Science Theater!

Murray, KY –
ANNOUNCER - An honors seminar in theater at Murray State takes students on an interdisciplinary adventure, combining traditional elements of drama with scientific themes and concepts. Through bringing the two seemingly-unlike subjects together, the course aims to both quantify the acting experience and flesh out the emotion of science. Chris Taylor explores the experiment and what students stand to gain from the course.

Call it an exercise in bio-ethics. This is an improvised scene being developed for an acting class. A married couple and their in-laws sit around a table sharing imaginary food. There's idle conversation, laughter, and a polite antagonism in the air. It's when the husband informs the table that he intends to get genetically tested for cystic fibrosis, emotion erupts.

Wife - Is your opinion that this is a really bad idea!? Because that's my opinion!
Husband's Mother - What's your problem?
Wife's Mother - You know I'll always support your decisions, honey. It's just that..
Wife - But this isn't my decision; it's his decision!

The wife fears her husband won't want to have kids if they're pre-diagnosed with the disease; one tangent to a debate spawned by a class dubbed Science Theater. The title almost rings oxymoronic, as the study of theater is usually thought of as qualitative in nature and not often associated with its logical sidekick.

Awori - It's not as separate as we might think.

Murray State acting professor Jonathan Awori.

Awori - The questions that science asks often have very high stakes, and it makes it very appropriate to drama, which itself focuses on big questions like the human condition and why we are the way we are.

Awori created the class for honors students three years ago in an attempt to look at both disciplines through a more creative lens. Essentially, the course's focus isn't about scientific facts or processes. Instead it takes students down a philosophical road towards thinking critically, using science as their vehicle.

Awori - The very first thing we do is talk about some of the assumptions about what's different between science and art. So we'll say things like: Well, science is objective.' And then we'll test that. It certainly aims to be objective, but is it really?

Awori structures the class around three projects. Students study two plays. One dramatizes the debate of who first discovered Oxygen. The other focuses on how women are treated in the scientific community. The third is the improv-exercise in biological ethics.

Awori - I think very often when we look at ethics it's debated in a very intellectual way: the pros and the cons. Part of the goal of this class is to help the students recognize that real-life ethical decisions have an intellectual component; they have an emotional component; sometimes there's a spiritual component.

The acting course is a first for senior Lauren Allard.

Allard - It's difficult because you know as an economics major it's supply and demand and graphs and charts, thinking about people at the rational level, and here it's like an onion; you know there's so many depths to a character you can take.

Though only halfway through the semester, Allard feels like she's grown from the class. She's honed her acting skills a bit and learned some science along the way, but more importantly, she says it's broadened her horizons.

Allard - It's kind of putting yourself in someone else's shoes is the best way to think about it. "Hey, you know, I don't have this experience, but what can I learn from this situation?" It's really saying, "Let's look inside of ourselves and pull something different out that we may not have realized before.

By crafting these improvised scenarios, Professor Awori says his students get to experience all that entails making an ethical decision, without the burden of it being their own. He says after students play a major character faced by one, they often rethink their initial stance on the issue. Allard agrees. It may be teaching that frame of mind that distinguishes this class as unique, more so than its quirky title.