Playwrights explore the human side of brain-related technologies

Mary Guiden

Theater is often used to explore social issues by looking at someone’s daily life, or a series of events in a character or multiple characters’ lives. Scan the roster of plays and musicals in New York City at the moment and you’ll find, as examples: “Book of Mormon,” “Les Miserables,” “La Boheme” and “Wicked.”

In Seattle, David Mills, director of Infinity Box Theatre Project, tackles science topics and related social implications in his productions. For the last two years, he’s presented “Thought Experiments on the Question of Being Human,” delving into robots and artificial intelligence in 2013 and, this year, prosthetics and neural enhancements. He matches up playwrights with researchers, and lets them, well, create a story.

Mills said theater can accomplish what think tanks do, and go beyond by including a social aspect. “The question about the human consequences of science gets a very human treatment on stage and that impacts the people from the theater side and also from the science side, and the audience in a different way than what they ordinarily would experience,” he said.

Elizabeth Heffron and four other Seattle playwrights accepted a mission earlier this year to team up with researchers from the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering. The story lines were often harrowing: A researcher who is depressed decides to experiment on himself (“Brain Trust”), a relationship between a man and woman who both have neural implants takes a violent turn (Heffron’s play, “Calibration”), and a man who was in New York City during 9/11 decides he doesn’t want his memory back because of what he saw and experienced (“Corner Window”).

“Theater is about drama,” Heffron said, when asked about the harrowing side of the plays. “People are in dire situations, often due to their own behavior. If you have a piece about technology and the characters aren’t struggling, it’s not a piece of theater.”

This piece of theater, for her, was a bit easier than other plays she’s crafted. “The hardest part of developing a piece is how to make the connections with the people you really need to connect with, and this felt like, ‘Wow,’ I was paired up right from the start,” said Heffron, who has a degree in psychobiology, the study of brain-behavior relations, from UCLA.

She was paired with Chet Moritz, associate professor in the departments of Rehabilitation Medicine and Physiology & Biophysics at the University of Washington (UW). Moritz’s work focuses on technologies to treat paralysis and other movement disorders. He and his team received a $1.5 million grant to help develop a neuroprosthetic device from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation in 2013.

A self-described “theater geek” in high school, Moritz said he was excited about the process of developing a play, and seeing what Heffron would do with his research. “Elizabeth surprised me with all the awesome nuances she came up with for each of the characters, and how the story evolved,” he said. “What I described to her was just the science. It didn’t have anything to do with the social side or interactions between the characters. She really breathed life into all of that, and made it rich and interactive.”

Heffron worked with both Moritz and Alik Widge, a scientist-engineer who conducted research at the UW in Moritz’s lab but is now based at Massachusetts General Hospital. Moritz provided background on neuroprosthetics, a field related to neuroscience and biomedical engineering. Widge added insight into deep brain stimulation—a technology used to treat Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and other neurological disorders—and how it can be used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

Both researchers sent background materials, and Heffron also spoke with Dr. Ryan Solinsky, a resident in Rehabilitation Medicine, about bladder and bowel function after spinal cord injury (which fits the profile of Clay, one of the play’s characters, who was paralyzed following a snowboarding accident).

The playwright also read about ethics related to these brain technologies, or neuroethics, as the field is known. The Netherlands is ahead of the U.S. and other countries; lawmakers there are considering legal issues related to deep brain stimulation. “With deep brain stimulation, if the amplitude changes, the person’s personality may change,” Heffron said. “If you allow people to self-regulate the current, they want more. It can be similar to an addiction. How do you decide how happy is ‘happy’ for somebody?”

The growing discussion on neural technologies is similar to what has taken place (and continues) with pharmaceuticals, including students taking Ritalin to help them study for tests and people in pain who are self-regulating with a morphine drip.

Playwright Rachel Atkins, who was paired up with UW Professor Eberhard Fetz, hopes to develop her play, “Brain Trust,” into a full-scale version. KPLU’s Gabriel Spitzer spoke with them about the play and their collaboration.

Heffron said that’s something she is considering, too.

Thought Experiments 2014 also featured CSNE researchers Howard Chizeck, Adrienne Fairhall and Lise Johnson. They were paired up with playwrights Roger Tang, Rose Cano and Vincent Delaney, respectively. In 2015, Mill’s team will explore Genetics and Synthetic Biology. Four scientists and four playwrights will collaborate to create a festival of short plays.