Monday, March 5, 2012

On the science of theater

My response to Steve Gimbel's post Is Theater Like Science?

Of three forms of "writing" — cinema (films), theater (plays), prose (novels, short stories) — maybe it is theater that comes closest to the scientific method, then film after that, and then prose. A scientist's "writing" involves observing the world of nature, writing (or rewriting) a theory, and testing it against the world (and the peer review of other scientists). The playwright does that (with a play) for the world of people, but the testing part consists of audience (or maybe theater critics) feedback. A playwright's play "works" when it passes that test, just as a scientist's theory has to pass its test. One difference though between the scientist and the playwright is that a play itself might change the culture and the way people act, whereas the scientist's theory supposedly doesn't change nature.

I.e.: A theory is to a scientist as a play is to a playwright. Both are tested: The theory w.r.t. nature and peer review, the play w.r.t. the audience and critical reviews. Both are models of a sort intended to capture some aspect of reality. I think there is more in common than perhaps even scientists and playwrights may realize.

I think a scientist's theory is created much in the same way as a playwright's play: They want their "writing" to be "accurate" and "unsurprising" in the end. But human people are not quantum particles, so this only goes so far.

One should really ask if biology is a science. Physics and chemistry (for the most part) sure, since they are formulating universal principles (literally), but if life (after perhaps organic chemistry) is a mere, isolated, accident that occurred on this little dirt speck in the universe (or multiverse), then most of biology is like the theater of the absurd: a quirk.

(Here in Addison I'm going to some of the plays in the out of the loop fringe festival.)