On the Fence : Extra!


Monday, March 29, 2004

It all adds up to this: Eight years after retreating into the world of math, writer John Mighton returns to the stage

Thursday, March 25, 2004
Arts & Life
J. Kelly Nestruck
National Post

Cookie has escaped from her cage and is loose. So playwright John Mighton and his 11-year-old daughter, Chloe ("Eleven-and- a-half," she corrects politely), are lying flat on the floor, trying to coax her out from underneath the television stand.

"I've almost got her, Dad," says Chloe. Then -- gotcha! -- she pulls her arm out from behind the VCR with the recaptured baby rat safely in hand.

Once Cookie is back in her cage, Mighton sits down for an interview in the kitchen of his Toronto apartment, which is as cluttered and disorganized as you might expect of any absent-minded professor. The first question seems obvious: A pet rat? "I used to have rats as a kid," he says matter-of-factly.

Mighton is no more a typical artist than he is a typical parent. In 1995, after being disillusioned by yet another set of mixed reviews for his play The Little Years, Mighton retreated into the study of mathematics, a decidedly less subjective field. "It's safer to do mathematics," he explains. "When you have something in math, you're pretty certain it's not going to be disproved. You may find that you can find deeper theories and so on, but what you've found will stand permanently."

After eight years away from the theatre -- in which he consulted on the math and played a small role in the film Good Will Hunting, completed a PhD in Mathematics on knot theory, won an NSERC fellowship to the Fields Institute, and founded an educational charity that provides free math tutoring to elementary-school students on the side -- the mighty-brained Mighton returns to the stage next week. His new play, Half Life, runs for six nights at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille, with Siminovitch-winning director Daniel Brooks at the helm and a cast that includes such stellar Canadian actors as Eric Peterson, Diego Matamoros and Carolyn Hetherington. It's a workshop production before the play is mounted for a full run at the Tarragon Theatre next season.

What brought Mighton back to playwriting was a remount of his metaphysical detective story Possible Worlds at Theatre Passe Muraille in 1997. Though it won the Governor General's award, the drama was not well-received by critics when it opened in 1990. "The headlines in the Star and Globe were originally 'Muddled Mess' and 'Hopelessly Muddled,' " recalls Mighton sourly. "You can't get much worse than that." This time around, however, with Brooks directing, Possible Worlds was a popular and critical success.

With his confidence renewed and Brooks on board as dramaturge, Mighton began working on Half Life a couple of years ago. Based on his experiences visiting his mother in her nursing home before she died, the play is more personal and emotional than any of his previous works.

Mighton's plays -- including Body and Soul, A Short History of Night and Scientific Americans -- have usually grappled with heady subjects like nuclear science, parallel universes and cybersexuality. This time around, there's hardly any science at all. Well, except for one scene that is modelled on the Turing Test for distinguishing humans from artificial intelligence.

"This play is about what survives when the mind starts to fail," Mighton explains. "Is there a soul that shines through or are we just this collection of physical mechanisms that, when they fall apart, that's it?"

Mighton maintains that his previous plays weren't overly dependent on ideas, as some critics complained. "[They were] about how ideas reside in bodies," he asserts. "This new play, it's not hard to see the story or the emotion in it. It's about a woman and her son and the woman is dying."

In a roundabout way, it was the theatre that led Mighton to his other love: mathematics. Struggling to make ends meet as a playwright, Mighton began tutoring kids who had fallen behind in math, a subject he had never been particularly good at but had always had an interest in. (He had nearly failed a first-year Calculus course during his philosophy degree.) The success of his students -- one went on to do a PhD in mathematics -- gave him the confidence to head back to university.

While working on his PhD, Mighton founded JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies), a tutoring program that helps students at local elementary schools. (Chloe's mother, Mighton's ex-wife Raegan, is a tutor with JUMP as well.) Following the publication of his book The Myth of Ability, JUMP has gained a profile across Ontario, and Mighton is currently in discussions with the Ministry of Education on how it can use his teaching methods.

Aside from The Myth of Ability, there are three books on Mighton's kitchen table. The first is The Elegant Universe by physicist Brian Greene, who has appeared on David Letterman to discuss string theory -- "a branch of physics that is the contender for the theory that will unify all the forces of nature," Mighton explains. Robert Lepage has been hired by the Lincoln Centre to turn Greene's book into a play and Mighton is writing the script.

The second book is the Holy Bible, a more familiar text. Mighton is using a quotation from John to illustrate string theory in his adaptation of The Elegant Universe.

The third book, a university math text called Discrete Mathematics: A Unified Approach, actually belongs to his Chloe, who, it should be reiterated, is 11 (and a half) years old. "She's not afraid of it," Mighton says proudly. "I feel that I wasn't really encouraged or pushed enough when I was young. It took me until I was in my thirties to get back to math."

So don't expect Mighton to abandon his beloved numbers for the theatre: Math is still the more rewarding component of his life. For the moment, he talks about the JUMP program with much more vibrancy than he talks about his plays.

"There's nothing like when you take care of kids and allow them to meet their potential and allow them to love school," he says. "The kind of joy that radiates back at you is very, very fulfilling."
posted by J. Kelly 9:49 PM

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