard action figure to a thoughtful collector of minerals and clues mirrored Jesse’s evolution. In the world of “Breaking Bad,” the scientific mindset can be a man’s downfall or his salvation.)
“I am the science.”
This is the rallying cry of biologist Cosima Neihaus on “Orphan Black.” She is both the subject of another person’s experiment as well as a scientist in her own right, trying to unravel the mystery of her creation and fix the design problems that may doom her. “Orphan Black,” about a series of female clones, could be a cheeky metaphor for modern women’s multifaceted lifestyles. It’s not (although it does feature the most basic of the clones hilariously singing along to that anthem of complex womanhood, “Bitch”). The science isn’t a metaphor for anything. It is the story. What are the limits of nature and nurture and how do they interact? What does “informed consent” mean and what should be done when such consent is impossible to obtain? What rights should a person have over their intellectual property? What rights should they have over their own body?
We are the science.
Science is changing the kinds of stories we tell, and how we tell them. All summer, I’ve been thinking big curly thoughts about this, and about all the ways theater and science are similar and different. Tonight, I’m going to see “The Congress,” which addresses all these themes. But this is only the beginning of a manifesto. Let’s turn to the local scene. If science and storytelling are intersecting in bold new ways, what is Boston doing about it?
I have to start with Central Square Theater, because they actually have a mission to do science-themed plays, in partnership with MIT. Three of their plays this season have scientific themes: “Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends her Life Tonight,” “A Disappearing Number,” and “mr g.”
But CST aren’t the only ones. Bridge Rep opens “The Forgetting Curve” on Thursday, a play about H.M., a man who had brain surgery to cure his epilepsy only to be left unable to form new memories. The Huntington is producing “The Ether Dome“:
A new treatment promising to end pain pits a doctor and his student in an epic battle between altruism and ambition. Based on the true story of the discovery of ether as an anesthetic in 1846 and set in Boston’s own Massachusetts General Hospital, this fascinating new play explores the ecstasy of pain, the sweetness of relief, and the hysteria that erupts when healthcare becomes big business.
And New Rep tackles information-age technology in “Muckrackers“:
A young activist hosts a famous political journalist/hacker in her apartment. What follows is an evening full of rich debate over who has the right to information, how much the public needs to know, and the consequences of power. Dynamics shift when secrets are revealed and each discovers that there is always a price to pay for privacy. In the wake of controversy surrounding WikiLeaks and NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, The Boston Globe calls MUCKRAKERS “an absorbing play that’s ripped from the headlines.”
For all of these plays, there will be pre- and post-show talkbacks, symposia, and discussions led by or featuring local scientists and doctors. I was on the board at Central Square Theater when we did a play about H.M., “Yesterday Happened,” and we had auxiliary programming before or after every single show. I led a few of them, and met a woman who was going to be teaching a high-school course in psychology for the first time–she only saw the show once, but attended multiple pre- and post-show events as a way to educate herself about the science of memory. There’s no other city where a person could do that.
And we’ve got plenty of paratheatrical science shows, too. The Ig Nobel Prizes are coming up soon, featuring 10 awards to real-life scientific (or medical, entrepreneurial, engineering, and so on …) accomplishments, a science opera, the Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest, and more. I’m one of the judges on this year’s Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses (BAHfest), a “celebration of well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory,” which will take place at MIT on October 19. Local actors Daniel Berger-Jones and Georgia Lyman, founders of Cambridge Historical Tours, offer a science-themed Innovation Tour. There is the Cambridge Science Festival, of course. Even the beloved “Dance Your Dissertation” contest is, in part, judged by Boston scientists (and dancers).
What do you think? Has my beginning of a manifesto begun to convince you that science theater is a thing? And that Boston can be ground zero for that thing?
I want to spend the coming theatrical season/academic year writing about the intersection of theater, science, technology and medicine, in both practical and philosophical ways. How many local actors and artists have “day jobs” in science or technology? How can advances in brain science and evolutionary psychology inform the craft of acting? How can Boston’s technology and research institutions learn from, and with, the city’s arts and entertainment institutions?
Actors, writers, scientists, administrators–please join me in this conversation. If you’re doing a science-themed show that I didn’t mention above, please link it in comments. If you’re an actor with a day job in science, medicine, or technology, let me know–I’d like to get some kind of online community started for those of us who live in both worlds. If you’ve got big curly thoughts of your own about science and storytelling, or a recommendation for a TV show or movie that I just have to see–yeah, that too.
It’s our manifesto. And it’s just the beginning.