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

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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.

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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.

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