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Act I Scene I

Thinking Beyond the Boundaries of Theatre, Math and Reality

 

An Interview with John Mighton

Hart House Theatre

 

On October 18, 2013, Kathleen Gallagher conducted an interview with mathematician and Siminovitch prize-winning playwright John Mighton, in front of an audience at Hart House Theatre. The interview, staged as a lead-up event to the announcement of the 2013 Siminovitch Prize, addressed issues to do with education and theatre, and it demonstrated John’s unique interdisciplinary perspective on the role of theatre today.

 

John: I think one of the reasons we struggle in theatre, why theatre struggles to find audiences now, is because we have a population that’s not really been educated according to their full potential. Consequently, many, many people start to lose their sense of curiosity, their sense wonder, their sense of engagement, empathy, all those things. I think children are born with this infinite sense of curiosity and wonder, and over and over they’re told that they can’t do certain things that aren’t important to adults, and that is their experience through school. So they’re lucky to survive leaving with one interest by the end of high school. I think we’ll never have a flourishing theatre or artistic community until we start to address these problems.

 

Kathleen: So maybe one of the problems that you’re talking about is this idea that one either has talent in the arts or talent in sciences and math and technology, but can’t be gifted in both those areas.

 

John:  Yeah, it’s as if you’re using one half of your brain, you have to leave the other half empty for storage.. Less than fifty years ago, people thought women couldn’t do mathematics. We had slaves less than a hundred years ago. We see differences between people or things people can’t do and we just assume they’re genetic or natural, or in-born and we still haven’t really gotten very far beyond that otherwise people would be protesting the state of education now. They would be; they would recognize it as probably the most serious issue facing us. I hope one day we’ll look back on this as a kind of dark age, that we’ll recognize how little we actually did to educate children. I mean we’ve made a lot of progress, we’ve made enormous progress on every front, but we really haven’t even begun to tap into a fraction of the potential that children have. Not just for academic success but for joy, a sense of wonder, a sense of self-efficacy, and motivation.

 

Kathleen: But there are lots of reasons why we hold onto that kind of thinking; it serves many interests. It’s not that we’re just unenlightened, it actually serves the labour market. It serves many interests.

 

John:  Yeah, that’s a really difficult issue. It certainly produces people who accept low wages and will work in very terrible conditions. But in the long run it doesn’t really service our economy at all, if you take a wider view. We’d have a much more productive economy with a well-educated population. There’s even deeper losses that come from failing to educate people. We think, if our government put walls around our national parks and said only certain people can come in here, that only certain people have the talent to come in here and appreciate this beauty, we’d think that was insane. But that’s what we’ve done in the arts, in both the arts and the sciences. For instance, we’d think children were stunted if they didn’t see any beauty in the visible world, in a mountain or a star, but we think it’s natural for them to see no beauty in the invisible world, the incredible patterns and connections that extend through time and space and connect everything in the universe. We think it’s natural that they have no appreciation of the absolutely awe-inspiring elegance of the universe. Whether you believe there’s a creator or not, constantly it outstrips our imagination. We think it’s natural for them to have no sense of that, so there’s a loss there.

 

Kathleen: I know that you’ve talked about this before but I think the idea of talent in the arts or in any area, and the idea of giftedness in education, are at odds a little bit with this better educated utopia that you’re imagining. How do you think about those ideas, given that they that are very ubiquitous and I presume problematic in your view of things?

 

John: There’s research that shows, as early as kindergarten, that kids start to compare themselves and decide who’s talented and who’s not in any given subject and we allow those comparisons to exist because we think they’re natural and innocent. But what if every kid could do well in any subject? The kids that decide they’re not in the talented group, their brains stop working efficiently, they stop engaging, taking risks, listening and they get more and more anxious as they fail. So I think the hierarchies produce themselves. That’s not to say that every kid is the same, but we could raise the standard in every subject so that kids could experience the wonder of any subject.

            I never felt I had a gift for theatre; it took me years. What changed my life was reading Sylvia Plath’s Letters to her Mother when I was around 21. And it was clear from the letters that she taught herself to be a writer by sheer determination. She set out as a teenager to become a poet; she read everything she could about poetry, she memorized poems, she did something we’d never tell young writers to do now. She wrote imitations of the poems she loved and you could see her early poems are very derivative but gradually as she developed her craft, she began to capture her experience. And that was a revelation to me, at age twenty-one, that I could actually follow a path to develop a talent for something. Until then I thought you just had to be born with a gift. So I started imitating her poems and those of other poets and by a series of accidents, ended up in theatre. I think that there are only two things that have kept me going in theatre. One is, I think I’ve been lucky enough to maintain a sense of wonder I had as a child, that came partially from reading science fiction. That’s what gave me a sense that math was a potentially magical subject. And this idea that if you persevered, you could learn something. And maybe a third thing is that I recognized that I would only be able to write if I used a lot of found material. So I would copy down conversations I heard, or things I’d read in journals, or articles and then try and place those things next to each other and see what would happen in the space between. And I think that gradually developed some skills as a kind of editor of the things I was hearing and seeing. So I think for young writers that’s something I think they don’t know they can draw on. The world is constantly producing things that will surpass your imagination and are often more rich and interesting than anything you could create sitting in front of a blank piece of paper. And so you can draw on that.

 

Kathleen: In your writing and thinking you talk a lot about this idea of practice, and I think you have quite specific ideas about how you practice other than in that sort of drilled, monotonous way that many of us have had in math education. So I was wondering, what does that practice look like in theatre? What does that practice look like in the arts?

 

John: It started off very mechanically, trying to find out how a writer would write. I remember reading once that Hemingway set out to write one good sentence a day at one point in his career. So I just tried to write one good sentence or to write a line like some other writer, and gradually realized that I could use my own experience. I remember in New York once I heard someone in the street, a woman yelling and in the middle of a fight the woman yelled at her boyfriend,  “You just don’t know what you don’t want” and I thought that was a great line, a great double negative. And that’s when I began to realize that all I had to do was listen.

 

Kathleen: Right. That reminds me of when I first read Kenneth Branagh’s biography. He says he's often asked: How do you become a great actor? And I remember this line he said “You want to become a great actor, go to the gallery and look at great art.” His answer was: perceive the world; open yourself up to all kinds of experiences and different kinds of arts.

 

John: And the other thing I think I realized as a mathematician and a playwright is that there are a lot of similarities between what I do in both areas because in both you’re looking for patterns, and connections, and resonances, analogies. I think I was inspired by writers like Beckett and Chekhov who were just amazing at finding a formal structure for their plays that would allow all of the things they experienced to fall into place. I first started to understand that in theatre when in the ‘80s I read that apparently people didn’t call each other long distance very often, or enough, from the point of view of Bell Canada. And so that’s why Bell started their “Reach out and Touch Someone” campaign, to really tell people they needed to connect with people in distant places. So in one of my first plays, Scientific Americans, there was this psychologist working for the military, talking about how they had started the “Reach out and Touch Someone Campaign,” and then that was juxtaposed with a son calling his mother and he hadn’t called his mother in a long time. So I realized you could have ideas that float above and frame the action and then all the mundane things that are happening in people’s everyday life would be juxtaposed against them. So that’s when I started realizing the formal structure of the play was very important for me. And I think it really came to a head with plays like Half Life. My mother was in a nursing home for quite a while and had had a stroke and couldn’t feed herself and so she needed to be in the home. I spent a lot of hours waiting there and often had the experience of conversations being interrupted and I remember being at a party once and telling a story and someone had come up and interrupted the story, and when the person went away I decided I wouldn’t continue telling the story. And the person I was talking to completely forgot that I was telling the story, even though it was a few seconds earlier and I thought it was a pretty important story!

 

Kathleen: That sounds like a lot of parties I’ve been to.

 

John:  Yeah. So then I started watching at parties, and seeing how often that happens. And so the opening monologue of Half Life the character talks about that and says that about sixty percent of the time people are not listening to the story they're being told. That monologue sets up that structure of the play and a lot of the scenes of the play are interrupted. Actions constantly interrupted, characters disappear or are forgotten because that felt like the experience in the home. I learned from writers like Beckett and Chekhov how to take the things I was hearing in everyday life, the richness of that experience and then frame it and give it a structure. That partially also came from my mathematical training, always looking for that structure.

 

Kathleen: Structure. That’s a fabulous example. So I want to ask a question about The Little Years which was at the Tarragon last season. I loved your thoughts in the program notes and I was fantasizing about the opportunity to ask you this question from a year ago. So, aha! Here I am now!

 

John:  I hope I have a good answer!

 

Kathleen: That’s right you better not have just made this up, because now I’m holding you accountable! You said, “I wrote The Little Years because I wanted to explore, through the characters of the play, the way a person’s beliefs about time, talent, and the value of art play out in their daily lives.” Fine, that was acceptable. Then you went on to say: “New and almost paradoxical ways of thinking about time and space have emerged in contemporary mathematics and physics. One day, we may be forced to re-imagine, re-examine our unconscious beliefs about art because of these ideas.” What does this mean? I’ve been waiting a year to ask you this question!

 

John: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me that! So, well, you know I think artists are really insecure, playwrights particularly, are really insecure because if you imagine a playwright in the 1930s, who was very popular at the time and moved thousands of people, but their work is forgotten, we tend to think of them as failures. And that idea that the value of a work of art is tied to how long it lasts really started to become pressing for artists around the time of Newton, when there was an idea that time went on forever, with every moment indistinguishable from the last, forever and ever. Before that, people thought time was circular, and they often created works of art anonymously. I mean, there was a huge commodification of time and artists began to think that their value depended on how long their work lasted. I’ve always been really depressed by that, because you have no control over the fate of your work. Your work might be completely valueless if it doesn’t last or if it isn’t seen by enough people. So I got some relief when I started thinking about these new ideas about time. For instance with relativity—this is something a character mentions in the play—but if you had a painting and it was put on a rocket ship and sent away from Earth, and people continued to write about it for thousands of years in Earth time but it only lasted two years in rocket ship time, how long has the painting actually existed? With different frames of reference, time flows at different rates; there is no meaning of absolute time. It becomes hard to even date things., which calls into question whether time really conferring value on things when there is no absolute standard of time. And then there are even worse paradoxes which I really can’t get into, but I’ll just tell you there’s a German mathematician called Cantor who went mad because he discovered that there were different kinds of infinity.

 

Kathleen: Oh no. I have enough trouble with the one kind of infinity!

 

John:  Yeah, most people do! One kind of infinity is pretty much enough, but there are many, there are infinitely many infinities, as it turns out. So, if you match your fingers on two hands, you know there is the same number of fingers on both hands because I can pair them up. So he said, that’s how we should compare the size of infinite sets and then he actually proved that there are some infinite sets you can’t pair up with others. They’re actually bigger in a well-defined sense.

            So, the other most mind boggling discovery or breakthrough in the twentieth century was quantum mechanics, and in quantum mechanics, some people think that when we make measurements, the universe actually splits into different versions of itself. And these aren’t quacks, these are people who developed a whole branch of computing that will have a huge impact on us one day called quantum computing. They’re actually building computers based on very strange properties of electrons. So the people who think there might be multiple universes aren’t quacks. And so I just figured, you can show very easily that if the universe branched in two every second, that that interval, that universe that’s branching has a bigger order of infinity than straight forward Newtonian time where you just have a linear series of instances. So if you’re an artist, you really prefer to live in the branching universe because you’d have a much higher order of immortality!

 

Kathleen: Yes, and because the people in that other universe saw my play for years, it was packed every night!

 

John:  Yeah, so there’s a very well-defined mathematical sense in which you’d have more immortality in that branching universe, even though they’re both infinite. So I wrote a, you know, I wrote a philosophy paper on this, just to kind of relieve myself from this idea that we know what time is, and that we know what immortality is and so on and I think we’ve moved away from a sense of time that maybe some ancient cultures had. And that’s what I tried to capture in The Little Years was that maybe there’s another way that our work persists or effects people that’s much smaller that may be more valuable in a way. Just through the people you touch in your lives. There’s a great American philosopher, Thomas Nagel, who wrote a book called Mortal Questions, which is a beautiful series of essays. And he said in it that you know the things that happen to a person can extend beyond the boundaries of their body and even beyond the boundaries of their life. So our lives can be affected by what people say about us, by what our children do, things like that, we’re kind of corporate entities that live well beyond ourselves and I wanted to try and capture that feeling too in The Little Years. So that’s why there’s a character in the play you never see, you just get a portrait of their life from what people say about them. And then you see a character whose life is deeply affected by- a woman who’s growing up in the fifties who is discouraged from going into the arts and sciences- whose life is deeply affected by what people say about her. But in the end it’s her niece that has a deeper impact on her than her famous brother.

 

Kathleen: Culturally it’s true; we’re sort of impact-obsessed. It’s the age of measurement in some ways. And I was thinking about the writers in the field of theatre and education who talk about 'a theatre of little changes'; I think it’s a similar kind of counter-narrative to this idea that art has to solve all the problems and have enormous impact and make these great changes, otherwise it has no value.

 

John:  And this comes full circle back to education. Because I remember once teaching a grade three class in Parkdale about fractions. And I taught them for about five weeks and taught them stuff that grade seven kids would struggle with. And at the end of that time they all wrote this test that would’ve been about a grade seven level and they all sat there, including kids who couldn’t formerly sit still, and they all got over ninety on it and the most exciting thing was that the kids who missed it begged to write the test because they knew it wouldn’t be punishment or a ranking—which are the two things we use tests for—or a threat or a ranking because they knew it was a chance to show off. And they felt safe and secure and they would do well. And the atmosphere in that class was really magical because the kids were no longer competing against themselves; they were competing against the problem. They were solving the problem for the thrill of surmounting a series of challenges and also for the sheer beauty of seeing a pattern, or seeing a connection. I mean I even broke up a fight once by telling a bully to apologize to the other kid or I wouldn’t give him his bonus question. And he apologized to get the bonus question. So that’s the kind of sense of joy that kids have at succeeding and exploring these deep things and imagine what society would look like if instead of competing for scraps of praise or success, they constantly have the experience of discovering new things, exercising their imaginations, roaming the universe with their minds. If they had that experience all the way through without that kind of unhealthy competition, then I think we would have a different approach to art. People would create art because it’s a spiritual experience, a way of communing with the beauty of the universe, I think. They would of course care what people thought but in a much healthier way.

 

Kathleen: I want to ask you a philosophical question because you have lectured in philosophy as well. I’m interested in your sense of the place of conceptual versus applied knowledge in math, in the arts and in life for that matter. And my thinking about this is that there is a lot of instrumentalism in education now, a lot of celebration of the applied nature of things, and I sometimes think that our thinking and our learning about big concepts and ideas and conceptual thinking about art or life falls to the wayside in this kind of educational context.

 

John:  That’s another great question, very complex and I think there are a lot of false dichotomies around concepts and applications and so on. So and I’ll talk about two examples maybe, one in the arts and one in the sciences.

One of the reasons I think kids have struggled so much in mathematics is because we keep mistaking the ends of education for the means to get kids there. We want kids to be creative, to be innovative, to use intuition, all these things. So we start with big, rich problems, highly conceptual. What does conceptual mean now in mathematics, or what does problem-solving mean in any area? It means rich, complex, usually highly relevant or contextualized, something that kids would be interested in.That was a huge push in education, and it’s a positive push because you don’t just want the kids understanding things in a rote way. But there’s also some potential negative side effects to that approach because rich and conceptual also means more complex than most kids can handle. So what cognitive scientists are finding now is that you build the concepts, the end goal is concepts and learning, but you actually build them through smaller challenges. For instance, they found that chess players don’t learn the game, they don’t learn to play chess well just by playing chess. They play mini games with one or two pieces over and over again until they figure out that position. They memorize positions, they study moves of master players. None of those things look very creative or like they’re going to produce a genius, but actually those are the things that produce genius and creativity. So the end looks very different from the means to get someone there. And we make that mistake over and over again. We even make it in really innocuous ways like unfortunately in education people began to call practice “drill and kill.” There’s a famous cognitive scientist, Herb Simon who said that’s one of the worst ideas in education because all the research on how kids become good at things shows that they need a lot of practice. The challenge in education is how you make the practice interesting. And we found in JUMP[1] that if you just raise the bar incrementally and have a well-scaffolded lesson kids will practice forever. They love reaching higher and higher levels so you can make practice interesting but it’s gotten to the point where kids were even discouraged learning their times tables because that was just a rote drill that would discourage them. Well now cognitive scientists are finding that we have very poor working memories and if you haven’t committed the basic facts to long-term memory then your working memory is constantly overwhelmed trying to remember those facts. And you can’t actually solve problems or reach a high conceptual level, so out of these things that look very mechanical or rote, they’re actually fundamental to high-level conceptual thinking. There’s a false dichotomy there. Also a kid who doesn’t know their times tables is never going to see a pattern, or make a prediction or an estimate, every day is a new day. So they’re never going to generalize or think conceptually.         

And it’s the same in the arts with basic skills, basic training skills that true talent doesn’t come, well for a few people it seems to emerge out of nowhere, but the vast majority of people get there through practice and building up incrementally. So I think the other dichotomy in the arts is this idea that you either have a deeply emotional or engaging piece of work, or an intellectual piece of work or a conceptual piece of work. T.S. Eliot said once that Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets managed to make people feel what it was to have a thought. That those things weren’t separated and that, I think, should be a goal of theatre because there’s no other place than on stage where you can make people feel what it is to have a thought.

 

Kathleen: That’s a perfect segue to my final question: Why theatre now? And, for that matter, why math now?

 

John:  I’ll quote one more philosopher, Richard Rorty, who said that great literature—he may also have been talking about philosophy—makes us feel what it is to be another person. And I think that that’s something that’s really essential in this age when we have such divisive politics. So many issues we can’t solve because we lack empathy or understanding of the other side. I think that’s really a role for theatre now, to make people understand the multiple perspectives on an issue. And understand the importance of issues viscerally.

            To give an example, one of the nominees for the Siminovitch Award, Chris Abraham[2], who I was lucky enough to work with, created a play called Seeds about genetic engineering which, is incredibly powerful but incredibly complex, and opened my eyes to all kinds of issues. Daniel Brooks has done similar work, his latest play, Civility, is about city politics. People need to see those things. My partner Pamela Sinha has written a play about trauma, partially about post-traumatic stress; it’s running now and has had a profound effect on audiences. There’s no better area for helping people understand those issues and to begin to understand multiple perspectives on those issues. And in mathematics, I mean, there’s a simple answer. Everybody understands economic loss, there’s a huge economic loss from having a population that’s not fully numerate. But there are those deeper losses I talked about, an inability to connect with the natural world on a deep level or understand the consequences of our actions. An inability to see the profound beauty of the world that keeps mathematicians working on these puzzles and problems endlessly, because it’s just so satisfying. And surprisingly, for children, there is new research that shows that math is a much better predictor for long-term success for elementary school students than reading even. It’s the number one predictor of long-term success; math becomes a gateway for so many people, particularly disadvantaged students. And so it’s extraordinary, it’s a matter of equity, it’s extremely important that we start to eliminate these hierarchies and allow all students to succeed in math regardless of what adults think of math, that it’s got to be boring or it’s not that important. I believe kids have a right to develop all of their potential in every subject and that we won’t really have a fully realized society until we do that.

 

A Question from the Audience: I just wanted to make a point, actually answering partly your question about ‘Why Theatre Now’. One of the things I also see in the unity in the arts and particularly between theatre and science is really the bottom line in those fields is the search for the truth. And that’s something I see in current society that is so missing from every aspect of our society, not just through politics, actually even in academic life, and education. The truth gets obscured. It gets obscured for many reasons, including a political correctness, which has really seeped through our society. I wonder if you could just comment on that, because to me, that’s why we need theatre so badly. It really illuminates the truth that we sort of are missing around us.

 

John:  Yeah, I hadn’t really thought of that. It’s great a question. I think there’s a growing and frightening disregard for scientific evidence. I mean science isn’t certain and one of the stupid arguments is, “Oh you’re not certain global warming’s happening, so why should we do something about it?” But the people who say that would never buy a car from someone who wasn’t an expert in that area or that wasn’t manufactured by experts in that area, and if ninety nine percent of engineers on earth said that that cars brakes are likely to fail, you wouldn’t buy it. So why would we do the same thing with global warming? It’s just insane disregard, and our politicians get away with that. And so it’s very important to re-establish a respect for truth, even if it’s not certain, you know there’s no such thing as certainty. In theatre, truth is much more difficult and I think, you know, that plays that appear to be profound and discover truths can look dated ten years later. Truth is harder to gauge in theatre, but I think that theatre sparks debates about the truth, and, quite often, helps people progress or see new truths. I was profoundly affected by Rorty’s statement that art can help you experience what it feels to be someone else. Because I think theatre and particularly film have done more to create tolerance and open up discussion in the world than almost any other media. So that’s a very good point that theatre is essential for some sort of exploration of the truth.

 



[1] John Mighton founded the JUMP math, program. JUMP math is registered charity working to promote a numerate society. JUMP Math's mission is to enhance the potential in children by encouraging an understanding and a love of math in students and educators

[2] Chris Abraham won the 2013 Siminovitch prize for directing one week after this conversation.

 

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