Adding Up the Impact of a Play

A parent recently confessed to me that he has a recurring nightmare. It is 10 years in the future, and he has scrimped and saved enough to put his daughter through college. Only at her graduation does he learn that she has repaid his sacrifice by studying theater.

In the commencement program, next to the graduates' names, are their new careers. My friend scans the list and sees newly appointed ambassadors, rising captains of industry, and future titans of finance. When he reaches his daughter's name, he finds the name of a trendy restaurant and the notation: "Theater major waiting to be discovered."

After this confession, we hugged (well, not really, but we would have if we weren't guys). I told him that I once had the same attitude toward theater students, but in recent years had completely changed my mind.

In college, I dismissed all arts as impractical. Mathematics, I thought, was the only truly worthwhile major. Of course, I didn't know any practicing mathematicians, nor could I find mathematicians listed in the Yellow Pages. I had never seen an ad on TV for a mathematician. Still, mathematics was on income-tax forms, engineers needed mathematics, and there were all these buttons on my scientific calculator that I did not understand.

"Arcadia" persuaded me that theater is far more practical. It's a play by Tom Stoppard, a Czech-born English playwright. Stoppard is very intellectual, and the play requires substantial study to understand. It contains two plots that alternate and intertwine scene by scene until they join in the final minutes of the play. One is the story of the coming of age of a young woman in early 19th-century England. The other concerns a group of 20th-century researchers trying to piece her life together. This plot is further complicated by obscure literary references, multilingual puns, and a fair amount of mathematics.

Stoppard employs the mathematics as a literary device. To convey the richness of Thomasina Coverly's world, he pulls together some of the more famous pieces of mathematics and physics like so much poetical imagery. In quick order, Stoppard tells us of Fermat's Last Theorem, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Chaos Theory, and the Lotka-Volterra Equations.

I volunteered to help with our university's production of the play. I thought I would pontificate from the sidelines, perhaps deliver an absolutely insightful lecture, and guide the youths of today into a proper understanding of the play. That idea, admittedly naive, collapsed when I went to my first production meeting.

AROUND the table sat a group of students holding budgets, schedules, blueprints, costume designs, and the other planning documents of an active organization. A few other faculty members were present, but as far as I could tell, we were almost unneeded. Our job was to sit around the table, remaining ready to ask a question or explain a piece of an idea. The real discussion concerned how to organize and present the play.

As these meetings progressed, I realized that I'd been looking at plays backward. I had believed they were the product of acting ability, poetry, design, music. By the time we reached the final dress rehearsals, I saw that a play is the expression of organizational decisionmaking.

The artists had to collaborate on hundreds if not thousands of decisions. They had to negotiate among themselves about the best way to play a scene, design a set, carry a prop. These decisions required diligence, compromise, and an organization strong enough to coordinate all the little choices made by the cast. And, these decisions had to be made on a strict budget and timetable.

When I made some comment about the mathematics of the play, the cast would immediately get quiet and confer among themselves. I soon learned that they were deciding if my comment made sense when compared with the decisions they had already made. If they concluded that it did, they would try to incorporate my comment into the production. If they felt otherwise, they had to plan how they might ignore my idea without offending me.

As the opening date drew near, I came to believe that the theater is probably the best place to train for organizational work. It was certainly far better than any of the training exercises I had done as a student. I had participated in model political conventions and simulated international negotiations. All these exercises were far less realistic and far more staged than the work on "Arcadia."

As I watched three actors hammer out the details of a particularly contentious scene, I remembered when I worked on an international trade simulation in college. We had achieved an agreement only by the most extralegal of means. The student playing the Argentine delegate consented to a proposed treaty only when I agreed to cover her Saturday-night lifeguard shift at the pool. The student who represented New Zealand, who had resisted our ideas every step of the way, resorted to terrorism and erased the scoreboard. (He was dismissed.) I emerged from the experience knowing little about international trade and nothing about negotiation. But I did have the prospect of a few extra dollars from the lifeguard shift.

WHEN the last curtain fell on "Arcadia," the cast may have understood the 19th century a little better. One or two might even have grasped the meaning of Stoppard's mathematics. All of them, however, had demonstrated their understanding of organization by presenting a play of great richness and complexity. Every line, every beat, every pause upon the stage was the product of an organization created from nothing in less than three months. They had learned to make decisions, balance a budget, and meet a deadline. Some had acted, others painted, one had arranged the music, another had designed the program. Many had learned to use power tools.

If the parents of those students could, for a moment, have lost sight of the makeup and costume, they might have seen that "Arcadia" had given their children a deep and clear insight into the operation of large social organizations. It had taught them how to work effectively in business, in community groups, in churches, with neighbors. Our cast would not live solitary lives, honing their acting skills and waiting to be discovered. They could be effective workers in society's institutions. Some, I hope, will remain artists and produce the next generation of plays and movies. More will bring a sense of artistry to their communities. All, I'm sure, know how to make an organization operate effectively.

Theater is the most practical of studies. And yet, after spending many evenings watching these students meet and rehearse, I can't help wondering if they might not benefit from a study of that impractical field of mathematics.

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