Tag Archives: Vancouver East Cultural Centre

Infinity, time, physics, math, and a play at the Vancouver (Canada) East Cultural Centre, January 7 – 19, 2020

Time seems to be having a moment. (I couldn’t resist. 🙂 If Carlo Rovelli’s 2018 book, The Order of Time, is any indication the topic has attained a new level of interest. The only other evidence I have is that I stumble across essays about time in unlikely places.

Infinity, a play about time and more, has been produced and toured on and off since 2015 when it won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for best new play.

Here’s a clip from one of the productions,

Here’s what the publicists at the Cultch (Vancouver East Cultural Centre) have posted about the play on the Events webpage,

A surprising, funny, and revelatory new play about love, sex, and math.

The cynical, skeptical daughter of a theoretical physicist and a composer, Sarah Jean’s clinical approach to love meets with little success. In this absorbing drama infused with science and classical music, three exceptional minds collide like charged particles in an accelerator. Sarah Jean’s hugely talented, yet severely dysfunctional, family will learn that love and time itself are connected in unimaginable ways.

From award-winning playwright Hannah Moscovitch; featuring two of our country’s most esteemed actors, Jonathon Young and Amy Rutherford, up-and-comer Emily Jane King, and violinist Andréa Tyniec; with original music by visionary composer Njo Kong Kie.

“The play makes you feel as much as it makes you think.”—NOW Toronto

There is a December 23, 2019 preview article by Janet Smith for the Georgia Straight which gives you some insight into the playwright and her work (Note: There is some profanity in the second paragraph),

Albert Einstein once called time a “stubbornly persistent illusion”, but tell that to a busy playwright who’s juggling deadlines for TV scripts and stage openings with parenting a four-year-old-boy.

“I’m in an insane relationship with time as a mother—this agonized relationship with time,” writer Hannah Moscovitch laments with a laugh, speaking to the Straight from her Halifax home before her show Infinity opens here after the holidays. “This work-life balance: I was like, ‘What the fuck is everybody complaining about?’ Until I had to do it.

“I mean, if I don’t work less I will wreck his childhood. So it’s not like a theoretical ideal that I should have work-life balance,” she continues, sounding as self-effacing, funny, and candidly introspective as some of her best-known female stage characters. And then she reflects more seriously, “Writing Infinity gave me the chance to grapple with that. And now I’m in a constant existential relationship with time; I’m constantly thinking about it. Time is intricately linked to death, they’re inevitably linked. When you come back to time you come back to death.”

In 2008, Ross Manson, artistic director, of Toronto’s Volcano Theatre, approached Moscovitch with an article in Harper’s magazine about the history of timekeeping, with the idea of commissioning her to write on the theme. Moscovitch went on to read Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe [2013], in which American theoretical physicist Lee Smolin, of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, challenges Einstein’s idea of time as illusion.

With Manson’s help, she would go on to meet Smolin as she worked on her play, turning to him as an expert source on the science she was trying to convey in her story. Along the way, she formed a friendship with the man she was once intimidated to meet.

“Oddly enough, while all the specifics are different about what we do, some of the generals are the same,” she explains. “We have no language in common, but we really enjoy hanging out with each other. There’s a critical endeavour in both of our work that is thought-based, and we both very much live in our minds.”

For a more jaundiced view, there’s Conrad Sweatman’s April 5, 2019 review of the play’s script in book form for prairiefire,

The uses and abuses of science in playwriting: a review of Hannah Moscovitch’s play Infinity 

Hannah Moscovitch is an indie darling of Canadian theatre, and her Dora-winning play Infinity reaffirms her reputation as one of Canada’s brightest, most ambitious playwrights. If this sounds like the sort of detached praise one reads on a student report card, it’s partially because throughout my readings of Infinity I wrestled between admiration and annoyance at its rather academic cleverness. While ultimately it earns my letter of recommendation, Infinity sometimes feels like the dramatic equivalent of a class valedictorian’s graduation speech.

Back to Infinity. In his lively introduction to the play’s script, the famous physicist Lee Smolin, who consulted on the play, describes scientists and artists as“explorers of our common future” and pleads for a more open, friendly exchange between these two camps. (Smolin, vi). It comes off as a conciliatory remark after decades of the ‘science wars’ in academia, and Smolin also lauds Moscovitch for bucking the humanities’ postmodernist trend of knocking science and its practitioners. All fine sentiments. But what does this emphasis on the commonality between art and science mean, if anything, about the relationship between the subjective, social stuff of art and the objective, natural stuff of science? Does it suggest that the scientific method should by employed by playwrights and novelists in the fictional study of human nature, as some of the naturalist novelists of the 19th century believed? 

I have no reason to think that either Smolin or Moscovitch really wish for science to colonize the arts and humanities. …

Infinity is a fine addition to the aforementioned genre of smart, humanistic plays about physicists and mathematicians that had its heyday around the turn of the Millennium. It has some of their same flaws and cerebral charms and belongs more, in spirit, to the comparatively untroubled moment, before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Global Recession, and Trump. If, like me, you spent your first years willingly reading serious literature and theatre at length in a humanities department where every text was filtered through the parallax perspectives of postmodern critical theory, you may find refreshing Infinity’s enthusiasm for science and its world of objectivism. You may feel the same way about its avoidance of the crude identity politics, inspired partially by such theory, that’s particularly in vogue in the arts right now: a kind of reactive agitprop in the age of Trump. But with the world staggering right now from one crisis to the next, a contemporary play about Ivy League intellectuals, their theories of time and struggles for authenticity, seems, well, a little untimely. …

Sweatman has identified one of the big problems with using concepts from mathematics and the sciences to inform fiction and art. The romantic poets ran into the same problem as Richard Holmes explores at length in his 2008 book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Shelley eventually abandoned his attempts at including science in his poems.

Interestingly, most of us don’t seem to realize that the arts and sciences have been intimately linked for millenia. For example, De rerum natura a multi-volume poem by Roman poet, Lucretius ( (c. 99 BCE – c. 55 BCE), is a philosophical treatise exploring mind, soul, and the principles of atomism (i.e., atoms).

I hope you enjoy the play, if you choose to go. According to the Events webpage (scroll down), the playwright will be present at two post-show talkbacks.

Interview with Baba Brinkman on the occasion of his Rap Guide to Evolution performance in Vancouver, November 2013 edition

Baba Brinkman is in the words of his eponymous website’s homepage,

Baba Brinkman is a Canadian rap artist, writer, actor, and tree planter. He is best known for his award-winning hip-hop theatre shows, including The Rap Guide to Evolution and The Canterbury Tales Remixed, which interpret the works of Darwin and Chaucer for a modern audience.

Originally from British Columbia and now living in New York City, he has brought his Rap Guide to Evolution which has been an off-Broadway show, a festival performance, and a DVD project to Vancouver. The last time he performed this show, which morphs as new information is received and as it is adapted for different media and performance types, to Vancouver was in 2011 (my Feb. 17, 2011 posting features a pre-show interview he gave),. This time he’s at Vancouver’s East Cultural Centre, (The Cultch) from Oct. 29, – November 10, 2013 (tickets here).

Baba has very kindly (especially since the show just opened a few days ago) given me a second interview. Without more ado, here’s the interview,

  • Could you describe the full theatrical version of the Rap Guide to Evolution that played in New York? And is this what you’ve brought to Vancouver or has it been adapted either due to cost and/or venue and/or geographic location?

The show running in Vancouver is the full off-Broadway production, which includes music and live turntablism by Jamie Simmonds, visual projections by Wendall Harrington and lighting design by Jason Boyd. All of these production elements were added in 2011 specifically for the New York run, and they create a full immersion experience with lights and sounds and visuals and words all weaving together to tell the story of Darwin’s intellectual impact on the modern world.

  • In Adrian Mack’s Oct. 23, 2013 piece in the Georgia Straight) newspaper, you talked about karma, Vancouverites’ belief in it, and the science of it. How did you come to a scientific understanding of karma and could you explain what you mean by ‘cheater detection’ and ‘evolved deterrents to free-riding behaviour’?

Karma is *often summarized as “what goes around comes around” and for most people it’s a belief that the universe is somehow keeping score, rewarding goodness and punishing badness. The dark side of the widespread belief in karma, in Vancouver and elsewhere, is that it could just as accurately be summarized as “whatever happens to you, good or bad, you deserve it” which doesn’t sit right with most people when they think it through. We constantly see people around us being unjustly rewarded for bad behaviour and punished for good behaviour, and we see a lot of randomness too. Not many of us would tell a pedestrian who was hit by a drunk driver: “that’s karma”, but if you give a homeless person a dollar and later find out that you’ve won a big prize in a raffle draw *you might think it’s karma. Hence, we usually only invoke the concept of karma when we encounter seemingly random events that appear to repay like with like.

The scientific view is that our minds misattribute causality to these kinds of random events, but we do it for a good reason. Humans are social primates, and social groups share the mutual benefits of cooperative efforts, but those benefits are constantly undermined by individuals who claim the rewards without paying the cooperative costs, ie cheaters and free-riders. Evolution will favour free-riding behaviour unless there are mechanisms to punish or suppress it, but punishment itself is costly, so there are a whole series of obstacles to evolving cooperation. One way to overcome these obstacles is with psychological mechanisms for “cheater detection” (seeking and identifying non-cooperators) and “altruistic punishment” (enforcing costs on them through reputation-damage, ostracism, loss of liberty, etc), both of which humans have been experimentally shown to have in spades. We care about who’s a fraud, a thief, and a cheater, and we want to see them pay for it. Denouncing and locking up Bernie Madoff feels good.

Hence, the concept of karma can be redeemed as a social as opposed to metaphysical phenomenon. The reason we feel like the universe adheres to the principle of “what goes around comes around” is because we are evolved to pursue that model through our social interactions, so we project it onto the physical world. The universe doesn’t enforce good behaviour, but your peers certainly do. If you doubt it, try ripping them off and see what happens.

  • I see you were an artist-in-residence at the US National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) which is located at the University of Tennessee. Could you describe the experience especially in light of the fact that Tennessee is the state where the Scopes trial took place? (The trial is famous for bringing two of the US’s best known lawyers of the 1920s [William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow] to argue whether or not evolution was scientific and should be taught in schools.)

I was expecting the Tennessee residency to be a lot more controversial, but in fact most of it was spent interacting with post-docs and grad students, learning about their research, going to lectures, and going to live music events at local bars. Major evolution vs creationism showdowns reminiscent of Scopes did not feature prominently in my time there, but in retrospect that isn’t surprising since I was a guest of a national scientific research centre and was situated on a university campus. The one exception to this general tranquility was my performance at Union County High School, which generated some controversy, summarized in my “Tennessee Monkey Trials” blog. I thought I was there to fight a culture war, but mostly I just drank local craft beer (and moonshine) and listened to live bluegrass music. *The end result was The Infomatic EP  produced by Jamie Simmonds, who was in Tennessee with me for most of the residency.”*

  • How have you and/or your work changed since you embarked on rapping science?

The biggest change is that I have come to identify as a skeptic, atheist, and philosophical naturalist, whereas before I would have called myself agnostic or spiritual. I was never religious before, but I was sympathetic to the idea of a nebulous spiritual “force” at work in the world. However, the more I read about evolution and psychology and the scientific method, the less seriously I was able to take supernatural or miraculous explanations for anything at all. Now I write rationalist anthems like “Naturalizm” and “Off That“, which are very different in tone than the music I was making six years ago.

  • Where are you off to after this?

My next tour is the Norway Hip-hop Festival in February, and then a big tour of Australia in May/June, including the Sydney Opera House. In the meantime, my wife is pregnant with our first baby, due in late November, so I’m going to spend the winter learning to be a father, which is pretty exciting. Darwin would be proud.

  • Is there anything you’d like to add?

I hope your readers will come to the show, if they are able. It runs until November 10th in Vancouver. Or, if they can’t make it, download the album and bump it in your headphones. Scientific literacy never sounded so good!

Baba, I very much appreciate the interview and the gift of your precious time writing this up just after you’ve opened your show here in Vancouver. As well, congratulations to you and your wife!

Also, thank you for that explanation of karma and science and, especially, for this bit, “The dark side of the widespread belief in karma, in Vancouver and elsewhere, is that it could just as accurately be summarized as “whatever happens to you, good or bad, you deserve it” which doesn’t sit right with most people when they think it through. We constantly see people around us being unjustly rewarded for bad behaviour and punished for good behaviour, and we see a lot of randomness too. …” Many times I’ve lovely well-meaning individuals do damage with advice that includes blame via ‘karma’. Thank you for being much more articulate about it than I’ve been.

As for anyone who likes to see reviews, the only one I could find is from Colin Thomas who in an Oct. 30, 2013 review for the Georgia Straight which was further elucidated in a Nov. 1, 2013 posting on his eponymous blog, had issues not with the performance (“Smart writer. Handsome production. But no. Just no. ” [from the Oct. 30, 2012 review]) but the content and the politics regarding rap and gender, in particular. I gather Thomas found the show thought-provoking.

* Two corrections made: ‘ofter’ to ‘often’ and ‘raffle and you might’ to ‘raffle you might’ in the response to the Karma question and one sentence added to the end of the Tennessee question on Nov.4, 2013.