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String Theory of Character

Tuesday, February 2, 2010 Leave a Comment

I know, you've been breathlessly waiting for the next physics inspired theoretical post, wading impatiently through all these Flux updates and Homing Project riffs. Well, the wait is over.

At the Black Playwrights Convening, in the surrounding conversation on Twitter at #newplay, and in recent posts from RVC Bard, Halcyon Theatre, and Parabasis, there has been a fascinating discussion about racial/cultural identity in theatre. Questions about what makes a black play black, about why an Arab actor must play an Arab role, whether casting should be color-blind, inclusive, or integrated, what role race plays in a production where race isn't specified, and much more are being hashed out eloquently.

This connects to me previous posts about the importance of the diversity of audience perspective in creating great theatre, and how that importance demands plays that juxtapose characters of diverse and contradictory perspectives on stage, as well.

I've been thinking of string theory's multi-dimensional model as a framework for thinking about diversity of perception. The extremely short version is that string theory posits a limit to the smallness of matter and energy, an irreducible unit that makes up the known universe. These are strings, incredibly small vibrating units that depending on how they vibrate, manifest all the widely different particles we know.

But of course you can't have a limitless number of possible vibrations, or you'd have a limitless number of particles, which our universe clearly does not have. And as it turns out, what defines the possible vibrations are the number and shape of dimensions.

For string theory to be right, there may be as many as 10 or 11 (or in some versions, 26!) dimensions, 3 of which are the macro-scale we're familiar with, 6-7 which are incredibly small, and that old mystery time makes 10 or11.

Depending on the shape of these incredibly small dimensions, these vibrating strings will create a universe like ours, or a universe with completely different laws of physics. The possible shapes of these dimensions are called Calabi-Yau spaces, and they determine how a string will vibrate in response to its surroundings.

Here's the important part: change the number or shape of the dimensions, you change the range of notes for a string, and thereby changes the rules of what's possible.

Change string for identity and dimensions for experience, and you have the rules that govern character.

The experiences with which we traditionally define diversity - age, race, culture, gender, sexuality, class, geography, religion, aesthetics, health, politics, and so on - all of these are dimensions into which the character's string can vibrate. And as certain characters share certain experiences, we may be able to describe a shape to each dimension of diversity, a recognizable common ground, even as we acknowledge that with each added dimension, the possible range of notes multiplies into an absolute uniqueness.

It is our job as artists to strive for this absolute uniqueness in creating character, especially in a world that for purposes of commerce and control pushes identity into a single dimension.

As it is for a single character, so it is for a single play: the capacity for meaning to vibrate through many different dimensions is part of what makes something great; we've all felt the disappointment of the single note play.

As it is for the play, so it for an audience; and I believe that great art can tear a fabric in the dimension of human beings and actually create new space for the spirit to vibrate; it can literally expand our capacity for life.

And as it for an audience, so it is for a culture.

So while I recognize and respect the need to talk about the rough dimensions of diversity; it is the coming together of a diverse and unique range of notes in character, person, play, and culture that interest me most; and where I feel our work as artists lies.

From dizzyingly small to lofty large, this post: not to worry, I'll return to our middle-world soon.


  • Yerushka Chetty said:  

    truth is so' fashionable and belief cultivates one's view.