Stephen Hawking and the observer effect on live theatre

Stephen Hawking NGeo

Stephen Hawking

by Stephen Sachs

In quantum mechanics, the observer effect is the theory that observing a particle  changes the particle being observed. Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle determined that the act of our looking at a quantum element impacts the behavior of the thing we are watching. I believe the same can be applied to live theatre.

What first comes to your mind when Stephen Hawking is mentioned? An Einsteinian genius who theorized the mind-bending truths of the cosmos? His mechanized voice decoded by his wheelchair synthesizer? His best-selling book, A Brief History of Time? His cartoon appearance on The Simpsons?  The indelible impressions left by Hawking are as infinite as string theory. I find myself this morning reflecting on Hawking, Nick Payne’s mesmerizing two-character drama, Constellations, and the parallel universes of science and theatre.

photograph51

Aria Alpert and Daniel Billet in “Photograph 51”, Fountain Theatre

Several modern plays weave science and math into their storytelling. Heisenberg by Simon Stephens, Tom Stoppard’s ArcadiaCopenhagen by Michael Frayn, and Caryl Churchill’s A Number come to mind. In 2009, we produced the West Coast Premiere of Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 at the Fountain Theatre, the story of British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin’s discovery of the DNA double-helix. I’ve directed Completeness by Itamar Moses, a love story between a computer scientist and a molecularar biologist.  These playwrights have turned to science as a source of metaphors and forms, using the language of particle physics, evolution or mathematics as ways of speaking about human experience.

In Constellations, science and romance collide. Marianne is a theoretical physicist. She meets Roland at a party.  They go for a drink. Or maybe they don’t. They fall in love, break up, get back together. Maybe they get married, or maybe death proves their time together is finite. Constellations explores the various possible outcomes of eight different situations. Through an astonishing series of vignettes, we watch as Marianne and Roland’s relationship unfold across time and space, with each variation sending their relationship on an entirely new trajectory. The play speculates roads not taken and where they might have led.  All of us who remember, re-remember and reimagine our own lives – as most of us do – see ourselves through a multi-dimensional lens.

Says Marianne: “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”

To which Roland replies: “This is genuinely turning me on.”

I know how he feels. Science in theatre turns me on, too.

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‘Constellations’ by Nick Payne, TheaterWorks 

Constellations draws on the Many Worlds Interpretation, in which an infinite amount of divergent universes exist side-by-side. The theory postulates that alternate pasts and futures are not only real but unfold simultaneously. Likewise, the play presents us with a series of variations on the encounters between two lovers like a fugue of coexisting possibilities. 

Using quantum physics as a language for theatre and a dramatic structure for plays flies in the face of the linear Aristotelian principle, in which effect should follow cause. But unpredictability and causation are both true in life. The decisions we do and don’t make determine which future we actually end up experiencing.  Yet if any choice is endlessly possible, and each produces a different outcome, where do we find meaning in anything and any sign whatsoever of any evidence of free will?

I don’t know if Nick Payne thought of  essayist Walter Benjamin when naming his play. Walter Benjamin famously proposed in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), that ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars. Ideas are no more present in the world than constellations actually exist in the heavens.  The stars in the night sky are where they are regardless of how we look at them. It’s we, ourselves, who impose ideas and concepts on what we see. We call it a “constellation” and, thereby, give it meaning.

Rather than a linear plot, Payne presents us with a kaleidoscope of infinite possibility. As its title suggests, Constellations creates a space for the spectator’s view, inviting us to group his fragments together and to find new meanings in the constellations they produce and the transformations they effect upon each other.

Any actor will tell you how the presence of an audience impacts the performance of the players. An audience changes everything and affects the outcome of the evening. The very act of an audience watching impacts the observed reality of the play. Actors, like electrons, change their behavior when viewed. And no performance is ever the same twice. Each live experience is utterly unique and not repeatable.

The passing of Stephen Hawking encourages me to examine how his science and my art are related. Theatre is a laboratory for producing possible worlds. In physics and performance there can be a collapsing of time. A revelation of possible pasts, present and futures. Each play is understood differently by each observer, each moment connected to past and future moments to which we choose to relate it. Theatre and science explore the truth hidden in the possible. A great play, like an iconic scientific formula, seeks to reveal the mystery of  human experience. Both activate the viewer’s gaze toward meaningful configurations for the purpose of seeing the infinite.

As Hawking encouraged, “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.

 

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