Features Published 14 April 2015

Under the Microscope

Lois Jeary on the ethics and responsibilities of depicting science on stage
Lois Jeary

So The Telegraph has just conjectured that ‘Playwrights are dumbing down science to make us feel clever’, invoking blockbusters of stage and screen to argue the dangers of “the play which seeks to elucidate the mysteries of theoretical physics and the higher mathematics through the romanticised depiction of a scientific egghead and/or misfit”. If only the critic in question had been in attendance at Staging the Facts: Science in Performance – a recent panel discussion at Tristan Bates Theatre exploring the background to new double-bill Game Theory – then I feel his conclusion may have been dramatically different. For this was an event that captured a distinctly more positive trend: artists, scientists and theatregoers united in their commitment to collaborative engagement, intellectual rigour and ethical responsibility when exploring the frontiers of the scientific world on stage.

For the panellists – playwright Odessa Celt, Artistic Director of LAStheatre Barra Collins, Co- Artistic Director of Analogue Theatre Hannah Barker, and LAStheatre collaborator Dr Tarit Mukhopadhyay – theatre offers a unique platform to engage audiences in both the practical and emotional heart of scientific discovery.

Barra began by explaining how the immersive form of New Atlantis (reviewed here), which blurred the distinctions between experts, actors and audience members in its exploration of environmental policy and determination of a new world order, offered all parties direct access to people and ideas who they wouldn’t usually encounter. One of those experts was Dr Tarit Mukhopadhyay, a Lecturer in Biochemical Engineering at UCL. For him the impact of the theatrical frame is as relevant in day-to-day scientific practice as it is in works like New Atlantis, where the respective scientists’ performances impacted on the audience’s responsiveness to facts almost as much as the content did itself. “It’s not just a clear cut presentation of scientific fact – x, y and z and that’s it – it’s also the passion that’s involved. I think that’s probably also true, not just in terms of a theatrical experience, but also as real scientists when we apply for research grants,” he says. “There is a limited pot of money, so when the government turns round and says ‘well why should we fund your work rather than this person’s work?’ we have to be advocates of our technology, our research and our innovation. So even within science, whether that’s lecturing or research proposals, it’s never a clear cut case of just presenting facts. You’ve also then got to have almost a narrative around it that says ‘this is what the impact around this is’. There’s also a bit of theatre in everyday science.”

Hannah stresses that she considers herself a storyteller first and foremost, a position articulated elsewhere by Game Theory’s writer Odessa Celt . “It’s always been about the people, the human stories, and then trying to find the best way to tell them”, Hannah says of the origins of Analogue’s work. “To do that you really do need to understand that you yourself are not a scientist, but appreciate that you need to collaborate with the right people to make sure you are telling the stories as responsibly as you can.” Yet Mary Halton, the event’s chair, identifies a key challenge to fulfilling that responsibility when telling stories about contentious scientific principles. “If you were writing a scientific article you could just say ‘these are the facts, here is what the issue is’. But when you create a character and that character is making a decision you come down on one side or the other, on what could just be a question mark if you were not depicting it in the theatrical sphere.”

LAS's New Atlantis

LAS’s New Atlantis

Hannah says she used to think it was enough to present the facts and let the audience make up their own mind – but now she doesn’t think it’s as simple as that. “By having a voice of a scientist in your piece of work”, which as Hannah goes on to explain in Analogue’s case has been both a literal recorded voice and voices distilled through advice and research, “you can’t help but influence the audience one way or another.” This is compounded by the theatremaker’s “need to find your departure” in order to tell the story that excites you.

Analogue’s 2401 Objects told the story of Patient HM, who underwent experimental brain surgery as a young man and whose brain is now posthumously used for research. In the piece, the company created a fictional life and love for their subject, Henry Molaison. Were they right to make things up about a real man, whose memory was so compromised that questions even arose about his ability to consent to being studied in the first place? Hannah admits it is a difficult question to answer but explains the benefits of such storytelling, which as she sees it “puts the science on a very particular platform, which is about seeing the human being. I think in that way it’s a public engagement approach because it’s not just saying ‘this is science, which is over here, which doesn’t belong to you’ but it’s actually saying ‘we all have relationships with science, we may not know it but it’s there’.”

LAStheatre try and leave the ultimate decision making up to the audience, presenting them with the facts and methodology from which they can draw their own conclusions. Barra hopes that when audience members are presented with a range of viewpoints that are, crucially, all entirely valid, they will find themselves agreeing with both sides of a debate, and through that come to a more sophisticated understanding of their own position. According to The Telegraph “nobody understands DNA or the Big Bang by dint of a playwright’s magic wand” and if we limit the aim of understanding to the mere structure of atoms then that conclusion may well be true. Still the overriding message from the panel, and from the vibrant discussions on hymenoplasty and genome sequencing that I have been sharing with audience members after Game Theory, is that theatre can play a significant role in sparking awareness or interest in an idea. That what is seen in theatre can have long-term, intangible influences on how individuals and society interpret and understand the world around them.

Tarit suggests that simply planting the seed of an idea in an audience member’s mind is a valid  achievement for scientists who must act as advocates for their work. “If you leave the theatre, or if you leave any sort of engagement activity, with just an idea of the concept then I think that is half the communication battle won.” This was seemingly borne out by figures, with Barra explaining that the majority of audience members for New Atlantis had never attended a climate change event before.

Analogue's 2401 Objects

Analogue’s 2401 Objects

And it’s not just artists drawing on the wisdom of scientists – science is increasingly recognising the value of the arts in achieving its own aims. Tarit attributes the modest increase in funding for projects that combine art and science to a changing professional landscape, where doctoral candidates study and participate in public engagement as a requirement of their qualification. The huge potential for theatre to be applied in scientific and medical contexts is illustrated by projects like Clod Ensemble’s Performing Medicine or Analogue’s Transports, an interactive installation that simulates the tremor experienced by those with a form of Parkinson’s disease. When I first experienced Transports, the emotional and physical transplantation enabled me, for a brief moment at least, to begin to understand the symptoms of Parkinson’s more profoundly than I ever had before. While only a fleeting glimpse into what life with the disease might begin to be like, Transports nonetheless demonstrates the potential of using art to facilitate an embodied understanding amongst the public and medical professionals.

The Telegraph’s over-riding charge seems to be against plays that “blur and corrupt our perception of the truth”. It seems to me that ‘the truth’ is a murky lair, even in the apparent rationality of the scientific world where understanding is constantly evolving and discoveries unearth new truths all of the time. Our inherent fallibility was perfectly captured in an audience member’s closing question: “If we are limited by the science that we know at any given time, and if history will judge us and look back on our limitations, what do you think we’ll be critiqued for? What is our area of most limited understanding?”

Cautious to be understood that he was by no means speaking on behalf of “all science”, Tarit concluded that in his personal opinion the great limitation of our time, both in terms of what is known scientifically and in terms of public perception, is the field of genetics. Having sequenced the human genome, scientists have still just scratched the surface of what is known about it. In our own research for Game Theory, Odessa and I have spoken to experts working to understand how the public access information about genomics, and what impact that has on their attitudes to it. With the mainstream media predictably focussed on attention-grabbing headlines (just last week: ‘How healthy will your baby be? Gene testing holds the answer’), with often frankly misleading results, then the arts feels like a space where a more nuanced debate can be played out and a balanced understanding reached. Where underpinned by innovation, collaboration and engagement, science and theatre can be hugely beneficial bedfellows.

Tristan Bates Theatre will play host to two further post-show events exploring the scientific themes of Game Theory, which runs until 18th April. On 14 April there will be a discussion of the cultural complexities and implications of hymen repair surgery, and on 16 April a panel will discuss the science and ethics behind genomic sequencing. 

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Lois Jeary

Lois holds an MA in Text and Performance, taught jointly between RADA and Birkbeck. In addition to directing and assistant directing for theatre, she also works as a freelance television news journalist for Reuters and has previously contributed to The Guardian.

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