NEW YORK — Last year, the environmental crisis inspired an Oscar-winning hit film in Al Gore doc “An Inconvenient Truth,” but can the topic be a success onstage?
Legit development house Redshift Prods. will seek an answer May 24, when it presents “SeaChange: Reversing the Tide,” an eco-themed performance piece by British thesp Lisa Harrow and biologist Roger Payne, a married couple.
But if patrons are cool to the show’s blend of poetry, video and environmental data, Redshift has a ready alternative. “SeaChange” plays in rep at the Cherry Lane with “Phallacy,” a comedy about feuding artists and scientists that opens May 18.
“Phallacy” scribe Carl Djerassi also happens to be one of the inventors of the birth control pill, which makes him a poster boy for Redshift’s mission. As evidenced by both current projects, the company wants theater auds to embrace hard science, and it wants lab-coaters to have an artistic home.
Co-artistic directors Max Evjen and Megan Halpern, who are married and come primarily from a legit background, say Redshift’s strategy is focusing on science first, theater second.
“We find scientists who need to develop a concept, and then we develop a piece of art around it.,” Halpern explains. “Scientists want people to translate the essence of their work so it can be more intimately understood in the everyday world.”
Sometimes Redshift simply provides production and marketing support. (That was the case with “Phallacy,” which arrived with full funding.) Often, though, the company directly develops work. Halpern, for instance, helped create the video and projections for “SeaChange.”
She says the company’s heart is in its “collaboratoriums,” which bring scientists and artists together for improv workshops. A 2005 collaboratorium produced “Happy Hour at the Event Horizon,” a play about physics set at a bar on the edge of a black hole. The production featured actors performing scenes alongside physicists explaining theorems.
If that sounds like dubious fun, Evjen understands. “You have to walk a very fine line between entertainment and didacticism,” he says. “You want people to feel like they have access to information without being at a lecture.”
Successful collaboration also means convincing artists and scientists they can get along. Scientists are often found through universities and are usually surprised to learn a theater company is interested in their work. And Halpern notes that initially actors can be afraid of the material in a Redshift show. “It can be like singing a song in a language you don’t speak,” she says.
But so far, the two groups have found common ground. The company now has enough history — plus a newly enlarged budget of $300,000 a year — to encourage scientists such as Djerassi to seek them out.
The science community also could provide a lucrative revenue source. At present, most of the company’s budget comes from private donations, but it is aggressively courting orgs that fund scientific outreach. In that more institutional world, a theater company’s novelty could prove attractive to funders.
But funding doesn’t guarantee audiences, who might balk at seeing a heavily scientific show. Says Evjen: “We encounter a lot of blank looks. There tends to be an automatic response that science and art are two worlds that have nothing to do with one another.”
To lure the wary, the “Phallacy” ad campaign focuses on the passionate conflict between the two main characters, a male chemist and a female art historian. The tagline reads, “The Battle Between Art and Science Begins.”
Redshift marketing director Sol Lieberman also is directly courting science enthusiasts, buying Web site ads from publications such as “Scientific American” and “Nature.” “I think they were confused at first,” he confesses. “They’ve never spoken to an Off Broadway theater before.”