Science Upstaged: A Response to the Guardian’s ‘Science On Stage’

As introductions go, ‘hello I’m the dark side of Marcus du Sautoy’ is a somewhat niche one.  But that’s how I’m describing myself this week, prompted by two factors.  Firstly his article on science in the theatre.  Now, I don’t disagree with him per se (it’s okay Marcus, you can relax now) –  I think it’s fairly uncontroversial that ‘theatrical’ techniques, from impressive visuals to engaging performers, help to enliven science communication.1 But I do dispute the upbeat tone Marcus takes, as he is wont to do in all things, in describing science-and-theatre.  You see, factor number 2 is that I’ve just come back from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  While there, I took the opportunity to see a selection of the science-themed shows on offer.  You’ll notice I haven’t named or hyperlinked them, nor do I intend to.2 That’s because, to put it nicely, they didn’t inspire me with the same confidence as Marcus.  Now some of you may be thinking something like the following: gosh you went to see shows at a festival for fringe theatre and a proportion of them were a bit misguided or pointlessly weird or just not very good? Goodness.  What a shocker.  And, sarcastic readership, I agree with you.  But, crucially, for those science shows it was largely the combination of science and theatre which caused the problems.  Hence my new role as Nasty Marcus, picking up the difficulties and pitfalls which Nice Marcus3 left out.


Nice Marcus uses ‘theatrical’ in two different senses.  Mostly to mean any visual thing that happens on a stage, such as whizz-bang experimental demonstrations or using acrobats to depict geometry or similar.  Personally I’d call these ‘spectacles’ rather than ‘theatre’ – they’re tricks which can be added to enliven the old lecture format, not a format in their own right.  Nothing wrong with that.  But for me ‘theatre’ suggests something more interesting than that, more of an holistic event than a bolt-on.  Marcus’ second sense of ‘theatrical’ comes closer to this – where science is an intrinsic part of an unfolding narrative, with particular characters and emotional responses besides ‘woooow’ or ‘whut?’.  This is the theatre of plays rather than demonstrations, of Frayn’s Copenhagen or Stoppard’s Arcadia rather than the Royal Institution’s lectures.  Now, whether it’s about science or not, this sort of theatre is risky.  At its best it shows you new facets of the world around you, and leaves you full of questions – quite apart from their science content, both Copenhagen and Arcadia show just how prevalent uncertainty and false hypotheses are in our everyday lives, and leave us asking ‘how can we ever trust anyone about anything?’4.  At its worst, this sort of theatre is people prancing around unengagingly playing at make-believe. And trapping you in a room with them as they do so. 


There’s an important starting point.  This sort of theatre is DIFFICULT.  There’s plenty that can go wrong in the writing alone.  Do you go for a naturalistic tone, at risk of getting it wrong and sounding stilted or getting it too right and sounding boring?  Or do you go a bit unrealistic and open yourself up to melodrama or bad poetry?  Is that an exciting twist or a completely unrealistic change of direction? Is that joke even funny?  And that’s even before you’ve added directors, actors, technical requirements, a set in constant battle with gravity, audiences in various states of inebriation…  People like Stoppard and Frayn make it look easy, but they’re known as geniuses for a reason.  They’ve also got the big advantage that they know their task – they write plays with the aim of getting people into a theatre and then sending them out in a heightened emotional state (or something like that).  Copenhagen and Arcadia are great in that respect, but although their illustrations of the uncertainty principle or chaos theory are pretty decent they aren’t going to be winning any sci-comm prizes.  Not that it matters, they’re bonus extras.  But what if your play is a full-out exercise in sci-comm?  Then you’ve also got to worry about giving the audience necessary information without being plain expositional, throw up social/ethical/political questions without sounding like a staged reading of the Guardian Science Blogs, and still fit in decent emotional engagement and characterisation without the sole rationale of ‘I’m writing a play, better have some emotional and character stuff in somewhere. This bit of science is quite long, maybe I’ll break it up with some of that. Simples.’  In no play, sciencey or otherwise, should emotion be the ‘easy bit’.


I’m glad people face up to the risk of science-theatre.  But I wish that risk was taken with more awareness of how risky the risk is, because when things go wrong it ain’t pretty.  Back to my Fringe rant.  Unimaginative approaches to characterisation defined ‘scientist’ characters purely by their love of science (a fact that the characters simply stated, often repeatedly and at length), resulting in unintentionally strange or distant personae.  Simplistic attempts at emotional hooks produced over-earnest exhortations that science really involves emotions, dontchaknow, or unremittingly bleak depictions of medical dilemmas.  Awkwardly misfiring jokes did little to allay suspicions that scientists have a ‘different’ (read: odd) brand of humour.  The net result was that theatre intended as sci-comm actually ended up reinforcing unhelpful tropes.  Not that this really mattered at the Fringe as, realistically, the only audience that would be attracted away from the thousands (literally) of non-science offerings was likely to be predominantly sciencey anyway.  But again, a misjudgement of this fact meant that little interesting communication actually occurred.  In one example, a lecture in quantum mechanics only got as far as the tired old trope of the double-slit experiment before it interrupted itself with a sudden bereavement story, which in turn left little time for some vague gestures towards parallel universe theory.  Conflicted identities were everywhere – unsure of exactly what they were trying to do and who they were trying to do it for, these shows tried to do everything and satisfied fully on none of the counts.


I’m not saying that science plays should only be written by playwrights of the highest calibre, in tandem with only the best science communicators, and with jokes written specially by a team of internationally-recognised comedians (although if that did happen I’d definitely be booking in advance). Events run by Bright Club and ScienceShowoff are great precisely because they give the opportunity for a bit of theatrical demonstration to science communicators from all backgrounds, not just those who’ve turned the accolade of ‘charismatic performer’ into a profession.5 The audience are attracted by this breadth of interesting material and the informality of the setting; if they wanted uber-honed performance mastery there’s plenty of other places for them to go.  Similarly, Festival of the Spoken Nerd are able to combine comedy with interesting science communication precisely because they know what audience they’re catering for – they don’t need to rehash the well-trodden basics of every subject they cover, or try to convince the audience that science is okay really.  They know exactly what they’re trying to do, and so does their audience.  It’s a pretty good combination.


That’s all great.  But once again it means interesting approaches to sci-comm only communicate science to those who are already listening.  I’d like to see more science plays which attract audiences on the lure of their theatricality – something with the critical and commercial success of Copenhagen or Arcadia, but which goes deeper into the science.  Complicite, I’m frequently told, do a nice job at that sort of stuff; that’s precisely because they understand the challenges of doing good theatre, and also work with science communicators (including Nice Marcus) to ensure they’re doing interesting stuff.  But that combination isn’t really restricted to internationally-renowned theatre companies.  In four years of the Edinburgh Fringe, and many more years of being a theatre and science fanboy, I’ve still only ever seen two sciencey productions which really grabbed me – and, predictably, those were Copenhagen and Arcadia.6  So I’m intrigued by the prospect of Complicite’s next piece X&Y, starring none other than Nice Marcus.  Maybe his performance will convince me where his article did not, defeat my nastiness with the power of theatre, and leave sitting in my place a complete replica of Nice Marcus.  I’ll keep you posted on that.



1 = though there are some potentially worrying subtleties, as I’ve discussed in the context of stand-up-science-comedy). 

2 = The Fringe is finishing today, and from past experience I can tell you all the performers are going to spend the next week frantically self-Googling for any scraps of opinion. And I am a kindly soul.  The only show I will name which I would recommend (for the time travellers out there) was Matt Thomas’ The Human Being’s Guide To Not Being A Dick About Religion.  Matt, if you’re self-Googling, well done for a nice show which actually managed that difficult fusion of making statements which were simultaneously funny and informative.  Sadly, your format is only peripherally relevant to this post.

3 = I find that ‘nice’ is easily confused with ‘actual’.

4 = Big Questions are often also annoyingly impractical.

5 = The scarequotes are really just an excuse to shoehorn in one of my current favourite quotations: “What is meant by ‘charisma’ is not easy to say.  It seems to refer to some sort of ambrosial body odour.” (Erwin Chargaff on James Watson)

6 = I’ve also recently read the little-performed Square Rounds by Tony Harrison, and wish it was more-performed.


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