A Complete Lack of Understanding: The Sloan Foundation and Science Plays 

Explaining complex ideas is a difficult thing. You have to choose the right metaphors, the right analogies for the person to whom you're explaining things. You have introduce things in steps and make sure you've got your audience there with you at each step before continuing.

It's even harder when the subject matter is obscure. For instance, explaining a complex recipe to someone is tricky, but if they have any interest in the food they eat every day then they have some understanding of flavor and texture and basic cooking principles. Explaining computer science, on the other hand, is a much more daunting task. Even though we use computers on a daily basis, few people have any understanding of how or why they work. And a fair portion of the population maintains a willful ignorance and engrained skepticism towards technology.

When art tackles complex ideas, it usually goes one of two ways. Either the artist finds a crisp and informative visual or structural metaphor that illuminates some aspect of the concept, which then inspires the audience to ask questions and become curious about the subject; or the artist doesn't find a strong visual or structural metaphor and spends a lot of time trying to explain an interesting idea that is lost on their audience, or, in the worst cases, bores them.

Theatrical plays or performance pieces about scientific subjects are becoming more and more prevalent these days, and they're covering more complex topics as science in the modern age is now so dense that even scientists in the same field can have little understanding of one another's work.

One of the big reasons why scientific plays have been produced so much lately is a couple of major competitions and commissioning programs that support them. The University of California runs an annual competition they call STAGE (Scientists, Technologists and Artists Generating Exploration). But the major funder and generator of new science plays is the Sloan Foundation, which runs commissioning and producing programs at 3 major New York theaters: Ensemble Studio Theater, Manhattan Theater Club, and Playwrights Horizons.

The commissioning and producing program at Sloan is born of a deepening recognition in the wider culture that art is a great communicator—it can be very good at inspiring people to have empathy for and interest in people and subjects that previously were off their radar. Hundreds of organizations across the US commission work by artists to help promote their goals, ranging from political or advocacy organizations to historical societies or community and minority groups. They each want something different from the artists, but generally their goal is for the artists to generate a popular work that tells a story they think people ought to hear. This isn't a new phenomena by any means—at its worst it amounts to propaganda disguised as cultural philanthropy, at its best it involves the open generation of new art that challenges received notions.

While the Sloan Foundation is not making propaganda, it's also not entirely open-ended in the creation of the plays it commissions, which is certainly within their rights to do so—that's not what is at stake here. What's at stake is that they're shooting themselves in the foot by creating work that feels predetermined and tends to be very conservative in its embrace of performance (primarily sticking to narrative-based drama that hews very closely to a believable reality). And ultimately, it seems to generate a lot of plays that spend a lot of time explaining science in more detail than is necessary, when what a play wants to do is to move forward and engage its audience.

I admire the Sloan Foundation for a lot of the work it does. And as someone who has worked in both the arts and sciences for a number of years, I want them to stick with it, especially because they commission new work by writers who are relatively unknown. And, on top of commissioning, they go on to provide funds for production—funds desperately needed in the theater for new writing on any subject. My concern is that despite their good intentions and their tangible and lasting contribution to the theater, they often seem to miss the point of the artistic process and the role of art.

Art is never good when it is didactic—that's why we have scientific journals, professors and statistics. If you really want to know how the left ventricle of your heart works, the last person you should be going to for serious insights into cardiovascular function is an artist, unless that artist also went to med school or spent a couple years studying the heart for an artwork, in which case they should know enough to point you to the latest research and not invite you into their studio. That doesn't mean an artist can't render a heart, talk about it, use it as a powerful metaphor, or write lengthy sagas about it that would require the artist to know it in-depth.

The issue is that the creative process cannot have a predetermined outcome or a dictated form. That's why so much political art and propaganda falls flat. You can tell it was made to order, that the process that created it wasn't a rigorous and open-ended investigation.

Every artist has their own way of going about the creative process, but every creative process involves pursuing curiosity freely. In fact, that process is what makes art practice so similar to scientific practice. The results cannot be dictated in advance. The process is there to test out possible outcomes, to dig up research and to develop new methodologies. Great art, like great science, is often surprising in some way—for its freshness, its ingenuity, or its unlikely perspective.


Playwrights Horizons' current production of Itamar Moses' new play Completeness (through September 25) is funded in part by the Sloan Foundation. And Moses received the commission to write the play through Sloan's program with Manhattan Theatre Club.

The play's plot follows a romantic narrative—a young man falls in love with a woman and breaks up with his then-girlfriend in order to date the new woman, who, in turn, has just ended her own relationship. All four of the main characters are students, staff or faculty at the same university, two of them in the computer science department and two in the molecular biology department.

In the midst of this, the young man (Elliot, a computer scientist, played by Karl Miller) offers to help his new lady out (molecular biologist Molly, played by Aubrey Dollar) by creating a program that will help her sort through the data she's generating in her research. The young man's struggle with the computer program leads to a subplot that concerns his attempt to solve an intractable problem in his field. This secondary plot is the reason for the bulk of the dialogue in the show and gives rise to numerous explanatory monologues in which the audience learns about yeast cultivation, evolutionary algorithms, protein reactions, and more.

For the lay person, the scientific discussions boil down to a problem with which many science plays contend: the idea that the world is infinitely more complex than we can imagine and no model we've yet developed has been able to capture that complexity. In fact, one of the plays that helped inspire Sloan's play commissioning program touches on the above conflict in depth—Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, about a meeting between the physicists Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg to discuss the creation of atomic weapons.

While no plot strand in Completeness uses its structure to help explore the ideas raised, there is one moment near the end of the 140 minute performance that acknowledges complexity. But it's so late in the production and so foreign to the rest of the play that it stands out as a bit of a Hail Mary. It's one of the most theatrical moments in the play, but it feels like the playwright struggling to counter the density of the previous two hours instead of an illuminating episode.

But I'm less interested in addressing the specific successes or failures of this production than I am in the fact that this is yet another Sloan commissioned play that is bottom-heavy with unnecessary detail, weighing down a thing that would benefit from more room to breathe and explore its subject imaginatively. I've seen enough Sloan shows to know that this is a trend that supersedes the writers, actors, and directors. And I know enough about their commissioning and development process to know that they demand a high degree of accuracy and specificity in the work they fund, which appears to be to the detriment of innovation in the handling of content and form. By generating plays that focus too much on specifics, the Foundation is countering its own aim of imparting understanding or curiosity to the audience.

I should say that Sloan has sometimes gotten it right, or at least opened themselves up a bit. Two recent productions that comes to mind are experimental theater creator Jay Scheib's piece Untitled Mars (This Title May Change), which played at PS122 in April 2008, and monologuist Mike Daisy's The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. But these are both works by established artists, rather than emerging artists.

Great plays about science use imagination and metaphor and richly constructed formal structures to engage people's curiosity. In order to get that from an artist, you have to let go of forcing conclusions or discussions, and trust that the creative process is as time-honored and productive as the scientific process. Both have been around since just about the dawn of humanity, and both have contributed in significant ways to get us to where we are. Best to let the process do its work and allow that you're not going to get what you thought you were—you might get something altogether better.

(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Related Locations


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Latest in Theater Reviews

© 2014 The L Magazine
Website powered by Foundation