Friday, April 10, 2009

Physics & Failure: Lessons for a Laboratory Theatre

In our attempts to devote even more time to the laboratory process in 2009, we have already started research on Stolen Chair's newest original work, Quantum Poetics, even though we probably won't even be thinking about scheduling the first creative retreat until this fall (once we have started the CST). Since the piece will draw inspiration from recent advances in neuroscience and theoretical physics, research has been both challenging and thrilling. Fortunately, writers like Brian Greene and Jonah Lehrer have made these fields so accessible that I find I'm not only able to grasp this heady material, but actively salivate over the possibility of theatricalizing it. And unlike previous Stolen Chair projects for which the research was primarily limited to books and movies, I'm able to devour tons of information on Quantum Poetics via podcasts!

But I digress. I'll post about my research highs and multiple universes and phantom limbs and Occum's razor and biofeedback and eleventy billion other titillating tidbits in the future. Right now I want to talk a bit about failure. I've been listening to Brian Greene and Heidi Schellman speak about some pretty far out advances in both particle physics and cosmology and they both chatted with glee about failure in their fields. There is a certain school of thought which holds that all of science's major advances came not from decades of methodical research but from accidental discoveries that opened up entirely new vistas of possibility. While neither Greene nor Schellman were speaking to that specifically, they were crystal clear that they'd be absolutely thrilled if they (or someone else) discovered something which contradicted their lives' work and research.

I know that two of Stolen Chair's most adventurous (and I think successful) works, Kinderspiel and Theatre Is Dead and So Are You, shared very little in common except for the several month-long periods in each when we were absolutely clueless about where the project was going. We began each of these projects much like theoretical physicists, using the studio as our Large Hadron Supercollider. In Kinderspiel, we knew that there was something rich to be found in the collision between Weimar-era cabaret and child's play; in Theatre Is Dead, we wanted to smash vaudeville and death together into an unholy hybrid. Aside from the titles (which, oddly, usually come first), we spent several months developing both projects without knowing much more than that.

And: we failed. Daily. Weekly. Monthly. We brought new ideas into the studio each time we met and played with each until we found its dead-end. Lost in a sea of theatrical possibilities, we grew tense and frustrated (and even lost collaborators in both at the height of this confusion). I'd be lying if I didn't say it feels terrible. It feels terrible. Awful. Absolutely rotten to ask a group of game actors to try something out when it's more likely to be yet another idea to toss into the REJECT pile than to lead to any real progress. But it shouldn't be. And, in Stolen Chair's future, it won't be. Because we are damn lucky to have the opportunity to actually experiment before we go ahead and present something as "experimental theatre." We are a laboratory theatre and we should never forget to take that moniker as literally as our scientific brethren do. In the lab, sometimes things explode. Sometimes those explosions are actually the result you're looking for, but, more often than not, those explosions just leave you covered in sticky sulphurous radioactive goo (okay, that's probably not true, but it's such a nice vivid way to visualize failure).

So...I can't wait to begin Quantum Poetics and to savor each and every failure, surrounding Stolen Chair with an army of collaborators who are as excited about the possibility that everything they know about theatre and about themselves as artists might be redefined by what we discover.


Noah said...

I want to be covered in Radioactive Goo! Pleeeeeeeease!!

Andrew Eglinton said...

Thanks very much for linking to London Theatre Blog. I've been perusing your blog and I find the recent Quantum Poetics series fascinating. Since it's highly unlikely that I'll make to see the show in NYC, is there any chance of your company doing a live web cast of one of the performances? Just a thought. Thanks.

Chance D. Muehleck said...

Love this. 2010 is looking good.

Anonymous said...

I love this!

Caroline said...

Quantum Poetics is a great book to read. I love these guys, Brian Greene and Jonah Lehrer. I am a college sophomore with a dual major in Physics and Mathematics @ University of California, Santa Barbara. By the way, i came across these excellent physics flash cards. Its also a great initiative by the FunnelBrain team. Amazing!!!