For one innovative theater company in Seattle, the stage is a veritable laboratory for scientific inquiry. Named after a collection of science fiction and fantasy stories by Kate Wilhelm, Infinity Box Theatre Project is a citizens’ scientific research institute rolled into a theater company.
“It’s an old idea of mine. ... It started as a question: What if the theater is a think tank?” said David Mills, Ph.D., artistic/program director of Infinity Box. “The idea basically was to combine theater and issues about science, and to use theater to talk about science and technology. ... What are the stories of the people who have done science in the past and what do they mean to us now?”
For Mills, the stage is an ideal vehicle for injecting science into everyday life. Though understanding high-level physics or chemistry can seem daunting, Mills believes that 21st-century scientific study should be seen as analogous to sports. Most people can’t play football professionally, but they can watch it, enjoy it, talk about it and have an opinion on it.
Mills feels that narrative is needed in order to illuminate complex scientific inquiry, like the ethics of robotic engineering.
“I started out as a biophysics graduate student, but I got hijacked by the theater department along the way,” said Mills. With his dual backgrounds, he believes that each work of art is an experiment that has two parts: what artists do with the materials they have, and how the audience reacts when the final product is put before them.
Meanwhile, each scientific experiment is a work of art.
“Scientists and artists often believe they think differently, but it’s not so,” Mills said. “Science and art go back a long way.”
Infinity Box got its start three years ago when Mills heard that Seattle University was producing Bertolt Brecht’s play, Life of Galileo. Mills had heard that Tom Stoppard had written his own version and he decided to get permission to do a public reading of Stoppard’s text. Faculty from the university’s physics and history departments participated in the discussion after the staged reading. It was so popular that Mills decided to hold a reading again in 2011, calling the event “Galileo Dialogues.”
Instead of Stoppard’s play, this year’s “Galileo Dialogues” will feature a reading of Falling Bodies by Mary Jo Salter. Centered on the documented historical meeting of the English poet John Milton and Galileo, the play explores the intersections of literature, science, religion and political dissent. The reading will be held at 7 p.m. on Feb. 13 in Seattle University’s Wykoff Auditorium and will be followed by a discussion with Salter, who will be joined by faculty members from Seattle University and Evergreen State University.
Though “Galileo Dialogues” is put on only once a year, Infinity Box hosts a popular quarterly gathering in the Fireside Room at the Sorrento Hotel. Called Psychlotron, the event is based on a Denver series called “Tag Team Lectures on Unrelated Topics.”
“We get people from very different backgrounds and they talk about whatever they want to. … They pass the microphone back and forth, and then the audience gets half an hour to make any connections they can,” Mills said.
The links that the audience makes between the specialists’ lectures can be odd, unexpected or astonishing.
“I don’t put people together who have obvious connections,” said Mills. “The first was a fiber artist and a geophysicist.”
While the fiber artist talked about stitching together old maps as art, the geophysicist discussed the Earth’s core and large-scale disasters. The audience made connections about the sense of place — how to look at familiar and unfamiliar places, and the conjecture that both ways of looking are inherently experimental.
The next edition of Psychlotron will be held on Feb. 21 at 6 p.m. in the Fireside Room of the Sorrento Hotel. The two speakers will be Geof Alm, a local stage combat trainer and choreographer, and Ann Macfarlane, a Robert’s Rules parliamentarian.
An upcoming program that Mills is excited to introduce to Infinity Box’s repetoire is the “Thought Experiments” series. These new short plays will center on a specific scientific theme and are currently being written by five local playwrights who were each paired with a local scientist working in robotics and artificial intelligence. The plays, which will debut in the fall, will explore innovations in artificial intelligence that are being developed today, as well as how humanity will deal with these breakthroughs in the future.
“We’re building things that are either doing things we considered human, or ones we are treating like humans,” explained Mills. “What does that mean for us, as humans?”
Whether the new plays present the science of robotic engineering realistically or as a sci-fi fantasy, Mills expects they will spark conversation and debate. He currently has no idea what will come out of each playwright-scientist collaboration — but that’s the appeal of the process.
“The challenge was which scientist do I put with each playwright? … It’s an experiment,” he said. “Thought Experiments” will be an annual event, with prosthetics as next year’s theme and genetics taking the stage the following year.
In June, Infinity Box will mount its first full-scale production, Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis!, a world premiere adaptation of a short story by Kate Wilhelm. The 1976 story details an early version of a reality TV show, in which four contestants must survive in the Alaskan wilderness. In the play, the audience can only hear the audio from the experimental show, which is being watched by two actors on stage, who experience the psychological impact of watching people die for a prize.
To Mills, Infinity Box is a niche theater. “There are science plays and grants that support them, but a lot of these use a scientific concept to present an idea — science as metaphor — rather than being about the science or scientists,” he said. Infinity Box brings science directly to the audience.
For more information, visit www.infinitybox.org.