Westender – An award-winning formula for teaching

When Mackenzie Gray talks about the way Paul McCartney used a recursive sequence to make the song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” seem to last forever, you realize that part of the Beatles’ phenomenal success might have sprung from McCartney’s genius as a mathematician.

When Roger Kemp draws on a napkin to illustrate that you just have to change the way you think about numbers to come up with a binary code for pi (as in 3.14 ad infinitum), you get a sense that math can actually be a lot of fun.

And when you team up Gray, an actor who’s about to appear in Superman: Man of Steel, and Kemp, a PhD who works at Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems (Mitacs) at UBC, with Oscar-winning producer Dale Hartleben, you get a highly successful formula for a play about math.

Yes. A play about math.

The three men, and a cast of energetic young actors, are all part of Math Out Loud. The hour-long production doesn’t teach you mathematical formulas; instead, it reveals how math is everywhere in our world. It’s in our music, our technology, our art, and even in nature.

Mitacs already had a touring play about math but it was more like a lecture with a few plot lines thrown in. Gray was hired to write and direct a version that would grab the audience’s attention. His resumé is as long as the mathematical formula that M.C. Escher might have used to create the dominant image used as the backdrop for Math Out Loud.(The drawing is called Relativity, a futuristic lithograph that has no up or down, which is bewildering because it shows android-like figures climbing up and down stairs. A computerized presentation of another Escher work, Prentententoonstelling, elicited an audible gasp from the teen audience at the premiere. The play showed how the scene in the lithograph will keep spiralling into itself for as long as our imagination allows it to.

Gray is no stranger to finding entertaining ways to inspire a love of learning. He wrote for Sesame Street and knows that the four-year-olds who used to watch his work on TV are now teenagers who like information presented to them in engaging and entertaining ways. The challenge was that he had to write the play, including the basis of its musical score and the Glee-like closing number, this past summer in between shooting scenes for Man of Steel in Vancouver. (He has a featured role but he’s sworn not to reveal it.)

The script is frenetic at times with lots of special effects but he doesn’t let the fun get in the way of the seriousness of the topic. The play has two high school students (Meggie McKinnon and Sayer Roberts) sharing the same dream the night before a math exam. They get to take a Mathical Mystery Tour — one of several homages to the Beatles — thanks to the Wizard of Odds, travelling through time and meeting historical figures who used math to open up new worlds.

There’s Christopher Columbus (Brandyn Eddy), whose wandering eye includes women as well as the distant horizon; a miffed Eratosthenes (Cathy Chuchro) who has to suffer Columbus getting all the credit for “proving” the earth is round even though Eratosthenes came up with a far more accurate mathematical formula to illustrate the same truth 1,700 years earlier; Cleopatra (Meggie McKinnon), who makes a delightfully flashy entrance set to a fashion show catwalk and then threatens the teenaged hero with death for using the Egyptian discovery of pi to upload his band’s songs onto his iPod; and Let’s Make a Deal’s Monte Haul (Eddy), whose simple question of “Would you choose door number one, door number two or door number three?” has complex mathematical implications.

There are also a few imagined characters including Mathena, the math warrior goddess (Chuchro), the Aussie adventure stalker Bruce Nature and the tight-leather-pants clad, bare-chested and blinged up Logrithmo (both played by Eddy).

While the entire cast is strong, Eddy should be lauded for being able to duplicate himself many times over, with each of his characters more delightfully flamboyant than the others. In January, he’s producing and starring in Glory Days at the Cultch.

Bringing it all together was Dale Hartleben, whose wife, Karen Booth, just happens to be the executive vice-president of Mitacs. Hartleben has been a television and film producer for 35 years — he boasts an Academy Award for The Man Who Skied Down Everest — so he too knows a lot about how to entertain a demanding crowd. And a theatre full of teenagers who aren’t necessarily thrilled about math is about as demanding as you can get. Hartleben knew that a big idea like math needed a big theatrical concept.

UBC’s Frederic Wood Theatre was the play’s launching pad because the university is the host of Mitacs, a federally supported agency that works with companies, governments and academia to develop “the next generation of innovators with vital scientific and business skills.”

At the premiere Gray gave a literal tip of the hat to his father, an architect who served with the British S.A.S. in the Second World War. “He could do trajectories, ballistics and abstract geometry in his head,” Gray told  WE after the play. His grandfather’s ability to do four-column math in his head came in handy when he helped set up the Unemployment Insurance Commission. After the young Gray stumbled in math, “my grandfather and my dad would constantly run math quizzes for me, do flash cards, drill me on my times tables, fractions, angles and percentages.”

Gray says he never really grasped math until he started producing theatre in Toronto. “You had to make everything add up to zero because you couldn’t make a profit.”

Math Out Loud hopes to go on the road soon. If you’re a teacher who would love to invite it to your school, email Roger Kemp at rkemp(at)mitacs.ca.

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