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Theatre of Science

Article

Richard Wiseman

Volume 31.3, May / June 2007

Two academics show—somewhat to their own surprise—that there is an audience for a live stage science show. And they have fun doing it. Will others follow?

Around the turn of the last century, theatergoers could enjoy many different forms of entertainment, including drama, music, comedy, and . . . wait for it . . . science shows. Surprising as it may now seem, leading scientists of the day were prepared to take off their lab coats, put on some greasepaint, and tread the boards. Packed houses would watch in awe as these learned men demonstrated the very latest scientific advances, including electrical wonders, amazing chemical reactions, and the marvels of magnetism. Unfortunately, this heady mixture of entertainment and science didn’t stand the test of time, and within a few years the scientific showmen found themselves out of the limelight and back in the less glamorous world of lecture theaters and public halls.

Fast-forward about a century or so to late 2001, when I received a telephone call from science writer Simon Singh. Simon and I first met about ten years ago when we worked together on an episode of the well-known BBC television science program Tomorrow’s World. Simon had called to ask if I was interested in being involved in a joint project. He thought it would be fun for us to turn back the hands of time and co-present a science show at a London theater. I was initially skeptical for two reasons. First, it wasn’t my idea. Second, I wasn’t convinced that the latest discoveries in physics and mathematics would really hold the attention of a modern audience. Sure, there were lots of successful science shows for children, and even some aimed at family audiences, but Simon wanted to move beyond that. He was eager to reach regular theatergoers, essentially asking them to choose science over Shakespeare. The challenge seemed considerable, but it was an interesting idea, and I agreed to be involved.

Simon persuaded The National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts (NESTA) to fund the project, and he invited theater director Portia Smith to help create the show. After much deliberation, we settled upon the title Theatre of Science, and set about finding an off-West End venue in London. Our initial approaches were met with a dispiriting mixture of disbelief and skepticism, with several theater managers telling us that a science show simply wouldn’t attract an audience. However, persistence paid off, and we eventually found a venue willing to host the show. The Soho Theatre is located in the heart of London’s theater district, and has forged a considerable reputation for staging unusual and cutting edge performances. The Soho’s manager liked the idea of taking science out of the lab and onto the stage and offered us a run at his theater.

After a few days of rehearsal, the show started to take shape. The first half involved Simon illustrating various aspects of probability theory by demonstrating gambling scams and undertaking bets with members of the audience. After a short interval, I explored the psychology of deception and lying with the help of magic tricks and optical illusions. Strictly adhering to a “show don’t tell” principle, rule, both halves involved as much audience interaction as possible. For example, when discussing the efficacy of lie detectors, we hooked up an audience member to a polygraph and projected that person’s physiological data live onto a large screen as he attempted to deceive the audience. We also thought it a good idea to inject some comedy into the proceedings. Simon started off the show by using mathematics to “prove” that the Teletubbies are evil, and undermined The Bible Code by pointing out that the same principles can be used to demonstrate how the death of Diana Princess of Wales was “predicted” within the pages of Moby Dick. We also made a conscious decision to construct a show that was decidedly low-tech, simply equipping ourselves with an overhead projector, some acetates, and a couple of marker pens. We ditched the idea of any staging, including wings or sophisticated lighting plots, and chatted with the audience as they walked into the auditorium. This low-tech approach to staging seemed appropriate. Science is all about trying to discover how the world really works, and so it seemed appropriate to remove the various theatrical devices usually employed to help an audience suspend disbelief and instead present the show in a far more straightforward way.

We opened at The Soho Theatre in March 2002. The idea of two academics venturing onto a West-End stage armed with just a few acetates and a couple of theories attracted the attention of the media, and the show received considerable press and radio coverage. As a result, our initial run quickly sold out and the theater was happy to add some additional dates. The performances drew a strong response from both the audience and reviewers alike. One newspaper, The Evening Standard, wrote that the show “almost makes academia sexy” and described it as “a unique masterclass on the mind.” Similarly, What’s On magazine called it “an uplifting, thought-provoking and frequently hilarious alternative to the usual theatre fare.” Perhaps more important, feedback forms indicated that about half of the audience had absolutely no background in science, nor had attended any previous science-based event. The show was taking science to this new audience simply by being performed in an accessible way within a theatrical context. One online review underlined this point, noting, “Don’t fear the men in white coats, this is an entertaining hour for even the most scientifically illiterate.”

The Royal Society was kind enough to provide funding for us to take the show up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2002, and we again attracted a sell-out audience. Flushed with success, Simon and I did nothing more with the show for a couple of years. Then, in 2005, again supported by NESTA, we decided to stage a more ambitious version of the show back at the Soho Theatre. We devised various new items. For example, each night Simon was given just three minutes to explain the entire history of the universe, and then he demonstrated the concept behind redshift by electrocuting a gherkin.

Part of the expansion process involved bringing other performers on board. A few years earlier, I had worked with Delia Du Sol, one of the U.K.’s top contortionists, on a project exploring the science of anatomy. This work had involved taking MRI scans of Delia as she performed extreme back-bends. During Theatre of Science, we showed these scans to the audience prior to them watching Delia’s performance, in order that they had a much greater understanding of how her unique anatomy allowed her to bend her body into seemingly impossible shapes. We also invited musicians Sarah Angliss and Stephen Wolf to perform the world’s only theremin duet, and explain how electromagnetism allowed the performers to play these unique instruments without touching them.

Richard Wiseman, left, explores the anatomy of contortionist Delia Du Sol, right.

Richard Wiseman, left, explores the anatomy of contortionist Delia Du Sol, right.

While developing ideas for the show, I came across a quote from magician Harry Houdini, stating that, if a performer wants to guarantee a full house, he or she should simply advertise the fact that a stunt is being performed that may result in death. The words resonated with me, and I started to look around for a genuinely dangerous, but science-based, stunt that could be performed in the intimate setting of the Soho Theatre.

Eventually, I came across HVFX—a company that makes high-voltage electricity equipment for television and stage. I approached them and explained our situation, and technical director Nick Field kindly agreed to put together something for the show. He constructed two rather odd looking metal pillars, known as Tesla coils, capable of generating six-foot bolts of million-volt lightning. HVFX also built a coffin-shaped cage that would go between the coils and absorb the full force of the strikes, assuring us that various thus far incontrovertible laws of physics meant that it was safe to stand inside the cage. As a finale to the show, either Simon or myself entered the coffin-shaped cage and absorbed the full force of the strikes. There was no room for error, as the bolts of lightning were potentially lethal.

The staging of such a dangerous stunt attracted a large amount of media attention, and, once again, we quickly sold out for the entire run. Again we added more nights, and again they too sold out. We proved that science could hold its own against more mainstream forms of theater, and the reviews were positive, with, for example, The Times remarking that “the spirit of Houdini lives on.”

In 2006, we were invited to perform the show for a short run in an off-Broadway theater. Cosponsored by the Center for Inquiry office in New York as part of an arts and science festival being organized by CFI Director Austin Dacey, we boxed up the show and crossed the Atlantic. The Theater For The New City is located in the heart of New York’s East Village district—an area home to several other unusual off-Broadway shows including The Blue Man Group and Stomp. The theater’s cavernous auditorium provided a perfect Frankenstein-like setting for the show and allowed us to crank up the output from the coils.

The hefty construction of our cage had prevented us shipping it to America, and so we had to create a new cage onsite. Unfortunately, obtaining a generator that could produce the power required by the European coils proved surprisingly time-consuming, and so we had precious little time to construct our new “cage of death.” A quick trip to a couple of hardware stores resulted in a stack of six-foot-long metal tubes, a small saw, a roll of thin metal mesh, and a pair of industrial scissors. Simon and I set to work and managed to hastily construct a wobbly-but-workable cage, finishing just fifteen minutes before the opening performance. The curtain went up and we faced our first American audience. Fifty minutes later, with the stage bathed in red light, we moved the cage between the coils, and Simon bravely climbed inside. The coils buzzed into action, and the bolts of lethal lightning slammed into the somewhat shaky structure. Simon emerged alive, and the audience cheered.

It was only later that we discovered that the new cage was potentially far more lethal than the one we had used in Britain. The U.K. cage is constructed from thick copper tubing, making it safe for the performer to touch the inside of the cage. However, the much thinner mesh we had used in the U.S. meant that touching the inside of the cage would, if you excuse the pun, prove to be a shockingly lethal experience.

We played to packed houses, again showing that there is an audience willing to spend a scientific night out at the theater (or watch scientists risk death). We will remember the experience for a long time, not only because of the buzz of taking the first science show off-Broadway, but because night after night, we were a little too close to the one thing that, performers dread—dying on stage.

Five years ago, I fully expected Theatre of Science to be a one-time set of performances that would not do especially well. I am happy to admit that I was wrong. There is an audience for science. It is all a question of presenting it in the right way. A century ago, some of the world’s leading scientists took to the stage to educate and excite the public about their work. Our experiences suggest that they were onto something, and our hope is that other academics will now step into the limelight and continue the tradition that is theater of science.

Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman is Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. He is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a Skeptical Inquirer consulting editor. For more information about his work, visit richardwiseman.com.