Friday, January 29, 2010

Stolen Chair Theatre's Community Supported Theatre: Event #3

Here's the latest report from Jo Ann Rosen on Stolen Chair Theatre's ongoing Community Supported Theatre (CST) initiative:


There is little difference between scientists and artists of the theater, according to Professor Gabriel Cwilich, a condensed matter physicist who advises many theater productions. In this case, he was the enthusiastic and entertaining guest speaker at Stolen Chair Theatre’s third event for their Community Sponsored Theatre (CST), a program designed to share the creative process with their members in an effort to cement a long-term relationship with them.

According to Cwilich, both professions attract people who are passionate about their work, both require training, and both use analysis extensively to find success. Of course the vocabularies are different, but increasingly they are finding additional commonality by communicating their ideas on the stage. He said during the last decade or so, about 150 plays have been written on science, most notably among them Copenhagen (physics) by Michael Frayn, Arcadia (chaos theory) by Tom Stoppard, and A Number (cloning) by Caryl Churchill. The gentle shift in the theater from dysfunctional family to the personalization of science and its effect on family or on an intimate community of people is noticeable enough for Cwilich to proclaim that “a new discipline is born.” His talk, entitled “Science and Theatre: What Can They Teach Each Other?” demonstrated how science has inspired playwrights to stretch the boundaries of predictable play structure and how playwrights have opened new avenues of communications for scientists.

Cwilich is a professor in the Physics Department at Yeshiva University in New York City, and is currently the Director of the University’s Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Honors Program. He is also involved with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a philanthropic, not-for-profit institution that makes grants in support of original research and education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economic performance. He has a strong interest in the relationship between science and the arts, and has been the scientific advisor to numerous off-Broadway theater productions. He dotted his talk with familiar examples.

First, Copenhagen. In Copenhagen, he explained, Frayn focuses on a single conversation that took place in 1941 between the two eminent physicists, Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. There are many speculations about what was said during that conversation and Frayn builds on that uncertainty. The problem, then – the very thing that excites scientists – becomes the play’s thesis. The discussions and arguments between Heisenberg and Bohr are interesting, persuasive, and comprehensible, as they circle around and around, both physically and intellectually.

He described the structure of Stoppard’s Arcadia as a mirror of its topic. There are two story lines. One takes place in the present and in the past. Cwilich explained that present and past reflect the arcs in chaos theory. In the play, the present and the past move closer and closer until they merge or collide, making it unclear what we are seeing – a parallel to chaos theory in which swinging arcs multiply exponentially, getting closer and closer to one another until they ultimately smash.

Cwilich further emphasized that science in theater was not new. The first performance of Ben Jonson’s comedy, The Alchemist, was performed in 1610. Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo were written in 1882 and 1937, respectively. And, there are others. Science provides dramatic vehicles for playwrights and the stage allows scientists to reach new audiences.

For Kiran Rikhye, Stolen Chairs’ Resident Playwright, this CST project, Quantum Poetics: A Science Experiment for the Stage offers the opportunity to create a play by exploring and researching material that is both new and foreign to her. As in last month’s event, Rikhye and Stolen Chair’s resident actors presented characters and snippets of dialog that hint at what she’s learned and the challenges she faces. One character who was presented, an 18th century Jesuit priest, says: “Always put your ideas into language the layman can understand. Always put your ideas into language the layman wants to understand. Put things into language the layman thinks he can understand. Put your ideas into language.” It is fascinating to follow the research and see results in rhythmic poetic lines such as these.

The evening was one of partnerships. A receptive audience entertained by an informed and generous speaker, and talented actors bringing smart lines to life. Carrying out the theme of partnerships in the cocktail hour was co-founder and resident director, Jon Stancato, who added a gastronomic touch with mac and cheese and strawberries and cream. All inspired by the duo of science and theater.

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