Playcraft and Analysis, Playwriting

Playwriting and the Scientific Method

“After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.”

— Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein claimed that his famous theory of relativity came to him intuitively, and that music was his driving force. His parents started him on violin lessons at the age of six, and he credits his “musical perception” for helping him solve it, along with several other grand mysteries of the universe.

He was always an advocate of the arts, insisting that what artists do is not too different at all from what he and his colleagues did. In fact, many of his contemporaries had similar artistic hobbies:

  • Max Born (1882-1970), the German physicist who won the Nobel for his work on quantum mechanics, was also an avid musician. You might know his granddaughter, the multi-talented Olivia Newton-John.
  • Richard Feynman (1918-1988), an American physicist and Nobel winner who pioneered our understanding of thermodynamics, was a painter in his spare time, showing and selling his work under the pseudonym “Ofey”.
  • Max Planck (1858-1947), another German Nobel winner named Max, made groundbreaking discoveries about the behavior of energy. He was also an accomplished pianist and played with Einstein frequently.

And the list goes on. Our culture tends to separate science and art, but there is a reason the two are typically found within the same department at universities. As Einstein says in the top quote, they are different in name, but nearly identical in aesthetics, plasticity, and form.

Scientists use their imagination to create theories about the temporal world. Artists are the other side of that coin, using the same creative process to produce theories of the spiritual variety. The scientist hopes to understand what makes the universe tick, where the artist hopes to understand what makes the human heart tick. The physicist does not think only in equations, just as the writer does not think only in words. They are both in the business of creating ideas.

So now that we know this, how can it be applied practically? This is where the scientific method, the standard method for all scientific thought, comes in. Hopefully we all remember it from high school. It goes something like this:

  1. Ask a question
  2. Do background research
  3. Construct a hypothesis
  4. Test with an experiment
  5. Analyze data and draw conclusions
  6. Communicate results

It’s not just for folks in white lab coats. Any kind of art, no matter how abstract, requires a fundamental method to see it through to completion, and thankfully science has given us a solid foundation. To better illustrate what I mean, let’s adapt the scientific method to the craft of playwriting:

  1. Ask a question about the human condition
  2. Do background research and character studies
  3. Construct a first draft
  4. Test with an audience
  5. Analyze feedback and draw conclusions
  6. Rewrite and share results

The play development process is freakishly similar to the development of a scientific theory! As well it should be. It was designed to ensure strict objectivity, which is exactly what the playwright needs to avoid sanitizing the truth or injecting personal prejudices. A play is just as much a representation of truth as an equation, albeit in a far more entertaining format.

Just as a E=mc^2 can be universally understood and proven true over and over again regardless of time, so must a play aspire to be. So the next time you’re blocked or discouraged from writing, remember to put on your scientist cap and think like one. When you do it becomes easier to accept that finishing a play will take lots of experimentation, deliberate rigor, and many, many failures. It’s a feature, not a bug.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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