Curiouser and curiouser: exploring the worlds of theatre, science and devising with Curious Directive

To be curious is the “basic premise of being a human”. These are the words of Jack Lowe, Artistic Director of Curious Directive. He has taken this innate curiosity and developed it as the foundation of his theatre company. Curious Directive makes stories about science that question our world but never provide answers. It’s a working partnership that blows apart binaries of creative and logical thinking, opening up space for a new form of creativity. Discovering more about the company’s devising process, its current Hexagon season of work and the question of “why science?” invites us to explore a whole new world of theatre-making, and to become curiouser and curiouser about the worlds of theatre and science, and the connection between the two.

Theatre-makers and scientists aren’t the most likely candidates for collaboration. But why not? Scientists, as Lowe explains, often speak very poetically and animatedly about their work. In Curious Directive’s devising process, theatre-makers are experimenting and dissecting as much as any scientist.

As Lowe states, “science is everything. It’s part of the cultural DNA of people who are interested in everything.” Theatre-makers have a responsibility to be interested in everything and anything. Put like this, it makes sense. Practitioners have, of course, developed their own science of theatremaking, often drawing on scientific traditions. Jacques Lecoq, whose school Lowe attended, takes a very scientific approach to the analysis of the world and application of this to theatre. His theories are at the core of Curious Directive’s approach to training.

But the company has developed its own way of working where curiosity about a certain aspect of the world, and our lives, is seen through a scientific lens and taken into a devising process to develop a story. Last year’s Edinburgh production Your Last Breath had the company working closely with anaesthetists to tell the story of a skiing accident that led to the discovery of suspended animation; a story woven with three others to span 150 years and told through movement, live piano and video. This production is touring as part of the company’s current Hexagon season and this year’s Edinburgh show After the Rainfall is “Your Last Breath’s big sister”. Again featuring a string of interconnected narratives, After the Rainfall is set to be an epic show that illustrates the company’s curiosity about everything from sand to colonialism, Egypt in 1952, Cumbria in 1986 and ant colonies.

The Hexagon season is – as the name suggests – a six-sided exploration of the way in which the company works. It features its first tour, a return to Edinburgh with a longer and bigger show, and its first experimentation with a writer as the lead artist on a production. Also included is Olfactory, the first time the company has tried to recreate its creative landscapes on a very intimate scale to explore our relationship with smell. There’s also Binary, a project that sees writers paired with scientists to create short scripts for the High Tide festival which really put the relationship between science and creativity under the microscope.

Considering what a huge undertaking this season of work is, it would seem the company has got a handle on its process and its formula for producing theatre. However, Lowe is keen to stress, “I don’t believe process is possible”, commenting on the way in which there are “little traits and ticks and structures” for every project but never a set process. With this statement in mind, the fascinating science of devising begins to open itself up, as something both ordered and jumbled. Lowe suggests that “there are around nine strands to an idea”, including those related to character, sound, scenography and movement, and so long as there is a “moment when those strands start getting woven”, everything will be okay. He emphasises how vital all these component strands are as everything is “counterbalanced and symbiotically connected”. To stress this he gives the example of a puppet; “take one string off a puppet and it’s gone”.

This description of counterbalance and symbiosis also perfectly describes the world around us that is probed and questioned by scientists. A question constantly posed at symposiums on science and the arts is, “how can you bring the way in which you think creatively, using analogy and metaphor, into a scientific process?” Curious Directive doesn’t have the answer to this, and possibly no-one ever will. But in making theatre through a scientific lens, its work offers an alternative perspective on science – one that suggests that the most important thing science has to offer is its questions not its answers.

Curious Directive’s ever-evolving model of working is exciting and different. Not only has it opened up a creative dialogue between theatre and science, but its work encourages theatre to be as open as possible. Science aside, Lowe’s influences span all areas, including video artist Bill Viola and “the colour palette of whoever designs Fuel’s brochures”. It is wide ranging but, he hopes, selective.

With the Hexagon season, Curious Directive is experimenting with and questioning the way in which it works, and this season is allowing it the space to do so openly – something not always granted to new companies which often have to be so sure of themselves and their process. Lowe advises that it is vital to know your trajectory if you are a young company, but recognises the catch 22: this is something you can’t know until you start. Perhaps the best advice to be taken from Curious Directive is to allow yourself to be curious and experiment; to see theatre as a kind of science that gives no answers and – as Lowe advises – “don’t worry, it’ll all be fine”.

Originally published on A Younger Theatre 10/4/12

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