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

09/14/2011 4:00 AM |

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.