An earthquake happens when two blocks of earth suddenly slip past one another--the surface where they slip is called the fault. At least that’s the description from the US Geological Survey. It is undeniably accurate, but it doesn’t really mean anything. Meaning is derived through our experiences, the ways in which we relate to information. Meaning is not something we usually associate with geology.
In the sciences, we are good with descriptions. Perhaps it is a Cartesian legacy--the idea of understanding through observation. Benjamin K. Bergen, in his book, Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning writes, “…meaning is something that you construct in your mind, based on your own experiences.” We need experiences for meaning, and the experiences of others are related through stories.
The other night I had the opportunity to watch Angela Santillo’s play Faulted. Faulted was staged by foolsFURY theatre company at the Thick House in San Francisco. It tells the story of Aurora, an earth empath, and Mitch, a graduate student at Caltech's Seismological Laboratory who has been sent to collect data about Aurora. Aurora is trying to warn Mitch about the impending quake, but Mitch is having difficulty reconciling her feelings about the quake and the lack of objective evidence. Things are complicated for Mitch by his controlling girlfriend, who wants to end the observation. These three characters are attended by a chorus of personified fault lines--the laid-back inactive Chatsworth, the agitated San Fernando and Santa Susanna, and the determined, powerful San Andreas who is threatening to quake.
The play was a brisk and enjoyable 90 minutes. It was followed by a post-show talk back with Dr. Walter Mooney from the US Geological Survey.
I had the chance to ask Ms. Santillo a couple of questions about science and art in her work:
JF: Were you attempting to reconcile the fields of art and science in your piece, and if so, how?
AS: Part of the play’s conflict is based in a tug of war between art and science but that was the result of putting two different characters in a room. You have a seismologist (science) living with an empath (art) and they have to engage and survive a natural disaster together. She is nervous, scattered, feeling seemingly illogical things and his straight, logical way of thinking is compromised. It’s very much an oil meets water situation. During their first meeting he stands up and says, “Feelings are not scientific” and she flat out tells him, “You are not a poet.”
However, as the writer, I wasn’t looking to reconcile the fields of art and science. Creating Faulted was a chance to go crazy and create a story inspired by scientific research. There was such wonder and mystery in my research of earthquakes, I wanted to make something that reflected and exploited what I learned. If anything, this piece is a work of art trying to reach the inherent drama of science.
JF: What was the inspiration to incorporate science into your play?
AS: As a playwright, I see the stage as the ultimate imagination playing field. You can be symbolic, poetic, guttural, dirty, beautiful, and epic in your emotional reach. And what is more epic than science? You are able to see the world and universe through facts and explorations that show how grand and mysterious our reality actually is.
With Faulted, I wanted the scientific facts behind earthquakes to shape the dramatic elements in my play, from plot to character to language. So unlike other shows that often look at the journeys scientists take to make landmark discoveries, I wanted my theatrical building blocks to be the science itself. I created characters whose motives, speech, and outlooks were based in stats. San Andreas speaks in poetry and is an unstoppable monster because in reality he is over 800 miles long while San Fernando wants to “thrust” with Santa Susanna because they are the two thrust fault lines that created the Sylmar quake…
…I find when you use science to make theater, you have to figure out a whole new artistic vocabulary and process in order to tell your story. Often the creation of the story is more difficult and the development process can be harder but I want this challenge.
JF: What can we look forward to?
AS: I just got done creating a solo show that has a plot and setting inspired by the heat death of the universe and am currently reading various magazines, articles and books to find my next source of inspiration. Like theater, science is truth that leads to imagination. Why not create from the same source material?