The play's the thing, to catch an audience with science

Actors in costume perform a science experiment during rehearsals for the new play 'Wonder if Wonder Why.'

When UO professor John Schmor read a “totally depressing article” on science literacy, he wanted to use his classroom to improve science knowledge. The fact that he’s the head of the theatre arts department, and not a member of the science faculty, did not deter him.

Schmor teamed up with a group of students and UO science faculty to write “Wonder If Wonder Why,” an educational and entertaining play about science they performed on campus last spring. With the help of a grant funded by the Janette Drew Trust, the group took their show on the road this month to enlighten middle-schoolers around Oregon about the wonders of science.

“We wanted to make a show that caused people to get excited about science and the world around them and to inspire them to go and learn more,” said Ellie Jones, a student performer and ocean biology major.

The cast interviewed members of UO’s science faculty and benefited from listing three science majors on the playbill — ocean biology, geology, and environmental science — as they devised the show and wrote a script rich with science.  

“Every day we had devising class I would come straight from a geology class, so my ‘science-mind’ was already running,” said Dylan Carlini, the production’s resident geologist.

UO physics senior instructor Stanley Micklavzina was eager to help as he’s very familiar with the power of combining art and science. He routinely enlists the help of jugglers and performers to captivate new audiences with the marvels of science and trusted “Wonder if Wonder Why” would be an effective way to capture people’s interest in science.

“If you bill something as a ‘science show’, you’re going to be preaching to the choir,” Micklavzina explained. “But if you incorporate science into a bigger production, you’ll attract a broader crowd that will unexpectedly be fascinated by science.”

Micklavzina wowed the theatre arts students with physics demonstrations to help provide inspiration for their script. He used props like dry ice, assorted metals, bubbles and balloons to explain concepts like sublimation and density — elements that the students then worked into the show.

As they drafted the script, they asked, “/Why are so many people afraid of scientific thinking at the same time we depend every day on its ever-changing success?”

They explored the answer to this question through a comical investigation of science, weaving history into demonstrations of scientific concepts.

In one scene, as actors playing French physicists Hippolyte Fizeau and Léon Foucault animatedly dash around stage in a race to discover the speed of light, the narrator puts their calculations into perspective for the audience.

“But how fast is 299,792 kilometers a second?” she asks. “If you were going that fast, you could circumnavigate the earth seven and a half times — in a second. And yet, even when you’re going that fast, it still takes light eight minutes to get from the sun to the earth.”

“Think about that — for a second.”

Like many good theatrical productions, the ensemble assembled a slew of props to enhance their performance. They used Slinky toys to explain wavelengths and balloons to show the density of carbon dioxide, and they enlisted the arms, and brains, of the audience to show them how peripheral vision works.

But when they were faced with the challenge of adapting their play into a shorter version, they had to make some cuts.

“You can either bring lasers or ping pong balls,” Schmor yelled at the cast as they reworked the play to a 45-minute version — and considered how a gymnasium full of middle-schoolers might react to thousands of ping pong balls bouncing across the floor.

By all accounts, their strategy to increase the student’s interest in science was a successful one, even without ping pong balls.

“The students would spend the whole show laughing, oohing and ahhing, and staring wide-eyed during scenes like the one when we turned the dark room into an ocean, lit up with glowing sea creatures,” Jones said, as she described performing in front of middle-school audiences. “It was exactly what the show needed, an audience of people who wondered.”

Since many of the schools that hosted the performance have seen arts funding drastically reduced or eliminated, the play offered many students a gateway to both science and theater.

“Before we came to some of the schools, the teachers had to explain what theater is,” Carlini said, recalling how “even the most hardened eighth-grader” seemed engaged and interested in the show and many of the students approached him after the final bow with questions about science.

“As a performer, it feels nice when an audience enjoys a show; as a science lover, it feels phenomenal to inspire in others the same curiosity and wonder that pushed me to study geology.”

—By Emily Halnon, University Communications