Theatre is Science…

I was invited to speak at the Bush Theatre’s RADAR Festival at one of their platform events “Breaking Walls – Building Bridges”:

20 inspiring talks by leading thinkers and practitioners about innovation and change in the arts, culture and society. Each dynamic platform event features 5 speakers who take the stage for 10 minutes. Join us as we challenge the status quo, stretch our imaginations, and think the unthinkable.

I spoke last year (notes here) and was pretty flattered to have been asked back – especially given the company I was in. As we’re at the beginning of the process for a new show, Chris and I used the opportunity to go deeper with some of the reasons we’re wanting to make this new show about and wrote a 10 minute piece together called “Theatre is Science”. Following is the notes. Hope some of you might enjoy…

Notes from RADAR 2012 – Tuesday 19th November 2013

I’m Jon and I’m one of the founder members (along with Clare and Chris) and the artistic director of Unlimited Theatre.

We’re a group of artists who’ve been telling stories together since 1997 – often those stories are for live performance in theatres (we’re in residence at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and we co-produced Money The Game Show with the Bush earlier this year) but we also tell those stories in other ways and in other places – last year we made a show that mixed theatre, circus and games for the London 2012 Festival for families to play in a big top tent that we pitched in a car park in Leeds. This morning we launched a new platform for publishing and reading versions of plays that include sound and lighting design on tablets. We also run our own space agency that works with scientists and astronauts to inspire the next generation of scientists and space explorers – the agency’s patron is the British astronaut Tim Peake who’s recently been confirmed as flying to the International Space Station in 2015 so we’re hoping we might actually be able to tell some stories in space as well.

So we make a wide range of work for a wide range of audiences to experience in a wide range of places. What all of that work shares in common though is that all (well, nearly all) the work is made through collaborative processes. The work we make together is (nearly) always co-authored with equal partnership in the creative process and in collaboration with an ever expanding pool of associate artists, scientists, technologists and educators.

Over the last 7ish years we’ve developed a dedicated strand of work collaborating with scientists to communicate and interrogate leading edge developments in their field and bring their work and ideas to a wider audience. We’ve worked with quantum physicists, neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, astrophysicists, astronaut instructors and  actual astronauts. And it’s been constantly surprising to discover that there is a real appetite and audience for this work. For example, In 2007 and in collaboration with Professor Vlatko Vedral (a theoretical physicist at Oxford University) we made The Ethics of Progress –  a performance lecture that explains quantum teleportation, how it is possible to move objects and potentially people between different places without actually passing through any of the space in between. We’ve performed that show and had conversations with many thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds in rooms like this as well as fields and tents across the UK, in Singapore and South Africa. So we know a broad section of society are not only capable of understanding these complicated ideas, but they actively want to be involved in a conversation about how they develop.

This week, Chris and I have started researching and beginning to think about a new show inspired by the work of Dr Sam Parnia. Dr Parnia is a British critical care doctor based at the Stonybrook School of Medicine in New York who recently published a book called “Erasing Death” based on his research and practice into treating patients who suffer cardiac arrest.  In it he states that death is no longer a moment but a process. A process that can be reversed.

With today’s medicine, we can bring people back to life up to one, maybe two hours, sometimes even longer, after their heart stopped beating and they have thus died by circulatory failure. In the future, we will likely get better at reversing death. We may have injectable drugs that slow the process of cell death in the brain and other organs. It is possible that in 20 years, we may be able to restore people to life 12 hours or maybe even 24 hours after they have died. You could call that resurrection, if you will. But I still call it resuscitation science.

The science is actually remarkably simple.

 Of course, it is of paramount importance to protect the brain. CPR as early as possible after cardiac arrest is essential. But the really dangerous period for brain is only after you restart the heart and get the person back to life, which is when you start getting major brain damage. One of the reasons for this is that when you restart blood flow to the brain, which hasn’t seen any blood for a while, the oxygen itself becomes toxic. Consequently, most brain damage after resuscitation occurs not within the first few minutes of death, but in the hours up to the first 72 hours after resuscitation.

Beyond keeping the heart beating and pumping blood around the body and oxygenating it at the right level (no more than 8 breaths per minute) which can be done very effectively using machines that are already available in many UK hospitals, one of the newer interventions that makes a massive difference is to cool the body to ideally 32 degrees – this reduces the amount of oxygen the brain needs, it prevents dangerous chemicals like hydrogen peroxyde from forming and it slows down the process of cell death.

Simples. Resurrection. No brain damage.

…basically his job is to keep people alive for longer or to bring them back to life after that (now increasingly defunct as an idea) moment of death. Which is a pretty ground breaking thing to be doing. Our job as artists (storytellers) is to, not only be able to communicate those ideas, those sometimes very complicated or head twisting ideas as clearly and as interestingly as possible, but also to consider what the future social, political, moral, philosophical implications of that work might be.

And if more artists, particularly theatre artists had been able to do that throughout history, humankind might have saved ourselves having to go through a whole heap of awfulness.

Might have.

Now we’re not saying that theatre can, on its own, save the world. If we had to put a bet on which one of theatre and science, left to its own devices, is going to stop us suffering a global social collapse that’ll make ‘The Road’ look like an advert for an beach resort, we’re going with science.

Science will save the world, if it’s possible to save the world. Science could also just as easily destroy it too, but let’s imagine that any of the most pressing existential problems the world faces – particularly as  we enter an age where the pace of technology might accelerate so fast the layperson can barely recognise the world from one year to the next – let’s imagine scientific research is the main mechanism for solving any of those problems. Because it is.

In the ‘actual, in the moment, of practical use for the continuation of the planet’ stakes, theatre’s lagging behind. Fine. I’m OK with that. We can’t all be Jeff Goldblum.

What theatre might be OK at, though, if we give it a chance, is providing a place where we can rehearse the implications of science, before science, being the pure research and application of knowledge, takes any potentially beneficial application and throws it at the world in a way that fucks it up for us.

For clarity… we’re not talking about using theatre to emulate what film does so well, either.  This isn’t about using theatre to ask the question ‘what if a mutant strain of toxoplasmosis effectively made 90% of the population into killing machines’, or ‘would it be possible to drill explosives into an Earth-bound asteroid’, or what if… whatever the hell it was The Day After Tomorrow was supposed to be about. Film (The Day After Tomorrow excepted) does this very well. In fact film is hands down better at the drama of science going wrong than theatre is. What theatre is good at is the pre-emptive discussion.

What we’re thinking about is… not a new form of theatre (because we’re one of only a large number of artists and scientists already working together on communicating these extraordinary ideas) – but the rapid expansion and re-purposing of an existing strand of it. It’s about saying to science – we have a room, based on what seems to be a deep-rooted social need for people to come together and see the issues of being human played out live in front of them – a need that is fundamentally illogical and absurd given the much easier ways of being entertained and informed that are available at this point in our development – but yet somehow we still seem to want to do it. Anyway, for whatever reason, we have this room and you have this research and we think the research is really great and more people should know about it. But also, we think the implications of the research could probably benefit from a conversation with a better informed group of people too, because why wouldn’t it? Because many times when research like this has led to innovations with the ability to affect the lives of many many people, those people don’t really get a say in whether they wanted those innovations until it’s too late. And too late can be good in that it can mean – until someone turns up in their school and makes them immune to smallpox, or it can be the other kind of too late, in that someone erroneously uses a pilotless aircraft to bomb the absolute shit out of their school and kills them.

So why don’t science and theatre come together at a much earlier stage in the research and development of those theoretical ideas and talk about the possible implications, before the applications are developed?

Idealistic maybe, but not implausible and certainly not impossible.

What would happen, for example, if we developed a way to usefully extend a large proportion of the lives that are currently lost. To, in effect, be ressurectable as Dr Parnia claims? We don’t know. Yet. We’re only at the start of a process of research on this particular story. And that question isn’t going to stop doctors like Sam Parnia (rightly) developing the techniques that could do that. But let’s work together to mould a conversation that could go beyond the development of those techniques. Let’s look at the past, and the present and the potential future, at what we know about our tendencies as humans, and parallel that conversation with the development instead of using it after the development, as is commonplace, to ask what could have gone better.

It’s not about imagining the worst-case scenario either. It’s about imagining as many of the implications as possible (and as, seemingly, impossible) and wondering how we can find and work towards the best of them. It’s about asking… who will have access to this technology if the disparities in the world continue to glare as they are? Who gets to decide who’s worth saving? Might we value life less? What is the moment worth if we can prolong life much further and will this mean the way we treat or value each other might change for better or worse?

And this conversation, between theatre and science – will it ever happen beyond the edges of theatre, or the edges of science. Will it ever become a matter of course? Again, it might seem idealistic and unlikely but it is possible

Scientists – most of them – WANT to engage. In fact every scientist employed by a UK academic institution is contractually obliged to spend a significant amount of their time engaging in “outreach” and communication. Look at the high-profile residencies and exhibitions coming from collaborations at CERN, or the British Antarctic Survey. There is an appetite for the use of science to inspire art. This isn’t a new idea in a lot of ways – and actually the ‘performance lecture’ – the idea of a piece that elucidates and explains scientific phenomena for public consumption is as accepted now as the stocking filler pop-science books that spawn every year in the echo of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

What’s going to move us on from that performance lecture is a re-imagining of the relationship on both sides. Theatre not essentially treating scientists as walking filing cabinets to have their drawers investigated, but as artistic collaborators to be invited on stage, to be interrogated and engaged with as the people they are as well as the work they do. And scientists not seeing theatre makers as the animal system that eats dry research and shits out rainbows. We need (want),  we will encourage and cajole scientists to actively engage, when conceiving of research and its possible real world applications, with the need for theatrical conversation as much as the need for lab hardware and processing power.

It’s maybe a small idea but one with the potential, in practice, (and we hereby vow to practice it) that could change the world. Not in the sense that everything in the world will be changed but that this new way of working together will change or shift or inspire the thinking of everyone who participates. And so we will each have something new to take back out into the world with us and thus the world will be changed. We don’t want to just create an entertainment. We absolutely want to change the world. For the better.

Thank you.

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