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Nilanjan Chakraborty, Suparna Rajaram and Heather Lynch

Science Takes Center Stage

One-act collaborative plays creatively portray the complex issues of our times

 

By Lori Kie

Nilanjan Chakraborty doesn’t often discuss the Industrial Revolution and 19th-century English literature when he talks about the technicalities and philosophical implications of artificial intelligence (AI).

Suparna Rajaram doesn’t usually talk about her personal life when she’s discussing her research about how social influences affect memory.

Heather Lynch talks a lot about the threat that climate change poses to penguins, but rarely the ethics and environmental costs of conducting research in the Antarctic.

There are many aspects of science that Stony Brook University’s scientists don’t often discuss publicly.

Now theater is making those difficult but important conversations possible — and bringing them to the stage.

“I think this is truly what we want education to be; it’s interdisciplinary, it’s collaborative,” said Ken Weitzman, an associate professor in the Department of English and the creator of Science on Stage, an original, creative endeavor bringing together theater and science to depict challenging concepts. “When you have professors or professionals in different domains communicating their scholarship across those domains, it forces a different kind of communication. It shakes loose certain ideas and imaginative leaps.”

Those leaps are embodied in three one-act plays, each inspired by one of the three Stony Brook scientists, written by award-winning playwrights and brought to life by professional actors. They explore timely, complex problems: AI, collective memory and climate change.

This semester was the second time Science on Stage was performed at Stony Brook, this year held in person at the Staller Center in October, followed by a panel of the faculty and playwrights discussing the plays with Weitzman after the performances. (The first Science on Stage in 2020 was held virtually due to Covid).

Ken Weitzman

Ken Weitzman, the creator of Science on Stage, hopes to expand the program next year.

The program is Weitzman’s brainchild, inspired by his devotion to theater and his affiliation with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, a Stony Brook organization that helps researchers improve their communication skills, in part through improvisational theater. A professional playwright, Weitzman is always looking for ways to bring theater to the Stony Brook community. Developing a collection of 10-minute plays seemed to him like an exciting way to bring art and science together to spark curiosity and conversation.

“Stories speak to hearts as well as minds,” Weitzman said. “Science on Stage can be a model way for artists, humanists and scientists to partner and offer new ways for research to be communicated. It’s helping the public — and the scientists and artists — to make what I hope will be profound connections to theater, scientific inquiry and the intersection between art and science.”

Chakraborty, Lynch and Rajaram had responded to a call for volunteers from Weitzman in 2020 during the first iteration of the project, which was supported by a grant from The Kavli Foundation to the Alda Center.

This year a seed grant from the Office of the Provost is supporting the project, covering the cost of hiring actors and commissioning award-winning playwrights: Greg Kotis, a two-time Tony winner known for Urinetown; Michele Lowe, whose play The Smell of the Kill debuted on Broadway in 2002, with her latest play, Moses, opening later this year; and Rogelio Martinez, whose plays, such as Blind Date, have been produced across the United States and overseas.

After making introductions, Weitzman encouraged each playwright-scientist duo to have in-depth conversations and then stepped aside to give them space to collaborate.

“The whole process has been surprising, bracing and fun. It feels like a big challenge to enlist actual scientific ideas and this literary foundation, and make it something someone would want to watch for 10 or 15 minutes,” said Kotis, who worked with Chakraborty. “It was really interesting to engage with somebody who is not making up fiction but is trying to grapple with the world as it is and release the greater power that’s there.”

In Kotis’ play, characters from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein confront an AI researcher, inspired by Chakraborty, about their fear that scientific breakthroughs could lead to unintended consequences — science run amok, literally and figuratively.

“One of the things that I wanted to communicate was that AI is just another scientific thing; there is hype and there is science beyond the hype,” said Chakraborty, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. “We wanted to make sure that the real problems posed by AI — misinformation and job displacement — come through in the play.

“For me, this project was about my own curiosity,” he added. “I’ve never done anything like this in my life, so why not?”

Curiosity also drove Lynch. Several years ago, she started writing screenplays to help her students understand complex statistics. She found that it works, and that her students find it fun.

“It’s been interesting to work with a professional and see how the sausage gets made,” said Lynch, a professor of ecology and evolution and a National Geographic Explorer. “I think of these kinds of projects as the things that help me keep going in my research. The whole point of tenure is that you get to expand your horizons and try different things.”

To Rajaram, a SUNY distinguished professor of cognitive science in the Department of Psychology, collaboration between and across disciplines is the entire point of education. Though she ultimately chose to spend her life exploring the nature of human memory and complex, large-scale group memory phenomena, she very nearly chose a career in literature. In either path, her interest lies in helping build a common understanding of human experience.

“I go back to the concept of a well-rounded education, where you really see the gamut of what creativity means across disciplines,” she said. “A concept like Science on Stage is crucial for doing that. And let’s face it, for an audience, something that speaks to them in terms of their own lived experience is much more compelling than picking up a dry scientific paper.”

Rajaram was impressed when Martinez asked for details about her research and links to her papers. She was more impressed when she saw how his first draft incorporated her work into his characters’ attempts to remember how a momentous shared event in their lives actually happened.

“When people see this play, I’m hoping they will relate to it as their own experience, that it will be kind of an aha moment,” Rajaram said. “We try to weave a story of our past that we all believe we have experienced, and that gives us a sense of bonding and affiliation.”

For Lynch and Chakraborty, Science on Stage was a chance to explore a different kind of creative process.

“It’s a bit nerve-wracking putting these plays on for the world. Michele managed to tap into some issues that are very real,” Lynch said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s already a success.”  

Lowe’s play features two people on an Antarctic cruise —  a vacationer and a penguin researcher who leads scientific expeditions for the tourists. As the characters talk about climate change, the play explores some of the ethical quandaries of being in such a fragile ecosystem.

Science on Stage has already delved into complex societal problems: ethical AI, health disparities, research funding, climate change and collective memory, and Weitzman hopes to expand the project beyond Stony Brook in its next iteration. The beauty of one-act plays is how quickly they can be written, produced and performed — a matter of months as opposed to years for a full-length play. New plays can be commissioned to engage with issues as they arise, develop and impact people and societies.

The project’s power, Weitzman said, lies in its ability to spark conversation about the role and impact of research on audiences.  

According to Lynch, it can also be fun.

“Learning about science doesn’t have to be suffering,” she said. “People might know nothing about physics but they watch The Big Bang Theory, and that’s OK; the door has been cracked open. The strength of programs like this is they meet people where they’re at. We shouldn’t turn our noses up at having fun and doing science. It can be fun and engaging, and I’m so glad this project is happening to prove it.”

The 2023 Science on Stage plays were performed on October 30. To read the plays or to watch the panel discussion that followed the performances, please visit this page on the Alda Center’s website.

Shown Above: Nilanjan Chakraborty, Suparna Rajaram and Heather Lynch — the three professors who shared their unique stories that inspired this year’s plays.

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