The theater of controversies: the encounter between art and science

What can reconcile theater and controversy mapping? Interview with Luigi Cerri, a professional actor, who actively contributes to the conjunction of the two spheres in his artistic productions and through his collaboration with Forccast.

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Luigi Cerri is a professional actor and the co-director of two theater troupes, Avanti and Soif. Besides, he is now a regular intervener for the Forccast’s experiences.

His participation to Forccast public speaking workshops, designed for high school students, or to simulations taking place in Sciences Po, shows that worlds as different as science and art are far from being separated. This assumption is also the cornerstone of the controversy mapping methodology.

Luigi Cerri is not only an actor. He also is a doctor in political economy and he has a diploma in sociology. His work displays how disciplines can end up meeting: he often deals with scientific and social issues in his artistic works, showing the deep relationship between both of them.

 

A whole facet of your work is based on the meeting point between sciences and theater. Where does that dual sensitivity come from?

Before being an actor and director, I was a researcher in political economy. When I was a PhD student, I wrote a play inspired from Robinson Crusoé : “Blé et Fer” (“Wheat and Iron”). I produced it in 2007-2008. This play conveyed an ironical view on the premises of neoclassical economics. I carried them to the extreme point, which turned Robinson into a sort of Don Quichotte, constantly facing his paradoxes.

Apart from this experiment, I did not have the opportunity to link science and theater for years. Nonetheless, I felt appealed by research again. The opportunity arose in 2013, with the “Gaïa Global Circus” project. It is a theater creation lead by Bruno Latour about climate change. The point of this work was to develop public understanding about complex phenomena, without “lecturing” it.   We wanted to speak about science without being a cliché of cold and rational scientists. In a word, we wanted to appeal to sensitivity.

This experiment was just a beginning : since this time, I have been articulating my interest for sciences and representational work. Recently, I created two shows related to this concern : “The Cabaret of the Crisis” (Le Cabaret de la Crise), which is composed of sketches about the theme of crisis, and a conference-show “Catastrophe. So what ?” (“La Catasatrophe. Et alors ?”), built around speeches dealing with climate change. This plays are part of the “Fabrique de Terriens” project.

During the creation process, how does the encounter between the two spheres occur ?

Most of the time, I start from a book, a researcher’s thinking (philosopher, sociologist, economist, biologist, geologist, and reporter as well). Then, I really go into what he says, I try to find a comical, apathetical, controversial or paradoxical side ; and I use it to create a character, with his own internal conflicts, his contradictions. At the end of the day, I get something that can be use in a theater.

Alternatively, I go the other way : I take a common expression of contemporary language, a well-known song, a shared reference, and I transform it to propose a philosophical discourse.

For instance, I use the call for growth we all hear all the time, which is supposed to be the solution to all our problems. I exploit the humorous side of it, by imagining a character ( a minister) who speaks to the growth as a gone lover, with the lyrics of the Barbara’s song “When will you come back”.

Another example, I synthesize the stance of a scientist on a topic, to create a short monolog, which is easy to understand but scientifically rigorous.

Most of the time, the theatrical side is put forward, and the scientific one is the writing material.

How would qualify your creations? Pedagogical tool or absolute work of art ? Activist theater or neutral tool for thinking ?

Good questions ! For sure, it is not only a pedagogical tool. My plays are autonomous, meaning they can be perfectly understood without any supplementary pedagogical explanations. They are designed to be completed with a workshop or a debate, though.

Activist theater, I think so ! I don’t think that neutral thinking would be an interesting goal… Even for a scientist, who defines his research agenda with the influence of a social or personal need, who tries to achieve results with his own personal view of the world. (This is Bruno Latour’s teaching, which inspired Forccast).

This said, my theater is not a moralizing one. I don’t want to impose an opinion, I prefer to give the public a whole panel of contradictory positions on a topic. Each person will be moved by a different part of the show, a word that will impact him. What really interests me is to reveal the logic or the absurdity of an argument, to show the constraints that controversies actors face all the time, to decompose our world to make a complex but understandable portray of it.

In a sense, it is an activist theater because I don’t deny the pedagogical dimension of the show. I believe that people go to the theater to learn something, to understand, and not only to feel ecstatic in front of a piece of art. It’s committed because I deal with news, politics, I try to explain, give my own answers, and create new questions in people’s mind.

You use the term “Theater of controversies” : which are the links that you see between controversy mapping and theater ?

Cartography mapping is already a metaphoric expression to speak about a arena in which we have to find our way. It is uses in order order to understand this world, to give information about it to other people. In the Forccast project, theses cartographies become websites, simulations, or workshops, and sometimes imply the staging of the controversy.

The theater I propose is a sort of cartography. I don’t pretend it is exhaustive, mainly because the show is limited in time. But I keep the willing to draw a picture of our world, give clues to the public to understand it.

Which facets do you work with the high school and the university students? Are they any differences?

Above all, we study public speaking, and the application of these techniques for the staging of the studied controversy. We also participate to the stage production writing, showing them the all range of what is possible to do. The scene is an area of freedom, but with certain constraints. We work on this tension with students.

With the publics who have deeper knowledges (university and executive formation students), we can go further in the controversy, but our method remains quite the same. Every one faces the same difficulties : play a role, defend a position, speak clearly…

You participate in some simulation. Which are the inputs of your characters ?

Depending on the simulation, I can play a crucial role or act backup. Generally speaking, my role is to push further participants’ propositions. Raise new questions, create a new debate. Doing so, I always must be precise in my character. This reinforces the credibility of the simulation.

Depending on the role I play, I can have a strong conviction, therefore I display emotional involvement. The point is not to create drama, but to show the human dimension which lies in each controversy. Politicians’ choices, experts’ solutions are not simplistic paths driven by technique. Values, beliefs, are always present in politics and science.

If my character is an observer member, then I can provoke, I play the role of the outsider who wants to understand (and most of the time, it’s what is really happening ! ), but also the one participant who is free of saying whatever he wants. This gives a new point of view on what’s happening and create dynamism.

As an actor, what does your involvement into the Forccast Project bring to you ?

Many things :

  • I learn on many new topics, I train myself, while being in the theatrical action.
  • I feel the difficulties students face, and that improves my technique.
  • I meet new people who have other preoccupations than mines, and we create something together.
  • I feed my curiosity with the simulations or controversies.
  • I develop my understanding of processes, both technical and ideological, that are occurring right now.

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