Visualizing Consciousness: The Hard Problem

By Elspeth Sweatman

Not only does Tom Stoppard’s newest play The Hard Problem—now playing at The Geary Theater through November 13—delve into the murkiness of consciousness and brain science, but it also presents a unique challenge for the set designer.

How do you visualize consciousness? How can you represent it on the stage?

“What I said to scenic designer Andrew Boyce was that I wanted the set to look like consciousness, not neuroscience,” says director Carey Perloff. “So we looked at the most beautiful science building that I think has ever been built: the Salk Institute in San Diego.”

The Salk Institute. Photo by Justin Brown. Courtesy of Flickr.
Built in the 1960s by architect Louis I. Kahn, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies is comprised of two mirror-image structures either side of a central courtyard. Made out of concrete and wood, these geometric structures create a temple of science on the shore of the Pacific.

One of the institute’s most famous features is the narrow water channel in the otherwise barren central courtyard, constructed in such a way that the sun sets in line with this strip of water. Kahn wanted people to always be aware of their small place in our vast, mostly unexplored universe.

“It is a science building that tries to create an environment in which consciousness can be exploded,” says Perloff. “It is unbelievably exquisite and spiritual. It’s just heart-stopping.”

Set model, by scenic designer Andrew Boyce, for 
A.C.T.'s 2016 production of The Hard Problem.
To create the same effect on the Geary stage, Perloff and Boyce placed a tree that rises up and crashes through the ceiling of the space. “We just love it as a kind of anarchic moment of consciousness in this scientific world,” says Perloff. It serves as a constant reminder that nature—be it the natural world around us or the world created by our brains—is not always explicable.

The Hard Problem runs through November 13 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. For more information about Stoppard, consciousness, and the hard problem, purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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