Features Q&A and Interviews Published 11 September 2012

Game of Life

Russell Bender studied physics at Cambridge and Rose Lewenstein studied performance art at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Taking John Conway’s 1970s mathematical model, The Game of Life, as its starting point, the play uses interlinking stories to investigate how the concept of emergence shapes our lives. The show is currently playing at the Yard Theatre, Hackney Wick.
Carmel Doohan

From ant colonies to brain neurons. Photo: Mila Sanders

Carmel Doohan: How did you come up with the idea of writing a play about a mathematical concept?

Russell Bender: I come from a science background – physics and software – but they were not things I’d engaged with before in my theatre work. I think for a long time I was quite scarred of engaging with them and I kept them very separate.

CD: What made you bring the two disciplines together?

RB: Late last year I realised there was a lot of mileage in combining these things. I was inspired by a video where Will Wright (designer of computer games such as SimCity) and musician Brian Eno discuss the systems they use in their creative work.

(Through a variety of characters, the play investigates a ‘bottom up’ approach: from city planning to SimCity, from ant colonies to the neurons in our brains, it looks at ways in which simple, individual acts create patterns, becoming more than the sum of their parts.)
: Can you explain this idea of a ‘bottom-up’ approach?

RB: Normally an artist sits there and says “I want it to be like this and like that”. They sit on top and control and decide. A bottom up approach is more like an ant colony. Individually ants are very stupid – they just wander around and smell what the other ants are doing. They are not obeying instructions from the queen, they are just getting on with what they know how to do and making decisions based on the little part of the world that they can see; if they can smell some food; if they can smell another ant moving towards food. Ants have very simple interactions based on what neighbouring ants are doing. This creates a collective intelligence. It stacks up over thousands of ants and can be very beautiful. It percolates from the bottom up, instead of from the top down.

In Conway’s Game of Life and other mathematical models, complex patterns emerge through a series of simulations and rules. This is how SimCity works – it’s not a game with a story, there are a series of rules and the game play emerges from that. The same with Brian Eno’s music; he starts by creating seeds and little bits of rules- it’s all done on a computer- then he just tweaks the rules and wait to see what happens. A tune emerges from that.

CD: The play uses such patterns both in its choreography and its plot. How did you get from these fairly abstract ideas to a coherent play?

RB: These ideas reminded me of methods I’d used while stuck in a devising process; I would use rules to generate movement and govern what can be done in space. This would create very interesting patterns and repetitions. The movement and choreography came from fact we were staging it on a grid. We did some experiment in workshops – classroom scenes where chairs were laid out. We wanted to make things look like Conway’s game. We needed the action on stage resemble the maths model and bring out patterns.

CD: How did the devising process work?

RB: We had lot of chats and did a lot of research, but it was Rose who wrote the script. When she had fifteen or twenty pages of stuff- giving the seeds of the characters and relationships- we did some workshops at East 15 acting school. We played around with ideas and characters and looked at what we could do with the material based on following rules.

Rose Lewenstein: I would have a quite isolated period of writing a draft, then come back to Russell. It was great because I’m not usually comfortable showing my work so early to a director. But because he was part of the process and we were on the journey together right from beginning, it was very exciting. We did some more work-shopping in the National Theatre Studio in July, with professional actors instead of students, and by that time we had two members of the cast and the designer (Mila Sanders) on-board. And we had a script. The story, character and arcs were mostly all there.


Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.



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