Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Experimental Method Acting

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Experimental Method Acting

Article excerpt

Matthew Reisz explores science plays: the writers, their intentions and what they achieve

Many different ways of putting science on stage - from a puppet opera about an 18th-century "freak" who ate cats to a workshop exploring "Circadian rhythms and light environments" - came under scrutiny at a recent academic conference that featured some of the leading exponents in a relatively small but growing field.

There are already two full-length books about the phenomenon of the "science play": Kirsten Shepherd-Barr's 2006 study, Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen, and, three years later, Eva-Sabine Zehelein's Science: Dramatic: Science Plays in America and Great Britain, 1990-2007.

The University of Lincoln conference, Performing Science: Dialogues Across Cultures, set out to explore such plays and other kinds of science-based performance, bringing together academics, artists, actors and directors, including many "practitioners" who work within universities.

Papers and discussions were accompanied by performances and readings of work-in-progress, all designed to illuminate what we mean by science plays; whether they form a significant genre; whether they need to "enact" the science or just describe it; how they should be assessed; and their value for both research scientists and the wider public. Two of the best-known figures in the field took part in keynote sessions.

Michael Frayn's 1998 play Copenhagen is widely regarded as a landmark example of a science play, although he saw it as "a play about how difficult it is to understand other people's - and indeed one's own - motivation" that used a particular scientific event to illuminate this theme.

Its production, Mr Frayn explained, had actually altered the historical record. The action focuses on the uncertainties surrounding the wartime meeting between the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and the German physicist Werner Heisenberg about atomic research. The success of the play had led many people to offer their own theories about what actually happened. Eventually, first the Bohr and then the Heisenberg families decided to release papers that called into question even the few facts on which everybody had hitherto agreed.

Similar themes were taken up at the conference by the nonagenarian Carl Djerassi, professor emeritus of chemistry at Stanford University - and the co-inventor of the birth control pill - who since retirement from being a scientist has recreated himself as a writer. Now a prolific dramatist, he has produced didactic plays explaining the basic facts - and often startling moral implications - of new reproductive technologies; plays examining historic turning points such as the discovery of oxygen; and plays trying to give audiences a realistic picture of scientific research.

Professor Djerassi has written that experience has taught him to "keep the science impeccable, but underplay it. Instead of telling what the characters do, emphasise how and why they did it." His play Insufficiency, for example, dramatises "a non-tenured chemistry professor's unsuccessful search for tenure" and the theme of "fashion in science" through the story of an expert in "the chemistry and physics of champagne and beer bubbles" whose colleagues consider his work trivial.

Spreading the word

As academics, argued Robert Marc Friedman, interdisciplinary professor of history of science at the University of Oslo, "our hard-won insights rarely reach more than the tiny international disciplinary community". …

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