Seattle productions blur line between science and art

Seattle productions blur line between science and art
Alabastro Photography | Alan Alabastro Hot ticket: Seattle Repertory Theatre’s “Photograph 51,” which tells the story of British scientist Rosalind Franklin, stars Brian Earp and Kirsten Potter, above. The theater extended the show’s run after local companies including Dendreon bought out entire nights for their employees to attend.
SEATTLE -- The line that divides artistic endeavors from scientific and technical disciplines is getting blurry, and no place is that more evident than in the Puget Sound region's theaters, where artists, scientists and even computer programmers are coming together to create and support their shared passion: the pursuit of truth.

This month alone, two Seattle plays are bringing technology and science to the stage. In one, lines of computer code play a central role in a retelling of one of Shakespeare's most famous plays. And in the other, the story of one woman's contribution to DNA modeling leads to a deeper discussion of women in science.

Currently, at the state and federal level, there is a push to include the arts in efforts to expand science, technology, engineering and math education (think STEAM instead of STEM). And there have even been protests at colleges and universities where liberal arts programs have been cut to fund STEM programs.

Despite the perceived separation of the sciences from traditional concepts of art, a 2012 survey by software company Adobe called the "State of Create" found that 62 percent of U.S. respondents used technology to inspire their creative abilities.

"There's a false dichotomy between the two - either you're an artist or a scientist. I think they have a lot more in common," said Seattle architect and designer Kate Wells-Driscoll, who teaches at the Seattle campus of the International Academy of Design and Technology.

While artists are often characterized as flighty and undisciplined, and technologists as boring, neither stereotype is true, Wells-Driscoll said. Discounting them in that way hurts everyone. Artistic endeavors require intense practice, precision and mastery of technique, while the best technologists and scientists are also incredibly creative thinkers.

"All the banal work we do is to get to these moments of true expression," Wells-Driscoll said. "That's what art is and it's really important."

For many who work in Seattle's arts and technology sectors, the two have been connected for years.

"You could already call it a tradition in the visual art world," said Annie Dorsen, a director at On the Boards theater in Seattle's Lower Queen Anne neighborhood.

She said visual and musical artists were playing with technology concepts in the 1950s and have continued to use the latest technology in their works, including a recent trend for visual art to contain motion sensors that allow it to react and respond to the viewer. Modern classical musicians also frequently use computers as instruments in their compositions.

But theater has been slower to adopt technology, Dorsen said.

Dorsen is directing the play "False Peach," which has its world premiere at On the Boards in Seattle on Feb. 21. Dorsen, actor Scott Shepherd, computer programmer Mark Hansen and a group of stage and lighting design artists have spent the last year and a half taking Shakespeare's famous play "Hamlet" and linking it to a complex set of computer cues.

They've built an algorithm - a list of rules that determines the path a computer program takes - that recombines every aspect of the play to make new scenes with the existing text. For example, they assigned an emotional value in their computer code to every word of the play, and the lighting, set and actors respond as directed by the program.

The play is different every time it is performed.

"What you get as a result has some logic to it, some order, some structure. Sometimes you're watching it and it makes no sense, sometimes it seems like there's a pattern," Dorsen said.

Some lines are read and performed by digital voices on computers, others by Shepherd on stage.

"What I'm trying to get at is artificial intelligence that can make theater," Dorsen said.

She's been interested in the artistic opportunities presented by algorithms for years and thought Shakespeare's rich and emotional language would be the perfect place to start.

"When I was putting the text through speakers with those computer voices, the emotional gap was just so wide it broke my heart," Dorsen said.

Just around the corner from On the Boards, one of Seattle's most well-known theaters is continuing its tradition of science and technology-themed plays with "Photograph 51." The play, which is currently under way at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, tells the story of British scientist Rosalind Franklin and her role in the discovery of the double-helix model of DNA in the early 1950s. Franklin's male colleagues, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize for the discovery; Franklin died before she could be recognized for her contribution.

"I knew about Watson and Crick, but when you talk to the science community, they know her," said Braden Abraham, who directs the play.

In fact, the bioscience community in Seattle knows Franklin so well, the show's run had to be extended until March 10 after several local companies, including Dendreon and C3 Research Associates, bought out entire nights for their employees to attend.

"We've made it a networking event for the bioscience industry," said Katie Jackman, external relations director for Seattle Rep. "These are not people who are normally coming into our building."

Jackman said she has worked on marketing the play to the biotech community with help from scientists who sit on the theater's board of directors and with a local group called Women in Biology, which is hosting a discussion after the Feb. 17 performance.

The talk will be led by Dr. Leroy Hood, president and co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology and 2012 National Medal of Science award winner. Hood will sit on a panel with University of Washington computer science professor Anna Karlin and Kalliopi Trachana, a postdoctoral fellow at the Leroy Hood Lab.
Actor Kirsten Potter, who plays Franklin in the show, said she's looking forward to the nights when the audience is full of scientists.

"There are some jokes, like the ones with hemoglobin references, that aren't landing as well with the traditional audience," Potter said.

Like many scientists who have found creative expression in art, Potter said working on the play has expanded her view of science and its connection to art.

"When I started, I thought science was about right and wrong. But things are right until they're proven wrong," Potter said. "As an actor, I'm searching for a truth. I may not know what it is, but I know when I don't have it."