Theatre and science policy

Published On: October 2022Categories: 2022 Conference editorials, EditorialsTags:


Jacob Berkowitz

Institute for Science, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa

Writer in Virtual Residence

Playwright, Author and Science Writer in Almonte, ON

Theatre and science policy might seem like strange companions. Which is exactly why there’s power in their interaction. Their combining pushes us to see deeper, more essential elements in each of them. And from my experience as a playwright and in science policy development, there is deep, underexplored overlap between the two fields.

Leveraging this potential, Canada Science Policy Conference 2022 will include two special performances of my new play, The Anniversary. It’s the story of Ottawa lawyer Evelyn Carlyle, her husband Adam and their three adult children who’ve come home for their parents’ 30th anniversary. The play dramatically explores how science and technology shape our deepest familial relationships in ways we don’t recognize. 

The Anniversary is presented as part of the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy’s (ISSP)  efforts to use innovative non-traditional ways of bringing disciplines and sectors together to develop policy for grand challenges.

Seeing the impacts of science and technology on individuals in the intimate setting of theatre is a full body experience—it informs us on these issues as whole people, rather than just intellectually and thus has the potential to create new understanding. Here are five core meta-themes that I think connect theatre and science policy makers. These themes make an evening at the theatre one that can subtly, and perhaps crucially, shapes policy conversations.

Change—Policy makers have work because the world is always changing, from climate change to the social impacts of new reproductive technologies. At its heart, theatre is about the cathartic experience of witnessing change. Change is often painful—death, job loss, even children growing-up and moving away. In theatre, we share with the characters on stage in this essential human suffering that change can bring. We see change for what it is, part of life. In this, policy makers are reminded that change is not a choice. The choice is, rather, how we respond to change.

Surprise—Policy makers, and more so politicians, don’t like surprises. But, surprise, like change, is inevitable. For policy makers, surprise is often the result of group think, an outlier event or the occurrence of what we know could happen, but don’t want to happen—for example a global pandemic. Surprise plays a key role in theatre. It’s often the moment when an audience member realizes that they haven’t properly interpreted what’s actually in front of them. This is not simply gotcha-type surprise. What’s more disorienting is when the signs were there on stage, but we didn’t perceive them. This type of theatrical surprise enables us to sit with the way this also happens in our lives, when our view of the world is turned upside down, and we look back on past events with a new perspective. 

It’s been there all along—Often in theatre, what we witness is the culmination of a familial situation that’s been brewing for years. But it’s only in the ninety-minutes of the play do we see the events come to a head. In Death of a Salesman, Willie Lowman’s fall has been building for decades before the opening curtain. The play’s power and pathos is that we see the final, tragic denouement to these years of self-and familial-deceit. Policy makers are also often dealing with long-standing issues that suddenly burst onto the political agenda and public discussion. Often policy makers may have been working diligently for years (decades) developing policies and proposing solutions to problems that didn’t at the time have political traction. When the political need arises, it is the policy’s moment on the stage. For policy makers it’s a reminder that what at times might seem like long-suffering, unsung effort is actually the crucial behind-the-scenes rehearsing before opening night. 

Unintended consequences—One of the mantras in using foresight in policy development is to consider not just the probable future but plausible ones. This is because all policy will face unexpected context and unintended consequences. Strong policy is designed to be broad or flexible enough to encompass this. Theatre, and storytelling in general, turns on unintended consequences. It’s a big theme in The Anniversary. When new technologies are introduced into individual and familial lives they have broad unintended consequences. Who imagined that social media (Instagram) would lead people to have plastic surgery in order to look like Photoshopped online images?

Complexity—Policy makers must constantly grapple with increasingly complex and intersectional situations. This is in essence the beauty of the CSPC—we come together and glimpse the huge network of policy makers and others who make Canadian science policy function. Good theatre also provides a glimpse of this complexity. Indeed, it’s the complexity that provides the dramatic energy. Different characters want different things. How will they, or not, resolve their complex needs and desires? It is in observing this that policy makers can rest in the wisdom that life situations involve competing interests, contradictions and paradoxes—rather than these as complicating factors, they are the nature of science policy.

I hope to see you at The Anniversary and welcome feedback on the experience in the context of your science policy work.

Performances on Tuesday and Wednesday November 15 &16 @ 7:00 pm @ LabO Theatre, a five-minute walk from the conference venue.

There will be a special audience discussion of the play after the Wednesday performance.

Tickets to The Anniversary are included in the CSPC registration fee. Seating is limited. 

RSVP here