Saturday, September 03, 2005

Theatre of Science

Wednesday and Thursday were spent at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth, doing a workshop in collaboration with their Theatre of Science project. It's an idea Paul Howard-Jones and I have been working on for a while. As well as creating the music for lots of our shows (most recently Mappa Mundi), Paul is also an educationalist and a brain scientist, with a particular interest in creativity. When we did the development workshop for Mappa (on a self-built stage at the bottom of his Welsh garden!), he became fascinated by the nature of the devising process, wondering what was actually going on in scientific terms to generate the material. On one level, this workshop is the beginnings of a piece of scientific research into the creative process (and we even mock-up a projected experiment with actors in a brain scanner); but it's also a seeding process for a play we could devise in response to these scientific ideas. We're really keen that there should be a proper two-way traffic in this work (most Sci-art collaborations I've seen have been plays which become a mouthpiece for science education - and that doesn't interest me very much).

It's only two days, of course, but these initial sessions do suggest to me that we really can do something which makes a piece of theatre which is fully engaged with (rather than simply illustrating) brain science, and which actually contributes, through the research into its making, to scientific knowledge. At one point Paul suggests an analogy between the processes he's seeing in the room and the creative workings of the brain itself: the space operates like the Working Memory, with the actors contributing Long-Term Memory (which is related, crucially, to culture), and their sensory experiences. The director (whom Paul links to the brain's Executive Control) has to relax the level of control in order for the free associations essential to creativity to occur. This makes a lot of sense to me; and I think it's probably especially true in intercultural work, where the "Long-Term Memories" are often so far removed from anything the "Executive Control" is aware of. Jeff Teare (a very experienced director who's sitting in as the Theatre of Science's note-taker / dramaturg, and ends up acting and contributing enormously to the work) comments that I tend to let improvisations run on much longer than other directors, and that this often leads to unexpected results. My guess is that this comes from having done intercultural work - I at least know that I can't predict what's going to happen next.

If we're able to push this project on (and I really hope we can), then I must be careful to make sure that it doesn't run away from the company's identity. I don't think it will - behind much of what we've done this last couple of days has lurked the possibility that it's only Western culture that identifies our creativity as an individual's possession: that creativity in other cultures is more related to the collective. Paul's scientific model raises the question of where the "I" is situated - in Control, Senses and Memory, or in Working Memory. But if "I" doesn't matter in this way, then the question doesn't really arise. So this could also develop into a play about identity (which, I tend to think, is what all good theatre is about).

There's a great moment of unintentional comedy when we ask Sophie Hobson and Clere Stephens to improvise with a prop brain. It starts to speak, move and so on - leading Sophie to say: "It's got a mind of its own, that brain". Now, there's a conundrum...

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