STAGE — Scientists, Technologists and Artists Generating Exploration — is a laboratory embedded within a science and engineering institute devoted to collaborations among scientists and artists. Specifically, it is at the helm of one of six core research themes that of "Arts, Sciences and Technology," at the University of Chicago's nascent Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME).
The STAGE Lab's distinct research focuses on creating and developing new theatre and film work inspired by science and technology. Technology is integrated into the staging of our plays as a vital part of telling the story, not just for special effect. Rather than science lectures disguised as plays, these are emotionally engaging, entertaining stories. It's these visceral experiences that have an enduring impact, capturing the public's attention and stimulating interest in science and technology.
Impact on the researchers themselves is equally significant. Scientists, engineers and artists work together in the same room, at the same time. In keeping with the IME's interdisciplinary approach, professionals, students and faculty learn to be truly cross-disciplinary by working in an environment in which they collaborate across disciplines. That kind of training and exposure drives people to think and work in new ways.
Our way of working also raises new questions. With technology integrated into stage performances, will we arrive at a new art form that centers on conveying a story — that is, something that lies between live theatre and the technology of the moving image? Might we come up with new technologies that arise out of the needs of a particular project? Might artistic practice lead a scientist to new ideas, or a new way of doing science?
STAGE’s mission is to:
- Cultivate appreciation and collaboration between the two cultures of science and art;
- Catalyze the development of art that depicts the technological age in which we live;
- Promote understanding of the sciences in the public arena;
- Foster new and imaginative voices and methods of storytelling;
- Accomplish all of the above within an international community.
Some key ideas behind the process of creating new work in the STAGE lab are:
- New Methods of Investigation, Inspired by the Scientific Process: The development process is collaborative and improvisational, based, in many ways, upon the exploratory nature of experimental science. New ideas are generated and investigated, with continuous feedback. The most powerful material that emerges is explored in greater detail and eventually makes its way into the final script. Moreover, failure is embraced as a critical component of our work process. Ample time and space are afforded for experimentation and research. As in experimental science, intuition plays a key role in the creative process. Collaborators give over to the process itself and follow where it takes them, instead of determining in advance where the process should go.
- Scientists and Artists Share a Laboratory: Scientists and artists are together in the same room, at the same time, collectively engaged in the creation of these theatrical works.
- Technology as Storyteller: Technology is used in performance to help tell the story.
- A Cinematic Approach: How does the language of filmmaking translate to the stage as a means of storytelling?
Detailed information about our work process may be found here.
STAGE began out of a conversation with a prominent scientist, who pointed out that many Nobel Prizes in science have been awarded for accidents – that is, serendipitous discoveries. For example, scientists often set out to explore a hypothesis, but find it’s not supported by experimental data. Something unexpected in the data may pique their interest, however, and further probing leads to a new discovery.
This led to some questions: Was it possible to apply aspects of the science model to the arts? Could one establish an artistic arena in which the freedom to improvise and follow the emerging “unexpected data” governs the creation of new theatre work?
At about this same time, a production of the far side of the moon, by Canadian artist Robert Lepage, had an equally profound effect on shaping the direction of STAGE. In this work, multi-media was absolutely integral to the play and the storytelling. Witnessing such synergy between technology and story, reflected meaningfully in a work of art, was thrilling.
Out of this, the vision of STAGE came into focus: a laboratory in which artists create work relevant to the lives we lead — lives influenced by sophisticated technological and scientific advances — and one in which the happy accident is always a welcome, engaged participant.
The STAGE International Script Competition
STAGE was launched at, and continues to collaborate with, the California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). It began as the STAGE International Script Competition for the best new play about science and technology.
A majority of the winning plays went on to have multiple productions; one has been optioned for the screen by award-winning director/writer/producer Darren Aronofsky and Oscar-winning actor Rachel Weisz. A complete history of the Competition may be found here.
In less than five years, the Competition's successful partnership among artists and scientists expanded to include activities well beyond the scope of the Competition. Such growth gave rise to two questions: how can we give a louder voice to stories about science and technology, and how can we implement a more collaborative work process through which to accomplish this? The answer to both queries was to build a laboratory, or "collaboratory," for creating new theatre work. Science and technology play prominent roles in the stories we tell, as in how we tell those stories on stage.
With its move to the University of Chicago, STAGE has been able to greatly expand the breadth and impact of its science-based theatre-making activities and foster additional artistic and scientific collaborations.