Seattle Astronomy has occasionally explored the relationships and intersections of science with art and faith. Recently we had an enjoyable experience helping to use theater to explain science when we participated in an event called Centrifuge with the Infinity Box Theatre Project.
Centrifuge was billed as “science news meets science fiction.” The event paired five science writers with five playwrights on a Monday evening. By Wednesday each playwright had written a one-act play about a randomly drawn theme, incorporating recent scientific developments brought to the table by the science writers. On Wednesday the cast and directors were paired at random. They had a couple of days to rehearse, and then Friday and Saturday evenings the new plays were performed, preceded by five-minute talks by the writers explaining the science that would appear in the play. It’s a pattern familiar to those who have seen the 14/48 Projects World’s Quickest Theater Festival.
We brought the news of Earth’s newly found quasi-satellite, 2016 HO3, plus recent computer modeling for the possible existence of Planet 9, to the table. Playwright Jennifer Dice came up with the hilarious play Asteroids of Love. Catherine Blake Smith directed actors Marianna de Fazio and Corey Spruill in the play, a sort of space noir about star-crossed lovers Sybil and Chet headed to Planet 9 to start a new life—and ditch the intergalactic mob. The evening also included plays that incorporated new discoveries in frog mating, human evolution, climate change, and memory loss.
David Mills and Catherine Kettrick created Infinity Box about eight years ago with the intent to create exactly this sort of mash-up between science and theater.
“The idea of Infinity Box is really thinking of a theater as a think tank, and what happens if you look at theater as basically the way that society has always done its collective thinking,” Mills said. He noted that science and technology are advancing rapidly and giving us a lot that we need to consider.
“A lot of the questions are so complex that a story is really the only way to really ask the question, let alone try to answer it,” Mills said.
Kettrick added that this gives scientists new ways to think and talk about their work and an effective means of connecting with people.
“When an audience is able to look at a play on stage and see the issue of the science embodied in the characters and see the characters reacting to this issue, to this situation, that’s a much more real experience than reading an article in the newspaper or even going to a town hall talk,” she said. “It’s human beings up there, there’s an empathetic connection.”
It even worked on Kettrick, who knows all about climate change and does what she can to reduce her own carbon footprint. But the play Chasm by Bret Fetzer and directed by Jon Lutyens spoke to her. It was about climate change from the perspective of two penguins stranded on an iceberg and vulnerable to predators.
“Seeing those two penguins just brought it home to me, on a very personal level, in a way that doesn’t happen when you read the statistics,” she said.
We had a similar experience when, the day after Centrifuge, this post from one of the actors involved appeared on its Facebook event page:
Mission accomplished! Astronomy outreach and education.
Infinity Box is the title of a short story and story collection written in the 1970s by Kate Wilhelm, and it inspired the name for the theater project because what we now know as think tanks were originally called brain boxes.
“Your brain or a theater stage or a radio are all places that are small, but anything is possible,” Mills said.
The next event for Infinity Box is its annual Thought Experiments on the Question of Being Human, which this year will take on the topics of memory and identity. Earlier this year they paired up four scientists and four playwrights.
“They work up a play typically 20 to 30 minutes long exploring the human consequences of what’s happening now or soon probably will be in that area, and what might that mean for the question of what it means to be human,” Mills explained. Staged readings of the plays will be held October 14, 15, and 16 at the Ethnic Cultural Theatre in the University District in Seattle. After the readings the scientists will kick off audience discussions about the shows.
“What the scientists have been getting out of that is a really different sort of conversation about their work,” Mills said.
Mills is hopeful that some day Infinity Box will be funded as a think tank.
“Having ways of doing all of what we’ve done so far and then capturing those insights and doing some analysis on them and feeding them back in to see what happens would fascinating and useful data,” he said. Ultimately, he’d like to move society beyond science literacy to science fluency.
“We’re looking at enhancing the status of discussion of science in society,” Mills said.
Podcast of our interview with Mills and Kettrick:
Some of our other articles about science mixing with art or faith: