Take the ideas of a brilliant mathematician, add a theatre group and bags of enthusiasm. What do you get? A homage to the beauty of maths like no other, says Madeleine Brettingham.
In 1914, a virtually unknown Indian clerk called Srinivasa Ramanujan travelled to England to study at Trinity College in Cambridge. Almost completely self taught, his haphazard scribblings were dismissed at first as the work of an enthusiastic amateur.
Now he is recognised as one of the most bold and original mathematicians of the 20th century, and his work on subjects including partitioning and continued fractions has even influenced string theory, a deeply trendy school of physics that postulates that the universe is made of strings rather than particles.
His remarkable story he flourished under the mentorship of Cambridge mathematician GH Hardy before dying in India at the age of 33 has been brought to life by theatre group Complicite in its latest show A Disappearing Number. Having married theatre and maths, the group is attempting to perform the same alchemy in schools, with a series of workshops for teachers.
The TES arrived at the Barbican in London on a grey Wednesday morning to find the esteemed mathematician Professor Marcus Du Sautoy author of The Music of the Primes leaping about in his socks. "There are so many connections between maths and other creative activities," says Professor du Sautoy, who was first turned on to the subject when a maths teacher lent him a copy of GH Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology, which praises the beauty of mathematics.
"Maths and drama are both about setting up simple patterns and rules, and importantly they're both made up of 'aha!' moments. I have had three good 'aha!' moments in my life, where I've really had a breakthrough, and I've become addicted to them."
Clad in tartan trousers and a green football shirt (it reads "No 17 Galileo") you would never guess he was an Oxford professor. Together with Complicite's associate director, Catherine Alexander, he leads a group of a dozen drama and maths teachers on an entertaining journey through prime numbers, partitioning and the secrets of infinity.
The workshop explores the patterning and sense of wonder that unite maths and drama and which are perhaps best described by GH Hardy himself. He wrote: "A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns... A painter makes patterns with shapes and colours, a poet with words. A mathematician on the other hand, works only with ideas."
The production of A Disappearing Number includes prime numbers (featured in the Indian tabla music used for the soundtrack, written by world music supremo Nitin Sawhney), partitioning (the breaking down of a number into its constituent parts, eg, 4 equals 1 plus 1 plus 1 plus 1, a system the theatre group use to place the actors on stage) and sequences.
The workshop takes these methods further, with an array of games that can be used to teach drama through maths and vice versa. The group expresses division by jumping up and down in groups of three. Number sequences organise the timing of complex set pieces, and finally we're asked to create a short sketch to express countable and uncountable infinities.
"You've got 10 minutes," instructs Complicite's Catherine Alexander.
Of course, the music of the primes or indeed any other number is not something that can be understood in the time it takes to boil a kettle. But, as Catherine makes clear, sometimes actors have to use their imagination to bridge the gaps. "We were frequently clueless, but we had to find a poetic transposition," she says, an eloquent way of admitting: "I'm rubbish at maths."
Nonetheless, it was clear the teachers were energised and inspired by the sometimes brain-scrambling tasks.
"I'm not your normal maths teacher. At school I had a really bad maths teacher who said I couldn't do it and I decided I would prove him wrong and become a maths teacher, so I did," says Suzanne Shakes, of St Joseph's, a specialist maths and computing college in Croydon, south London.
"I often get pupils to think about mathematical patterns by thinking about those in their daily lives, for example how they get up. Sometimes I'll ask them to change part of their routine and see what happens. I love patterns. Patterns rock. So I can really see the stuff we did today working."
Coming from the opposite angle, Paul Slater, head of drama at Cherwell School in Oxford, says: "Drama sits nicely with geography and history, subjects where there are social and moral decisions to be made, but numbers are so much more abstract. However, you can make them real."
He believes the work will fit perfectly with his school's increasingly cross curricular focus, backed by key stage 3 reforms being introduced from 2008.
"Subjects are so partitioned at the moment because schools have become exam factories. We're losing that individual exploration through play where you can produce something quite beautiful," he says.
This view certainly chimes with Simon McBurney's, the play's director, the influential exponent of physical theatre behind 2003's Haruki Murakami interpretation, The Elephant Vanishes.
"I would like to see education that isn't about stuffing people with facts so they can pass an exam," he says. "In maths, it's better if people have room to play, guess and approximate. It should be seen in relation to music or language, as something amusing and intriguing."
TEACH MATHS THROUGH DRAMA
This is a great, physical way to represent division. Ask your group to stand in a circle. They must jump one by one, starting with you. When the "ripple" has reached the last person in the circle they must then start jumping again, this time in groups of two. If the last person is left out of the last pairing, the "ripple" effect continues until it finishes on a pair. You can continue jumping in groups of three, groups of four, etc, applying the same rule each time. It's a fun, visual way of showing how to divide the number of people in your group.
TEACH DRAMA THROUGH MATHS
Partitioning is when you break a number down into its constituent parts (eg 4 can be written as 4, 3 plus 1, 2 plus 1 plus 1 etc). Break your class into different-sized groups and ask them to devise a scene where they express all the different partitions of their number by breaking up into clusters. The scene can be performed in as formal or as naturalistic a way as they like.
For more games download www.complicite.orgswfadnADN_online_workpack.pdf
WHAT'S ON OFFER
Complicite is just one company offering adventurous drama-based workshops for teachers.
The New Vic theatre in Staffordshire is launching a teacher-in-residence scheme in which drama teachers can spend a day a week at the theatre to share skills. www.newvictheatre.org.uk
Battersea Arts Centre in London is hosting a series of inset days and tours to coincide with Punchdrunk's spectacular new production Masque of the Red Death. www.bac.org.uk
The National Theatre in Scotland is running education programmes to coincide with Aalst, Futurology and its acclaimed Iraq war play, Black Watch. www.nationaltheatre scotland.com
The Barbican in London also does continuing work with teachers and schools through its Adopt the Barbican and Can I Have a Word schemes.