Science Makes Art

Essay Talk/Lecture  

Talk given at The REP, Birmingham for It Ain’s Rocket Science. 3rd November 2005

Back in the beginning we called ourselves an experimental theatre company. Experimental seemed like a good term as we were making original theatre that attempted to extend the form in new and undiscovered ways. Of course we rapidly replaced Experimental with Physical. It became clear that Experimental carried negative connotations experiments can go wrong and the implication that audiences may have play the role of guinea pigs never really pulled the crowds. Now Physical Theatre suggested we would be wonderfully lithe and dynamic, so Physical became Visual. Visual Theatre worked except we liked words. Alternative begged the question “alternative to what?”. And so these flags of inconvenience were followed by others. I forget where we are now, but this is all a side issue. I mention it only so you understand my satisfaction as – ‘for one night only’ – I once again proudly introduce myself as…

I was asked to contribute to this conference because of our show Of All The People In All The World. Although this is the most conspicuously scientific of our shows, it is perhaps for this very reason, not the most informative show to examine in the context of today’s conference. If we root around in the Stan’s Cafe back catalogue we find the whiff of science everywhere, sometimes inspiring the art, sometimes determining it’s form, sometimes facilitating it’s execution. You see at school I was a Maths and Physics boy and it is only an accident of biography that this room isn’t in the Royal Society, that you’ve not all got slightly wayward hair and I’m not speaking Algebraic.

Maths Maketh The Art

I understand numbers, up to a decimal point or two. I am comfortable in their company and sometimes they help me work my work. Here is an example inspired by the phasing patterns underpinning the music of Steve Reich.

Bleak Heart Driver is the first line of this poem, let’s have some suggestions for three more lines in the same form, adjective – noun – verby/noun thing. I worked the following procedure out long hand, but our collaborator boffin Jon Ward has written a neat bit of code to do the trick for us. Here we have the 64 phrases – which result from the 64 possible combinations of these 12 words (given that each has to retain it’s position within the phrase). Now you know how the device works, in groups, spend 3 minutes coming up with your four starting phrases.

Visit Jon Ward’s site to have a go for yourself

This collaboration between man and maths was responsible for our first ‘piece for the radio’ called, unimaginatively Bleak Heart Driver.

This is a text idea for the radio, but we have deployed a similar idea on stage as a piece of theatre. I need five volunteers to recreate the Stan’s Cafe meisterwerk Simple Maths.

Admittedly it’s a bit thin at this stage but what happens if you add some emotion? What if we list five states: Happy, Sad, Tired, Anxious and Neutral then allocate one state to each performer, getting them to rotate through the list, changing state every other time they move. Suddenly, by applying simple rules, we have a highly complex situation. This arrangement provokes a huge range of narrative readings, despite being written by nothing but Simple Maths.

Science Gives Us Subject

To be honest we have yet to be inspired to action by the big dramas of scientific history. We leave these for The Rep to stage. Instead we have been inspired by the way science helps us see the world in new and startling ways.There was a popular science craze in the early 1990s, bookshops were knee deep in theoretical physics, A Brief History Of Time was (probably) Oprah’s Book of the Week and I was engrossed in The Emperor’s New Mind. For me Roger Penrose’s exploration of Artificial Intelligence was a kid of Difficult Maths version of Bladerunner. Then one idea prompted by reading in this field set off a line of reasoning that begat a whole new show.

If you had a book in which you could look up the answer to any question you would wish ask Einstein, it would be the equivalent of talking to the great man. It occurred to me that this book would be vast – a library in fact – surely the answer to every question would depend on a host of variables. I grew to imagining a tower of libraries stacking the minds of the world’s great thinkers one on top of the other. It also occurred to me that there would be rooms and rooms in each library addressing questions that no one would want to ask the mind concerned. As Einstein is and would be corporally if not mentally dead, the chances of anyone asking him if he fancied a Tea or Coffee would be very slim indeed. What would the librarians in this room do with their time? So was born Bingo in the House of Babel. A show about personal identity, false memory, virtual reality and chaos, whose close was determined by a randomizing efforts of an old style bingo machine.

Most Stan’s Cafe shows are set in worlds parallel to our own. We explore the twisted rules and logic of these places through the confused, characters forced to inhabit them. It is, in part, our hope that by reflecting on these other worlds we can learn something about our own. Maybe this is similar to the job of science, proposing versions of the world that are different to the one we currently live in. Who knows, if we really do live in a multi-verse then in some corner of it Bingo In the House of Babel is probably being received as a strikingly naturalistic drama.

Science Determines The Form

Throughout my time with Stan’s Cafe I have been consistently delighted that so much of my education has proved so directly applicable to running a theatre company and not just in the obvious writing, mathematics, set design, carpentry, sewing, shaky French and German ways. Having seen the Victorian theatre trick Pepper’s Ghost I found myself recalling physics lessons in which we learnt about reflection and refraction.

Pepper’s Ghost is a Victorian theatre trick, which allows performers to apparently dissolve in front of people’s eyes. The technology used is a sheet of glass placed at 45º to the viewer. When an object, such as Hamlet is placed directly in front of the viewer and lit you can see him. When a second object, such as Claudius is placed out of the viewer’s direct line of sight but at 45º to the glass and lit, he too can be seen standing beside his son. If Claudius’ light is faded out his image will disappear in a ghostly fashion and both the audience and Hamlet will be freaked out. It’s a great trick and one well worth playing with. Stan’s Cafe spent a week playing with it and by the Friday night had devised a show, It’s Your Film which was supposed to be staged for one night only, but is now seven years old, has been performed nearly 5,000 times in 34 cities in 16 countries and at one point saved us from financial ruin.

Key to the show’s success was recognising that Pepper’s ghost is only of limited value if viewed from a range of angles. If you could control the viewer’s perspective, in the way a film director does through the lens of a camera, then all kinds of tricks become possible. The solution is both simple and extravagant. Perform to one person in a time and place them in a viewing booth. They look through a rectangular aperture. The Ghost covers their field of vision. Performers can appear large in frame – close up – by standing here, small in frame – long shot – by standing here. Two performers can dissolve into one another if they stand here and here and pin spots cross fade between them. The location becomes outside if we project a slide onto this surface here. If the projector is placed here then the performer appears in silhouetted. If you place a sheet of glass here and light the audience they can see themselves superposed over the performers and if you make this a back projection surface then they can see themselves framed by a video image. Ideally the video projector is placed here, but in a small room a mirror placed here does the trick. Of course the thing that gives the ghosted image its curious quality is that, as we learnt at school, light is reflected off both the front and back surfaces of the glass. It’s not cutting edge technology but it baffles people, some even think we have got our hands on some crazy holographic kit from NASA or somewhere. In a world obsessed with digital media it’s great to still be able to wow people with the old smoke and mirrors.

Science makes it possible

It’s Your Film was created by exploring the possibilities thrown up by science. In creating The Black Maze we knew what we wanted to do but needed science to help us do it. The maze was inspired by another smoke and mirrors classic, the house of fun. In particular a corridor that got darker the further you walked down it, until just at the point where you couldn’t see where you were going you were thrust to one side by the unexpected change in the corridor’s path. I was amazed by the power of this very simple phenomena and started to imagine how much fun you could pitch black maze and stuffing it with hidden doors, tricks of light and sound and touch.

The result, finally realised in 2000, was a triumph of design and custom built electronics. The whole installation is just 8′ x 20′ (we built it in our familiar hotch potch of imperial and metric). Taking 2′ 6″ as the standard width we could get three widths of corridor running the length of the maze. I knew we could get more length out of the corridors if we could get people to walk down the same length twice without realising it. The big breakthrough came in recognising a cross over was needed. If people could cross from the third over the second to the first corridor they could exit the same way they arrived and the first length of corridor could also be the last, especially if the lights were off the first time the walked it an on the second. The solution came in recognising that an open door can also act as a wall. On leaving The Black Maze people often circle it wearily to check it really is bigger on the inside than the outside. Following this breakthrough much of the process was us saying “wouldn’t it be good if when that door opens that light turns off and that sound comes on, then someone with more electrical know-how than us asking someone with vastly more electrical know-how than him to make up switching circuits and sampler chips for us.

And Finally

And so, finally to Of All The People In All The World. The idea is so simple in its conception and so endlessly complex in its ramifications that some say we never need have another idea again. So here’s how you do it: you take a grain of rice to represent a person. You count as many grains as you can bear and weigh them to gain an average number of grains per gram, then you weigh out human population statistics in rice and place this rice in piles on labelled sheets of paper. Anyone could do it and soon everyone will. The complexity comes in what statistics you choose to weigh out and where you choose to place them. After two outings of this project in 2003 we spent part of 2004 taking a version of this piece to four schools. The Wellcome trust had bought the idea that this project would be an excellent means for teaching about epidemiology and vaccinations, of course was and it turned out to be an excellent tool for illuminating plenty of other subjects besides.

The idea originated in as an attempt to understand how many people live on the planet. I thought if we turned the abstract figure 6,200,000,000 into the concrete reality of 6.2 billion things that could be looked at this might help. 6.2 billion grains of rice works out at about 104 tons, or four articulated lorries full and, as it turns out, this amount remains far too big to comprehend even when it’s laid out all around you in a former tram shed in Stuttgart. Fortunately for us the device is very effective when helping people comprehend other abstract, but less mind-boggling figures. Of course this device really comes into its own when making comparisons between figures. Let’s see what you think.

A month ago we were in Vancouver with the Canadian version of this show and the promoter pulled me aside “I bet you studied a science at college didn’t you,” he was wrong, I never got beyond A-Levels but the interest and influence are still there.

James Yarker, November 2005.