So, yesterday I wrote
[W]hat can Drama bring to Computer Science?
The easy one is presentation/communication skills. A CS student might be brilliant, but that doesn’t mean they can present or communicate. And if an idea can’t be communicated, it’s worthless.
But what else? Any ideas? I’m going to think about this for a bit, and I’ll see if I can come up with any more.
I posted the question on Twitter, and on my Facebook. I was quite surprised by the amount of feedback I got back – apparently, quite a few people are interested in this topic.
Thanks for everybody who posted, or who came up to talk to me about this! Let me summarize what I heard back:
- Without a doubt, work in Drama hones movement/body senses. It also trains us to use and take care of our body, and voice, like a musician would take care of a musical instrument. Spending too much time hunkered over a keyboard can have detrimental effects on the body over time – I can personally admit to having absolutely awful shoulder tension, no doubt to my constant typing. I only became aware of this tension, and how to deal with it, thanks to my work in Drama. The dichotomy between body and mind is, in my humble opinion, a Western myth, and when you stop separating them, and get them to work together, amazing things can happen. Just ask any contact improviser.
- Drama is also emotional work. No, this doesn’t mean we sit in a big circle and cry, and get credit for it. Emotions are something that we study – how to mimic them, how to summon them out of ourselves, how to describe them, and abstractly represent them. This is where Psychology, Drama, and Human-Computer Interaction might have some overlap. In particular, it must be remembered that theatre is a communications medium between the actor(s) on stage, and the audience. A webpage is also a communications medium. Perhaps the theatre can teach a website a thing or two about communication. I wonder what Marshall McLuhan would have to say on all of this…
- Drama folk are creative, and are used to doing impossible, unreasonable things. If you ask them to fly, they’ll figure out a way of doing it. It’ll probably be abstract, and involve crazy lighting effects, but they’ll do it. Production Managers are used to getting crazy, impossible requests from Directors all the time. In my opinion, that’s what Directors are for! Sometimes (usually due to time constraints), the Production Manager just says no to the Director – usually, though, they just go ahead and make impossible things happen – like building a triple layered reflection box. This thing was a beast, and used a ton of computing power for live, context sensitive visual effects. I’m proud to have been a part of that.
- In Drama, if the project is no fun, the end result suffers. I’m pretty sure the same goes for software. Drama students have a way of finding the “game”, the “jeu”, and the “play” (that’s why it’s called a “play”, people!) in what they’re doing. The best actors are the ones who are clearly having a great time on stage, and are sharing this with the audience. I believe this is applicable to software development…
- If you want to think about complex systems, think about the stage. At any given moment, n actors are on stage, interacting with various bits of set or props, interacting with each other – and each has their own motivation and personal story. It can’t be a coincidence that the I* modeling language orients itself around terms like “actors” and “goals”. It also can’t be a coincidence that many adventure game engines refer to in-game sprites as actors…
But now I want to hit the big one. There is one thing that I really think Drama can bring to Computer Science. Drama students are very good at it. From what I can tell, Computer Science students rarely get exposed to it.
That thing is collaboration skills.
I already know that a few of my fellow Drama students will laugh at that – and say, “there are plenty of people in this department without collaboration skills”. Yes, this is true. But they tend not to do very well, or produce anything too interesting.
For me, the best, most exciting stuff comes when I’m with a group, and we’re not sure where we’re going with a project, but we just try things. We all throw a bunch of ideas in the middle, and try to put them on their feet. The most unexpected things can happen.
Two years ago, I took a course in Experimental Theatre. We were broken down into groups of 3 or 4 right at the beginning of the term, and given this challenge – show us what you like to see in theatre. Show us what you think good theatre looks like.
That was it. A blank canvas. No script. No “spec”. Just each other. It felt hopeless at first – we’d improv things, trying to get a feel for what our group wanted to do. Nothing would happen, it’d fall flat. We were lost.
But slowly, something started to piece itself together. We found some material that we wanted to play with (The Wizard of Oz), and a subject that we liked – “home”. What it means to be home, why people leave their homes, why we miss home, why we can’t stand home, what if we can’t get home, etc. We divided the work up into 4 sections – 1 for each of us: Dorothy, Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man.
It’s really hard to describe what we did. The characters and structure from The Wizard of Oz was just a playground for a huge meditation on what “home” meant to different people.
And, wouldn’t you know it, the Robert Dziekanski Taser Incident happened just a week or so before we were to present. It integrated perfectly into our piece.
When we finally presented it, some people were incredulous, others nauseous, others outraged. Some were crying. We had a huge class debate on whether or not it was appropriate to include the film clip of the Taser Incident in our piece.
But a lot of people really got something out of it. And I believe a bunch of people from that class went to a protest rally about the incident that took place only a few days later. I heard a lot of really positive things. We were so excited by it that we almost took it to the Toronto Fringe Festival.
In my opinion, that was one of the most interesting, educational, horrifying, and rewarding art pieces I’d ever been involved in. And it all started from nothing.
When are Computer Science students grouped up, and told to make whatever they want? When are they given total freedom to just go crazy, and come up with something beautiful? Something unique? When are they given the frightening prospect of a blank canvas? Maybe I’m being naive – but where are the collaborative creativity assignments in computer science education?
Now, I can imagine someone shouting – “but what about those group assignments! What about CSC318, or CSC301? Those were collaborative!”.
My friend, thanks for trying, but there’s a distinct difference between group problem solving, and collaborative creation. In my mind, for collaborative creation at its best, the ensemble starts with nothing and must create something from it. It’s the difference between having a script to toy with, and not having a script at all.
And don’t just tell me that an independent study fits the bill. The word “independent” sabotages the whole idea – the key word is collaborate.
Oh, and did I mention that Artful Making sounds like an excellent book? Why don’t you go to their website, and read the forward by Google’s own Dr. Eric Schmidt. I found it very illuminating. I think this is going to the top of my to-read list.
Thanks to Blake Winton, Veronica Wong, Cam Gorrie, Jorge Aranda, Neil Ernst, Peter Freund, Jennifer Dowding, and Yev Falkovich for their input on this. Yes, those little conversations made an impact!