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2004-2005 Brown Bag Discussion of "Science's Audiences"
February 18, 2005

Hiroshi Iwasaki (Theater Program)
Who's Watching?-- Imaginary Dialogues

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


In hopes of adding a different perspective to our on-going conversation about "Science's Audiences," Hiroshi shared some of his thoughts about "how the theater thinks about audience": What is the philosophy, the metaphysical understanding of the role of the audience in theater? Every performer has some abstract sense of her audience (Laurie Anderson said hers is "a sadder version of myself...and I'm trying to make her laugh"). It is the existence of some aggregate of people, who constitute the "listeners" for a performance, which makes theater viable; it is "the reason we do our stuff," the source of its meaning. You could "get rid of just about everything else," including the performer; but theater requires, at the very minimum, an audience. To emphasize this point, Hiroshi evoked the Player King from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: "the assumption that someone is watching is vital to everything we do. To have that taken away would mean death."

The theater is always a gathering of people, including those (such as a deceased playwright) who are not there, but have contributed to the arena of participation. Hiroshi suggested that theater is fundamentally different from science, which deals with reality, and if not with immutable or absolute truth, then with the best conjecture or hypothesis available at any given moment. The theater, in contrast, deals with illusion: "everything you see is a creation, false, a sham." What possible overlap can there be between two such disparate worlds?

Any discussion of theater-even that led by an Asian-will begin with the ancient Greeks, who surrounded the stage with the audience; the physical and metaphysical space they created for their theaters was co-centric. The Roman theater, by contrast, placed the audience out front; instead of looking across the stage at one another, the audience's attention was focused on the creation of the perspective of an imagined world on stage. Shakespeare's Globe Theater, in London, evoked yet another relation between audience and performance which differed from the "dark quiet space with a box" which we think of as the structure of theater today. The 19th century positioned the audience as watchers of an imagined world; the 20th century theater has involved quite a few "out of the box" experiments, pushing the performance space forward again, offering theater in the round. The shape of the theater very much affects what we do in it.

The productions which Hiroshi stages in collaboration with Mark Lord at Bryn Mawr often begin with their asking, "How do we relate to the audience? What do we want to do with them?" In "gloomy times" such as these, when many audience members are feeling "helpless, hopeless and depressed," Hiroshi and Mark have a number of different ways of "emulating vitality": dislocating the audience from their "usually expected spots"; guiding them around a familiar place, but placing them in different contexts (cramming them onto the stage, or having them watch the production from a skewed perspective, rather than straight on); giving them the feeling of being lost in the huge expanse of Goodhart Hall. Inviting the onlookers to view the actors as audience members-creating a "criss-cross" in which their life seems real, and ours fictional-can have an intriguing effect. Creating illusions for others can have unexpected ramifications for the designers themselves.

Hiroshi also discussed the work of "wrap artists" Christo and Jean-Claude, whose productions are "foisted on people," just seem to "happen to them." This is a way of addressing the phenomenon that "only some people come to see things," that only certain phenomenon appeal to certain individuals. Hiroshi likened this to a chemical reaction: certain viruses only attack certain cells; at some level, under what is normally detectable, "recipients have to be receptive." The simple act of showing may not achieve the sort of merging with the audience that an artist desires, but it's intriguing to think about what happens innately, unknowingly, about the unconscious shifts that affect us. Such effects need not be contemporaneous; they can happen in a sort of "chain reaction" across time, as the neuro-electrical activity in one brain is transmitted to others, in other eras. Everyone will not have the same experience; a production will not change everyone. And yet there is a connectedness that goes through us all.

Theater only evokes analogies to what we witness. Because the experiences created in the theater are imaginary, we often sweep them aside as unreal, as having no true consequences. But often the best way to look at reality is to get as far away from it as possible; the most effective way to experience "the real" from a fresh point of view might be to show the unrealistic. And reality is thus re-created in the process, in an experience that then enters the domain of memory. The "way into the real" is what we experience.

If we can really only "get hold" of reality obliquely, there may be closer relations between theater and science than our discussion so far had suggested. It may be as much the business of scientists, as it is of theater performers, to create illusion. Like theater folks, scientists construct narratives using analogies. Science could benefit by engaging in a movement parallel to what Mark and Hiroshi do with their audiences: freeing them to act on the stage. Positioning the audience as players unsettles expectations about what is appropriate in each role, and raises questions more generally about the usefulness of the distinction between them. So, too, in this discussion series, have we been questioning the division between scientists and their audiences, and exploring the usefulness of expanding the former to include the latter.

Many forms of theater invite us to suspend disbelief; maintaining our physical lives may depend on a similar suspension. But not all theater requires this; Brecht's drama, for instance, insisted on preventing such disbelief. Science has long replaced religion as having a claim on truth, as the source for a wide variety of verdicts we seek. Maybe it's time to resist the understanding of science as a source of truth-saying, to acknowledge that science is "as much a sham, as thorough an illusion" as theater.

In theater, nothing is claimed to be real except the emotional experience produced there. Matter is manipulated in order to produce an effect in the brain. That effect is real, although the material that created it may be illusory. In science, as in theater, the narrative is very much influenced--and limited--by the available technology; theater is just more honest in acknowledging that is it only producing effects. Both art and science can lay claim to effects on people; both can "kill." But epistemological questions are also operative here: what domain of knowledge counts as "real"? What kinds of knowledge do we most value?

All humans tell stories, building up hypotheses, theories and narratives out of all experiences. Science is like those trailers included in DVDs, which explain "how the movie was made." Science could be described as an explanation of "all the special effects" in the real world (with the important difference that in this world there is no "director"). You can take "fewer reads" in science than in theater. There is more room for play in the illusions of art than in those of science, but scientific narratives are just as much illusions or (in the language of postmodernism) constructions. There are multiple negotiations within each lab, whereby a fact becomes a fact (whereby it is agreed upon that an illusion is a fact, that we have decided to call something "truth"). The move, in science, is from more to less ignorance. Progress may be measured by fitness, by how close we can get to the truth. Or perhaps we should shed the presumption that we are narrowing our distance from "truth," and measure instead the amount of change that takes place when a shift in stories occurs. (Consider, for example, the differing sexual innuendoes which underlie the various stories circulating about the encounter between sperm and egg: does the sperm assault the egg, or is it drawn in by it?)

Discussion turned back to the claim of the Player King in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that, if no one is watching, the whole production vanishes. Is the same thing true for science? If there is no audience, is there no activity? Although inaccurate from a historical point of view, many would assert that science is audience-independent. Perhaps this is the most important lesson of the parallels Hiroshi drew for us--that the activity of science is also audience-dependent? We need also to differentiate among science's various audiences; oftentimes, science doesn't "let everyone know" what it is doing (as when the atom bomb was being designed). When science husbands its esoteric knowledge, as if it were a secret society, it is less public than theatrical art, by its very nature, has to be.

The further discussion of such questions is invited to continue in the on-line forum. The semester's series will continue next Friday, Feb. 25, when Tom Deans of the Haverford College Writing Center will lead a discussion on "Writing Across Contexts: Audience and Genre. What is composition studies and what does it tell us about how writers reach different audiences? We'll look at five kinds of writing knowledge--rhetorical knowledge, discourse community knowledge, genre knowledge, subject matter knowledge, and process knowledge--and consider how these work (and sometimes don't work) together as academic writers negotiate new contexts."

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