Making Espresso, Or Diamonds

Sunday, January 16, 2011 Leave a Comment

"All biological science works by collecting complexity and recognizing it is part of a limited repertoire of events. What's exciting about the genome is it's gotten us the big picture and allowed us to see the simplicity."
-Jon Cohen, "The Human Genome, A Decade Later", Technology Review

This rather lovely quote about the narrative of the genome's expression, resonating with how the narrative of story affects a similar compression, made me wonder about the ratio of stage life to real life.

Here's what I mean: kindly grant our average American 77 years of life, around 28,105 days, or 674,520 hours, or 40, 471, 200 minutes, or 2,428,272,000 seconds; each a single moment of experience that makes up the genome of our life's story.

A play compresses all that complexity into an average of 2 hours, just 120 minutes, a mere 7,200 seconds. In that little span, plays give us the illusion of an entire life; great characters feel as if they have an entire existence we don't see. So how much is a stage second worth compared to a second of human life?

A single stage second is equal to 337,260 seconds of a human life. Even granting that 1/3 of life is sleep, a stage second is worth 225,080 waking seconds of a human life. A stage second is worth 3,751 waking minutes, or 63 waking hours. A stage second is worth almost 4 waking days.

That is some potent compression. And it works the other way, too; our memory doesn't treat all
2,428,272,000 seconds equally, but the pressure of time compresses them into a string of significant moments that expresses the meaning of our lives. Theatre is a way to practice that painful, inevitable compression, to avoid being crushed like a used car and instead transformed into espresso, or diamonds.