Tom Stoppard’s newest play The Hard Problem refers to philosopher David Chalmer’s “hard problem” of how to explain consciousness. Science can explain how our brains perceive sensations like pain, but not why we feel emotions like sadness. How do we explain our consciousness? Why are humans different from a monkey or a machine? The play’s protagonist, Hilary, thinks there might be there something bigger out there.
A very heady yet emotionally touching play, putting the The Hard Problem on its feet was no easy task. Sarah caught up with Studio’s Associate Artistic Director and the production director Matt Torney to discuss:
Sarah: What drew you to this play?
Matt: That’s a very easy one to answer. Tom Stoppard. I’ve spoken to Tom several times throughout the process. So, [I was able to reconnect] with one of my theatrical heroes whose work I remember seeing from when I was a teenager in Belfast. I remember a production of Arcadia that I saw that just blew my mind. [The fact] that a play could appeal to both the head and the heart and ask big questions and be funny and clever, it was really exciting. I think Tom is one of those writers who has found his niche in plays that ask complicated questions in complicated ways with an incredible sense of humor and theatricality.
So, when David asked me, “would you like to direct the DC premiere of Tom Stoppard’s new play?” I was like, “yes.” Practically sight unseen. Of course the play is about some incredibly interesting things, but that’s what led my enthusiasm for the project: the chance to work on a Stoppard play that wasn’t very well known. It had a couple productions before and was still being worked on and tweaked.
Also the [subject of play], the nature of consciousness, is a particularly fascinating scientific question because it’s one that scientists can’t answer. The “hard problem” term was coined by a philosopher named David Chalmers. He talks about the hard problem of consciousness being the “subject about which we know the least which concerns us the most.” Because we all have a consciousness. We all have a movie playing in our heads, every second of the day, waking and sleeping. And no scientist can tell us why.
Talking to Tom Stoppard, this is a question that has fascinated him for years that he has followed since the 60s and studied in some of his other plays. What is [consciousness]? How do we understand it? The scientific community basically seems to say it all comes from the brain, and we’ll understand it eventually. In [Stoppard’s] mind, he sees consciousness as quite fundamental to our human experience. And the study of consciousness leads to the study of morality and goodness and language, and all of these things that are hard to categorize but shape our experience of the world.
It’s a heady stew. There is much to get excited about.
Yes, when I read the play, I was struck by how intellectual it was, but also how it is about very human people and relationships. How are you approaching the play to keep that balance?
Yes. 100%. There is no question. Speaking to Tom Stoppard, he realizes that this is a challenge. I think I’ve found that things that seem to be very complex and abstract on the page, when spoken by people with a strong point of view, suddenly are very clear. Some of the distinctions that might seem obvious, when you drill into them with some deep research, they open up to have much more specific points of view, contrasts, and arguments.
Also, and I think this is a big discovery for me with the play, whenever you put something in people’s bodies in space, there are all these other echoes and feelings. There’s a subconscious of the play that kind of kicks along and helps us through.
There is no doubt the play is asking some very hard scientific questions. It is a play about scientists. But all of the people at Studio who read it and then came and saw the dress rehearsal were sort of amazed by how well-articulated it is. So, if you’ve no interest in science and consciousness, you might have trouble buying in, but if you’re curious, it’s not so complex that you won’t be able to find your feet. Because the positions are very clear.
What it boils down to is a materialistic position versus a duelist position – dualist being mind/body; that there is a body and a soul (or a body and a mind). That somehow, there is something more than our human experience. And the materialist position being that whatever there is, comes from the brain, and that’s it.
And how we articulate this in the play: there is a scientist, [Hilary], who believes in God for very personal reasons based upon her own experience and who is driven to seek a sense of deeper meaning in the world beyond just, “we’re animals, consciousness is an accident, everything is mathematics, etc.” She’s facing a scientific community who thinks she’s a little bit ridiculous. But I’m pretty sure most people in the world wouldn’t think her point of view is ridiculous. And that’s where I think the real heart of the play comes from, the stuff that Hilary is championing – an idea of morality, an idea of ethics, an idea of beauty, and idea of language, an idea of art, a feeling that there is something more in the world – is more in line with our experience of the world, particularly those of us who love the theatre.
Want to go?
The Hard Problem
at Studio Theatre
closes February 19, 2017
Details and tickets
And then there are scientists, who are representing the actual, dominant scientific position, which is that all of that is just an accident of matter.
The key to unlocking it is what David Chalmers talks about: that science is objective but consciousness is subjective. Science has to be observed, Consciousness has to be described – because it’s our own deeply personal relationship with the world and ourselves. Whereas science is interested in creating experiments that are repeatable with set conditions where the phenomena can be observed.
All of this is covered in the play – much more clearly than I can articulate it. You get into the psychology of science, the scientific mindset, and the assumptions that scientists have to make to reach these conclusions, and how they might be a little like faith.
You mentioned the production values – how do those fit in with this world?
If you can triangulate reason, the soul, and the heart as three pillars of our human experience, in the play we’ve got scientists talking about science and fighting for their point of view (reason). We’ve got a couple of different people pushing the human angle (the soul, the transcendental), and then the heart: it exists in the story of a mother who has lost her child and can’t find anything in the world that can help her cope with that. She cannot reconcile the choice she made as a fifteen year old with the reality of her life now. And that’s not something that’s easily explained; it’s a startling emotional reality.
What I’ve tried to do in the production design is let some sense of the sublime, the grander, timeless sense of the human experience, live in some of the designs. The sound design borrows some old pieces of opera, some pieces of religious music, and pieces of more mathematical and technical classical music, and some new stuff being composed by Jimmy Garver.
I have a background in choreography. So, in the scene changes, I’m trying to create a sense of story and a sense of people, of layered spaces, of histories – to simply create a very visceral and very immediate counterpoint to the very heady. So, a scene where people are talking about a very complicated scientific question is then punctuated by something more choreographic or visceral. What I’m aspiring to is beauty. So you get a little soul food or heart food and then head food. Stoppard is talking to you, giving you an incredible intellectual idea, beautifully explained, and then he’s giving you a deep and touching emotional experience. And then, collectively, we are quoting some kind of tremendous piece of human art. And then we are into another scene. So, I think the production has a lot to offer as a context for the play.
I was very clear that I wanted a play that people could relate to and respond to on a number of different levels. That it wasn’t something where you need to be a scientist to get in to it. The questions Stoppard is asking are more philosophy than science. I think this is ultimately what cracks the play open: that the scientists in the play are people. Even though they believe this materialist, rationalist perspective, they are still kind to one another and fall in love with one another. Their lives contradict their intellectual point of view at times. And that messiness is what we could call “Stoppard-ian.:” a cocktail of competing impulses and desires, constantly at odds with the words that we say and the positions that we hold.
You mentioned being a big fan of Stoppard, do you think this play fits in with his body of work? Do you think fans will like this one as much as his other plays?
Absolutely. The things we love about Stoppard plays are his incredible cleverness, an intellectual challenge, exciting characters, and a great sense of theatricality, and that’s all here in abundance. Particularly the cleverness. We’ve got all the Stoppard-ian word play, wonderful jokes, incredible allusions, some deep touching emotional moments – all couched with this incredible intellect. This would probably be for people who enjoyed Hapgood and Arcadia. This is in a similar vein, but it’s very classic Stoppard.
What I’ve found is that even when something is very complicated and hard to follow, a couple of scenes later, it pays off. I think what he’s trying to capture something that’s very hard to capture. So, he’s using this narrative structure where people talk about something, and then you see it modeled a few scenes later.
One thing that he shared with me when I was speaking to him early in the process is that this is a play that is very dear to his heart, because the question of consciousness [leads to] questions of morality, individuality, and particularly altruism and human kindness and compassion. He thinks [these questions] are one of the key puzzle pieces to understanding consciousness and our human experience. It’s a play he feels has been waiting in the wings. He’s been secretly researching it for over 20 years. It’s been a great labor of love for him.
Has Stoppard been more of a resource to you or have you been actively working with him throughout the process?
He’s been more of a resource. He’s been helping me understand what he’s saying, because the play is very rich in ideas. It’s heaving with complex and provocative ideas, and you have to sift through there. He has been helping me ground it in a solid, consistent philosophy.
That’s been very useful, because, as you can imagine, the play is quite hard to research because I’m not a neuroscientist, but I spoke to a couple of scientists, and a couple of people I know from college in Ireland. I read some books that [Stoppard] mentions as program notes. And what I found, is that once you crack the idea that all science is just trying to model something – that a lot of the point of view of science is a guess, to create a narrative around certain data – it becomes clear that a lot of science is more in the realm of philosophy. Once that happened, I was like, “okay I studied a lot of philosophy and criticism and intellectual history in my own background.” Tom really helped to crystalize that.
The big challenge was how to bring a group of actors who don’t have eight months to prepare into this quite complicated world. The truth is, I was extraordinarily lucky [that many of the cast members] had a scientific or mathematical background before they decided to become actors. So, I was expecting this serious heavy lift in the table work, and it turns out one of the guys used to be an organic chemist who’d written all of these complicated papers and got bored and decided he wanted to be an actor. And then two other people in the play used to work in financial services, like Wall Street, so [that covered] the economic aspects of the play. Another person comes from a family of engineers, so even though they are an artist, their home life was very much about rationalism and discourse. So, it was kind of amazing. I think the people who were really drawn to this material, [were the ones who were] able to see the people in it, or able to relate it to their own experience. That was a great first day.
So, we did a couple of days [of tablework], just to make sure everyone was clear about what their character was saying, and then everything else has been about trying to find the people. Because the people are the play. Any time that we got stuck throughout the process, that’s what we’d come back to. The people are the play. And I think when you see it on its feet, that’s what you feel: the people. Even if, occasionally, the ideas are a little bit beyond a swift and easy understanding. Stoppard lets people articulate ideas as they would [in real life], and sometimes, that’s quite hard to keep up with, but that makes sense, or it then plays out, because people are people and that’s something that everyone understands.
Why did Studio choose to do this play now, today?
There is one way in which that is a very easy question to answer which is that Studio is one of the few theaters in the world that has a consistent, long term relationship doing a body Tom Stoppard’s work. Joy Zinoman did a very fabled production of Indian Ink. So, whenever Tom Stoppard writes something, we pay attention. Because we know our audience: they’re very smart, they’re engaged, they want to be challenged, they are up for it.
What makes Studio different is it is the smallest theatre in terms of the number of seats that has this commitment to Stoppard’s work. So, we are able to do these very heady plays in a very intimate environment, which creates a different connection with the people. You’re in the room with them. It’s less about, “here we are proclaiming huge things into a large and empty space in a very theatrical way,” and more focused on actor and character and language. So, that special relationship meant that is was kind of a no-brainer.
But also – this is my personal feeling on it – a play that is looking at the nature of goodness, the nature of humanity, and the things that bind us together, is always a good play to do – perhaps particularly at a time when things are dividing us.
But the play is not political in that way. If it critiques anything, it would probably be practices that reduce people to data points. I think we’re living in the ruins of neo-liberalism at the moment, which reduces communities to markets and people’s political interests to commodities. And I think that would be very much a rational approach, a data driven approach, to politics rather than a human approach. (I’m talking on my own behalf not Studio’s.) I believe whenever people are given the opportunity to engage with one another as people and see the things that connect and bind us together, then we will always do better and be kinder to one another.
This is talked about in the first scene [of the play] – the Prisoner’s Dilemma – rational actors will betray one another even though it would be better to trust one another. Because it’s all about how you frame the question. I think it would be fair to call Stoppard a humanist even though this play is very balanced. He doesn’t push one idea over another. He doesn’t answer the question. He just poses it brilliantly.
I feel that there are some deep resonances in it that might be very interesting watching it at this time. Because on the one hand, you’ve got mind, soul, humanity, our conscious experience, a sense of who we are as human beings in the world, and on the other hand, you’ve got data points, numbers, metrics, models, algorithms, social media: “hit this number of people with this, get this result, etc.” It’s not very caring. There are also complete counter arguments to that as well, about romanticizing humanity rather than recognizing reality. These are explored in the play as well. The play is not about politics – I don’t want to emphasize that too much. But the fundamental question it’s asking speaks to something fundamental in the tension between an individual human and their experience in a society, and that’s perfectly timeless.
Is there anything else you’d like audiences to know?
I suppose what has been tremendous for me in this process is that it’s been a long time since I worked on a play that was this challenging, intellectually, and emotionally. It’s been an incredibly rich experience to research. Spending deep time with the questions has been incredibly fulfilling. Because the questions are really pertinent to the human experience, and the kind of uncompromising daring of Tom Stoppard to just say, “well, let’s just try something big and complicated and put people into it and struggle with this together.” It’s been tremendously fulfilling.
I really hope that inviting people to come and experience this incredible 90 to 100 minutes of ideas and feelings will be similarly inspiring and exciting. I don’t think we’ve ever had such profound and exciting conversations in the rehearsal room. I think if we’ve done a good job, the audience will be quite challenged by what they are hearing, but ultimately very enriched and very entertained as well.