Einstein on the boards

Can quantum physics be staged? Clare Bayley sees the appliance of theatrical science
Do changing perceptions of how the universe is shaped affect our relationship to the world? Does the purported death of the grande narrative, render conventional story-telling forms meaningless to contemporary audiences? These were the ambitious q uestions addressed by "Navigators in the Playground of Possibility", a week of workshops at Jackson's Lane Community Centre, north London, involving scientists and theatre artists. Organised by Arts Catalyst and Louder than Words Productions, it was hope d each discipline might shed light on the other.

The exchange of ideas was lively in both directions. Chaos theorists like the LSE's Paul Redfern and cosmologists like Pedro Ferraira from Imperial College are already searching for philosophical answers as well as purely empirical solutions. And their work offers up a new vocabulary of ideas and terminology irresistible to an artist's imagination: a world of "strange attractors" and "absent presences"; notions of straight lines in curved space and fault-lines called "strings" whizzing around the universe. "We have strongly defined ideas about what a play is - exposition, development, resolution - but that doesn't reflect how we live our lives," Ruth Ben-Tovim of Louder than Words explains. "Young audiences who are flocking to films and raves aren't going to the theatre, and maybe it isn't just what theatre is saying that's the problem, but how it's saying it. The aim wasn't to convey the theories' content, but to draw on their structures to make theatre."

While Tom Stoppard's interest in chaos theory produced the structurally conventional Arcadia, the "Navigators" prompted an investigation into non-linear narratives. This resulted in a "fractal theatre", consisting of seemingly irregular fluctuations which in fact conform to mathematical (or choreographed) equations, something which companies like the Wooster Group in the US and Forced Entertainment here have long experimented with.

One of the main by-products of the project was a greater insight into theatre-making processes. "A lot of the ways of working, like improvisation, seem to be completely unstructured," Ben-Tovim says, "but if you look at it from a different perspective, you see the initial conditions are very clearly set, allowing free experimentation within a controlled situation."

The work inspired by the scientists deliberately left content out of the calculations. But can structures really be explored separately to the stories they carry? Ben-Tovim concedes the point: "By the end of the week it became clear that there is a desire for narrative. We are just beginning to explore the possibility of a hybrid form which combines both narrative and non-linearity."

These are the rudimentary stages of the experiment, but if a butterfly's wing beating on the other side of the world can cause hurricanes here, who knows what effects these workshops will have on future generations of theatre artists.