Last summer, Phil Smith and I spent six weeks at Exeter University School of Physics, says Cathy Turner.
Our purpose was to write a play about physics for schools, with the aim of stimulating interest in the subject.The play was produced in January 2001 and toured to over thirty schools.
This project developed out of my friendship with Dr. Annette Plaut and my existing links with the School of Physics. It was administered by DAISI (Devon Arts In Schools Initiative). Phil and I embarked on our residency by asking a number of the physicists the simple question:?What do you do??.We transformed our pages of notes into a draft script, packed with details of physics experiments and theory.
In July, we took this script into a workshop with the director and four actors. It quickly became apparent that drastic changes were needed.The demands of drama were simply not the same as the concerns of physics. Rather than display complex physical concepts, we needed to link these ideas more securely to a human story.Was this simply a result of our decision to work within a conventional play structure? I think not.The performance company Reckless Sleepers? non-mimetic, science-based work is still far removed from its scientific origins. Art reaches out through allusion, metaphor and human presence: all these things can pose a threat to scientific objectivity. Nor can complex physics be adequately conveyed through language, or the semiotics of common interchange.
Our play presents physics as a catalyst in human relationships. But it centres on confrontation with death, the hunger for knowledge and the unrealisable wish for closure. Comments from teachers suggest that students have been excited by the performance. But what is exciting them? The physics or the drama? Does it matter?
Women who pursue science subjects to high levels tend to have a close relation or acquaintance working in a scientific field.What deters women from studying physics is partly a lack of identification with scientists. If our characters can act as role models, we may have removed another brick in the wall of prejudice.
But the project raises other questions. Artists have historically embraced science as a stimulus, but can science be similarly influenced by the arts? Can drama offer physics anything more than a tool for propaganda? Drama may not influence scientific theory - though it could conceivably stimulate the scientific imagination. But it can comment on the social contexts and perceptions that surround physics. Since the number of students applying to do physics at degree level is in decline, such comment and questioning might prove useful.Yet, in retrospect, drama?s capacity to comment is limited when its remit is to act solely as advocate.
The project seems to have achieved its aims. Further developments are needed, to achieve a truly symbiotic relationship between physics and drama.
Cathy Turner is a playwright.
For further information, contact DAISI
t: 01392 385214