Saturday, January 6, 2018

Shining Light On Long-Hidden Kernels of Truth

When TiVo machines hit the market, I became an early fan of digital video recorder (DVR) technology. However, I soon noticed that while some users couldn't wait to come home from work and discover what TiVo had chosen for them to watch, I had absolutely no interest in using its "learning" feature. Not only did I have too many films and programs I already knew I wanted to watch, I understood that there were only so many hours of viewing time available to me on any given day.

During that period I became more acutely aware of how a person's curiosity sparks emotionally-driven choices that an algorithm might miss. Whereas many online publications now deliver daily lists of hyperlinked articles to subscribers in a convenient email format, I still like to poke around certain websites in search of an oddity that will trigger my curiosity. The same thing happens when I'm browsing through the program listings for an upcoming film festival. After I've made my initial selections based on the print descriptions for each film, I'm often surprised at how quickly I will reject a potential choice because of the style of editing and use of music in the film's trailer.

What makes one person think differently from another? A recent feature on offered two valuable quotes from theatrical powerhouses. Lin-Manuel Miranda stated that:
"I really figured out who I was by being involved in high school theatre -- by finding my tribe and finding the people who were older and younger than me and consumed by the same thing: we wanted to make stuff. We didn't just want to hang out, there was plenty of that. I never understood that. You're just wasting time sitting in the stairwell. What are you making? What are you doing?"
Oskar Eustis (the Artistic Director of The Public Theatre in New York) recalled that:
"For my entire time growing up, I was too loud, I talked too much, I was way too eager, too enthusiastic. I thought too hard, I laughed too loud, and I cried too easily. As soon as I was in the theatre, I felt I found people who got me, and suddenly all of those things that were social negatives, out in the real world were social positives."

How humans organize facts and emotions in their mind is a constant source of wonder. The recent death of Ben Barres marked the end of a brilliant career which, among other things, made critical discoveries about the function and importance of glial cells (see Ed Yong's moving tribute in The Atlantic entitled The Transgender Scientist Who Changed How We See the Brain). Within the scientific community, the personal path Barres followed while transitioning from female to male made him a role model whose first-hand experience clearly demonstrated the rampant levels of sexism within the field of scientific research.

While many journalists spent December compiling lists of the 10 best and/or worst items of interest to them in 2017, others chose to publish powerful, thought-provoking pieces about how art makes us more human. Live theatre demands a unique type of commitment from artists as well as involvement from their audiences. At its simplest level, this means that everyone needs to pay attention to what's happening. If you're an artist whose mind wanders, you could flub a line, miss a cue, or suddenly find yourself "not present in the moment." If you're a member of the audience who starts nodding off, you could open your eyes to discover an actor staring you in the face.

On December 29, the recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Pakistani-American playwright Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced, The Invisible Hand, Junk), published a provocative piece in The New York Times entitled An Antidote to Digital Dehumanization? Live Theater. Two days later, Wesley Morris followed suit with The Acrobatic Artwork That Pretty Much Sums Up 2017, an article describing a performance piece by Yoann Bourgeois entitled The Mechanics of History that he witnessed at the Panthéon in Paris.

Noted Bay area acrobat/clown, Ross Travis, wrote a lovely piece on the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre's Alumni Blog entitled Because of Dell Arte ... I’m a Risk Junky that recently caught my attention. I first encountered Travis at the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival when he appeared as an emaciated fool in Naked Empire Bouffon's production of You Killed Hamlet, or Guilty Creatures Sitting At A Play. Two years ago, he launched his own company: Antic in a Drain. In his blog post, Travis wrote:
Risk is one of the tenets of Dell’Arte’s pedagogy: Effort, Risk, Momentum, Joy. During my time at the school I got to hone my appetite and aptitude for being a danger ranger. My chief interest and joy swiftly became toying, pushing, flicking, prodding, trampling and destroying that ‘sacred space’ between audience and performer -- that ubiquitous fourth wall. I also became interested in that moment where nobody in the theatre space (audience and performers alike) is sure of what’s going to happen next. When a performer makes a mistake, is caught by surprise, forgets their line, gets heckled by the audience; when something happens unexpectedly -- it’s a moment of pure reality. At Dell’Arte, I learned that another way to find this moment is by playing onstage as an athlete and to approach scenes as games. The risk of failure and how players navigate it is a main reason sports are so popular. That risk is what makes crowds sit forward, choose sides, scream and yell.”
“I used to dream of a day where theatre shows could have the same effect as a football game and take place in a stadium with the audience painting their faces, waving foam fingers and cheering and jeering the actor players. The closest modern theatrical medium I’ve found to this is the circus and that’s where I’ve ended up. I feel grateful to Dell’Arte not only for giving me one of the best years of my life but for helping to foster my addiction to physical and emotional risk which has become the cornerstone of my artistic trip. To my mind, bouffon is the riskiest theatrical territory because it requires every single tool in an actor’s toolbox (often all at the same time). Bouffons, in their pure essence, are beings that can do and be anything. They are funhouse mirror reflections of the world around them, which requires a performer to be hyper aware and empathetic, reflexively sharp, have a large performative skill set, elite physicality, fearlessness of looking stupid, commitment to portraying taboo subject matter, and an immense pleasure in seeking out risky situations like a fiend.”

The final performance on my 2017 calendar delivered a sweet surprise. Somehow, in between reading an initial notice about the play and heading to the Berkeley City Club, I had assumed that Ira Hauptman's play, Partition, was about 1947's geographic partition imposed between India and Pakistan by the British. I was sorely and happily mistaken (partly because of a curious change in my own career path).

Shortly after beginning my undergraduate years at Brooklyn College (on the misguided assumption that I could major in math), I came to the painful realization that I was hopelessly lost when it came to the concepts underlying "new math." When it became obvious that I was going to flunk one of my early courses, I realized that I had to find a new major. Since most of my passion at the time was focused on attending live performances of opera and theatre (without having the slightest idea where it might lead me), I switched over to the Department of Speech and Theatre with a concentration on theatre history. I have never regretted that decision.

Hauptman's play focuses on two brilliant mathematicians whose shared interest in prime numbers brought them together during the second decade of the 20th century.
Heren Patel as Srinivasa Ramanujan in a scene from Partition
(Photo by: John Held)

Presented by Indra's Net Theatre Company and directed by Bruce Coughran, Partition shows how brilliant minds can be affected (for better or worse) by the culture in which they develop. In a classic case of nature versus nurture, Hardy is seen as a repressed and unfeeling academic paralyzed by Ramanujan's need for some human warmth. Where Hardy puts all his focus and faith into rigorously structured mathematical proofs, Ramanujan (a strict vegetarian who credits his discoveries to a Hindu family goddess who appears to him in his dreams) is as much a source of wonderment and frustration to his mentor as Mozart might have been to Salieri.

Billed as "a fantasy based on the life of this legendary Indian clerk who came up with mathematical theorems that rivaled those of any mathematician in history," Hauptman's play makes solid use of magical realism. Not only does Ramanujan interact in his dreams with the Goddess, Namagiri of Namakkal, when his health starts to decline and the young man sinks into a state of depression, Hardy gives him a copy of Fermat's last theorem (initially posited in 1637 and finally proven after 357 years by Andrew Wiles in 1994) to study.

Audiences who fear extended discussions of mathematics need not fear attending Hauptman's play which, in many ways, probes the cultural conflicts stemming from Hardy's white privilege (combined with an academic's glaring lack of empathy) and Ramanujan's humility and gratitude to the Goddess he worships as a muse. Ramanujan's frustration with trying to prove Fermat's last theorem leads to some highly entertaining scenes in an alternate universe where the Goddess tries to pry the mathematical proof of the theorem from the spirit of Pierre de Fermat (which remains as horny in death as it might have been while Fermat was alive). In his Director’s Note, Coughran stresses that:
“In the same way painters use color, musicians use sound, and poets use words, Hardy and Ramanujan used numbers in a quest for the intrinsic, profound beauty they contained. Hardy (the atheist) and Ramanujan (the devout Hindu) were, in a sense, on the same spiritual quest. This created one of the most unusual and powerful working relationships in the history of the sciences. I think it was that quest for the ‘divine’ in mathematics that drew me to this play. In the theater, we often see ourselves as on a similar quest. Theater folk sometimes use words like ‘truth’ or ‘authenticity’ to describe it. But these words are poor substitutes for something that cannot be really named; something that we ‘know when we see it.’ People go to the theater hoping to find it, even though they may never acknowledge that is what they are doing. Certainly most (I would say almost all) theater professionals choose this as a profession because of some profoundly personal experience of ‘it’ that they had in a theater somewhere.”
Marco Aponte as Pierre de Fermat with Aparna Krishnamoorthy as
the Goddess, Namagiri of Namakkal, in a scene from Partition
(Photo by: John Feld)
“The quest for beauty might be both the deepest of human desires, and the hardest to describe. The dance of life, or of the gods, may be closer to us than we ever think. And maybe the beauty of an equation can get us closer to that as well. G.H. Hardy was famously insistent that his work was ‘pure mathematics,’ devoid of any application. He said ‘My work does not and will not have any effect on any applied problem.’ Despite his desires, some of Hardy’s work did find wide-ranging application. The Hardy-Weinberg principle became the foundation of population biology. Some of his work with Ramanujan forms the basis for describing energy levels in atoms and is widely used in quantum mechanics. So I think a play about the inspiration that comes from the search for theorems of ‘pure mathematics’ is not nearly as odd a thing as you might casually think.”
Aparna Krishnamoorthy as the Goddess, Namagiri of Namakkal,
with Marco Aponte as Pierre de Fermat in a scene from Partition
(Photo by: John Feld)

While the bulk of the evening rests on the able shoulders of Alan Coyne as Hardy and Heren Patel as Ramanujan, under Coughran's direction Aparna Krishnamoorthy scores strongly as the Goddess, with David Boyll lending support as Alfred Billington and Marco Aponte doubling as a London policeman and Fermat's spirit.

Performances of Partition continue through January 14 at the Berkeley City Club (click here for tickets).

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