In awarding the 2005 Siminovitch Prize to Toronto playwright John Mighton, the jury was particularly impressed by the profound combination of intellect and heart embodied in Mr. Mighton’s work. “The writing represents a unique, singular and necessary worldview,” the jury said. “Understated in a very positive sense, his plays are open ended and unresolved in a way that kindles and suggests possibilities. Mr. Mighton’s voice possesses grace, delicacy and a gentle humanity. His line of inquiry is often shot through with a rare and fragile warmth. He also brings tremendous depth to the plays, taking complex, sophisticated ideas and making them playable in a truly theatrical manner.”
Mr. Mighton’s plays, including Scientific Americans, Possible Worlds, A Short History of Night,Body and Soul, The Little Years, and Half Life, have been performed across Canada, as well as in Europe, Japan and the United States. He has won several national awards including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama. Possible Worlds has been adapted into a feature film by renowned director Robert Lepage. In addition to playwriting, Mr. Mighton completed a Ph.D. in Mathematics at the University of Toronto and has lectured in Philosophy at McMaster University. He is currently an Adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto and for the past seven years, has coordinated JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies), an innovative school program designed to tutor children who are having difficulties in math. Mr. Mighton has written an inspirational book based on his experiences with JUMP called The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child, published by House of Anansi Press.
Twenty five years ago, when I was studying philosophy at Mc Master University, I wanted to write a book called “The Waste Ethic,” which I hoped would be the first attempt in the history of the social sciences to accurately measure the amount of time people waste at work. I wasn’t simply interested in tracking the time wasted by people who hate their jobs or who are totally unqualified for their positions. I wanted to find out what proportion of our work goes into producing, marketing and disposing of the vast array of products that, before the advent of mass media, nobody knew they needed or wanted.
I never did find the time to write that book, but having spent the last twenty years doing everything I could to avoid productive work- in a variety fields- I think I have a better idea of why we are so efficient as a society at wasting time.
It seems to me that there are always two kinds of ignorance at work in our society, one extremely destructive and the other healthy. My career in theatre and mathematics was initially shaped by the first kind of ignorance in ways I am only beginning to understand. I came to these fields rather late in life, because I grew up thinking that to be and artist or a scientist you needed to be born with a special gift. It wasn’t until I read Sylvia Plath’s letters to her mother, and I saw how as a teenager she had learned her craft in small, determined steps, dismantling poems like motors to see how they worked, and writing imitations of the things she loved, that I began to believe there was a path I could follow to develop a voice of my own.
The destructive form of ignorance has divided many societies: it is the ignorance that says there are fundamental, in-born differences between people: between peasants and nobility, slaves and slave-owners or minorities and majorities. It is the ignorance leads us, even in this affluent age, to neglect the majority of children, by educating them in schools in which only a small minority are ever expected to naturally love or excel at learning.
Two years ago, during a visit to the York detention center, I saw the effects of this ignorance in its most devastating form. I had been asked to teach a lesson in mathematics to a group of teenagers who were awaiting trial and who were not thrilled to be spending their afternoon doing math. I reassured the students that if they didn’t understand something in my lesson it would be my fault for not explaining it properly so they could ask me to explain it again. I told them I had once struggled with mathematics myself and I promised I would try to make the subject more interesting and easier than they might remember it being at school. The teenagers responded to my promise exactly as I have seen young children respond- they raced through their worksheets and called for the tutors to give them extra work. One girl who I had heard complaining at the beginning of the lesson made me put check marks beside each of her answers. When I was finished she said “I’ve never had that in my life, I’ve only had this.” and she wrote large X across her page.
The letter X is a fitting symbol for our failure to care for those individuals who, like the girl at the York Detention Center, happen to struggle or fall behind in school or in life- the crossed lines evoke the barriers we place, out of ignorance and indifference, between the majority of children and their unrealized potential. But the letter X is also a universal sign for a different, and potentially redeeming kind of ignorance: in the sciences and in mathematics, it is the letter most commonly used to stand for the unknown.
Einstein once wrote: “The most beautiful and deepest experience one can have is the sense of the mysterious… One who has never had this experience seems to me if not dead, them at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.”
There was a time when the theatre, even more than mathematics or science, was a means by which a society could experience the religiousness and sublimity that Einstein describes. Today there are signs, in the work of Canadian artists, that the theatre might regain something of it’s former role, but only if we aspire to do more than produce plays that simply entertain or illustrate ideas: we must use the resources of the stage as they were used in the past, to discover and represent new ideas about human nature, about our place in the world and about the very means we use to explore and communicate those ideas.
Among the artists working in Canadian theatre today, few have worked so rigorously to develop the tools by which we might convey the religiousness or mystery of existence as Daniel Brooks, the first winner of the Siminovitch Award. Daniel has shaped my work and has helped me understand how it is possible, with no more than the simplest sound or lighting cue, or by means of the subtlest look or gesture, to create entire worlds in the minds of an audience. I have also been fortunate to work with or to be a colleague of many other fine actors, writers, directors and designers, including the writers who were nominated or named as finalists for this prize. I am extremely honoured to be in their company.
We have the good fortune to be living in a time when the arts and the sciences are converging by different means to radically new insights about the world and about human nature. If we were to make the profound sense of mystery that lies at the heart of these movements the basis our society, rather than the ignorance that underlies our divisiveness and greed, we might be less inclined to squander the resources we depend on to survive, or to waste the sublime and precious moments we have been granted in this world.