Why Simon Stephens Titled His Play Heisenberg

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

By Elspeth Sweatman

In February 1927, German physicist Werner Heisenberg felt he was on the verge of discovering something revolutionary. He didn’t have the math yet to back it up, but deep down, he knew he was right. Heisenberg could see a new theory emerging, one that would shake the foundations of Western physics.

Physicist Werner Heisenberg. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In simple terms, Heisenberg’s theory—the uncertainty principle—states that if you know the momentum of an object (such as an electron circling a nucleus), you will not be able to accurately measure its location. The same is true in reverse: you can know the position of the electron, but not its momentum. This is because an electron acts as both a particle (a defined entity) and a wave (something that is harder to pin down accurately because, like the ripples in a pond, it has no set position), and because the very act of measuring the momentum and position affects the results.

Heisenberg’s discovery was a bombshell. For centuries, the world had been governed by Newtonian physics, a school of thought that believed that everything in our universe could be observed, measured, and predicted. Every event in nature, from large to small, had a cause and an effect. Now, physicists were confronted with a world that was inherently uncertain and unpredictable.

Almost immediately after it was published, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle became the go-to metaphor for journalists, politicians, anthropologists, philosophers, psychologists, actors, and cartoonists. Since 1927, it’s been used to explain everything from the existence of God to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 to the zone blitz in the NFL.

Non-scientists latched on to Heisenberg’s discovery as a means of explaining two specific aspects of our lives: the unpredictability and randomness of our world, and the observer effect—the idea that the act of measuring something changes its behavior and the outcome. We witness the observer effect when we watch reality television; the presence of cameras causes people to change their behavior. We behave differently when we think we are being watched.

Sarah Grace Wilson (as Georgie) and James Carpenter (as Alex) in rehearsal
for A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Heisenberg. Photo by Beryl Baker.

It is this aspect of the uncertainty principle that inspired playwright Simon Stephens. “If you’re carefully watching where somebody is going or what someone is doing, the likelihood is—you never properly see them,” says Stephens. In Heisenberg, neither Alex nor Georgie can accurately get the measure of the other person; both can watch the other intently, but then still be surprised by what he or she does next. “That paradox was extraordinary as a means of interrogating what it was to be a human being,” said Stephens.
Heisenberg runs through April 8 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the science behind the play? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

The History Behind Vietgone: The Fall of Saigon

Friday, March 16, 2018

By Allie Moss and Simon Hodgson

On April 29, 1975, Vietnamese residents of Saigon heard Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” on US Armed Forces radio. What they didn’t know was that it was a coded message for the Americans remaining that meant “Evacuate immediately.” As the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) moved southward towards Saigon, the US Army began Operation Frequent Wind, a plan to evacuate from the country American and international civilians as well as Vietnamese deemed at risk from Communist forces. But American planners failed to predict the speed of the NVA thrust southward. As they drew up lists of the people who would be airlifted to safety, they thought they had weeks. By the time Communist shells started landing on Tan Son Nhut Air Base to the north of Saigon, they barely had hours.
Evacuees from Vietnam on the USS Midway in 1975. Photo courtesy US Navy.
The evacuation of the city was frantic. Huge crowds formed at the US embassy as American helicopters came to rescue US citizens; although they saved some Vietnamese civilians as well, most were left behind. “My father went to the US embassy to escape,” said a Vietnamese American. “Anyone who managed to climb through the fence made it to the helicopters. But he couldn’t get through.” In the sea around Saigon there were so many aircraft trying to land on the US Navy vessels that many pilots ditched their aircraft in the sea or landed on the ships only for their aircraft to be pushed overboard to let others land (exactly what happens to helicopter pilot Quang in Vietgone).

Even after the fighting ended and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was created in 1976, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people fled the country by boat. “My mother escaped on a fishing boat with 60 other people,” said Jenelle Chu, who plays Tong in Vietgone. “Each person had paid 20 ounces of gold for the journey. All my mother carried with her was a hundred-dollar bill, a fifty-dollar bill, a handful of photographs, and two sets of clothes. She was on the boat for 14 days until she reached a refugee camp in Malaysia. She stayed there for eight months until she was sponsored by the Lutheran Church in St. Louis and flew to Missouri.”

Refugees coming off a plane. Courtesy UCI Libraries Southeast Asian Archive.
Those who survived the dangerous journey often endured many months in spartan refugee camps in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia before they were able to resettle permanently. Thousands of refugees resettled in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and the United States, where they faced the challenge of starting their lives over: learning a new language, navigating a foreign culture, retraining in a country that didn’t accept their qualifications, and in some cases, creating new families after leaving loved ones behind. These challenges, as well as the complex history of the war, remain present in the cultural heritage of many Vietnamese Americans, including Vietgone playwright Qui Nguyen.

runs through April 22 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the history behind Vietgone? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Creativity and Chaos: An Interview with Heisenberg Playwright Simon Stephens

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

By Simon Hodgson

Simon Stephens grew up in Stockport, a provincial British town that the playwright once described as a place “on the edge of things.” Today, however, Stephens is a name known worldwide. His 30-plus plays—including On the Shore of the Wide World (2006 Olivier Award) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2015 Tony Award for Best Play)—have been staged all over the English-speaking world. But while the playwright continues to travel widely for productions of his works, his imagination is still sparked by the red-brick streets where he grew up. In between Stephens’s trips to New York and Melbourne, we talked with him about inspiration, science, and the human condition.

Playwright Simon Stephens and his two cats at his London home.
Photo by Simon Annand. Courtesy of Simon Stephens.
Where did the idea for Heisenberg come from? How did you come up with these two characters?

I read a story about a woman in my hometown who came to befriend and then deceive—to a quite criminal degree—an old man whom I knew as a child. I became fascinated by what was involved in friendship and deception, and then by what happens to the deceivers if their emotional response to their world takes them by surprise. I wanted to write characters that had the capacity to take themselves and each other by surprise. More than in many plays that I have written, Georgie and Alex are characters who surprise me. I wrote them often not knowing what they were going to say next. That spirit still defines them.

What’s your interest in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle?

I have come to science quite late in my life as a space of creativity and imagination and chaos and searching. When I was introduced to this simple particle theory by a scientist friend of mine, I was startled by how deeply it resonated with what it was to be a human being. In the end, the investigation of the dramatist is that aspect of humanity, so anything that resonates with us in that sense should excite us.

How does the play’s title link to the way that Alex and Georgie behave?

The link comes from the theory which states that an observed particle can never be predicted and a particle whose projection is observed has not been fully seen. If you watch something closely enough, you can’t predict what it will do next. If you worry about what it is going to do, you are not looking at it hard enough. I tried to tell a story that dramatized the way that paradox played out in humanity. I have always been, and remain, astonished by the remarkable, sad, frightening, beautiful things human beings can do to each other.

Heisenberg begins at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater March 14 and runs through April 8. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about playwright Simon Stephens? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Two Molecules in Space: Heisenberg Arrives at A.C.T.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

Heisenberg director Hal Brooks has received many questions about the title of his play beginning performances next week at The Geary Theater. “People ask me, ‘Oh, is it about that zeppelin disaster? Is it about Breaking Bad? No, it’s not,” says Brooks with a laugh. “Others ask, ‘Is it about Heisenberg, the scientist?’ To that I say, ‘It’s not about Heisenberg. It’s about a relationship—it’s looking at his ideas through a relationship.’”

The cast and creative team of A.C.T.'s production of Heisenberg at the first rehearsal. Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
At the first rehearsal for Heisenberg, Brooks, an alumnus of A.C.T.’s Advanced Training Program, addressed a room full of faces both familiar and new, and admitted, “I am not a physicist.” With this disclaimer, he briefly explained the science behind Heisenberg. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle asserts that you cannot measure both the velocity and location of a particle—you can only determine one or the other. An offshoot of this idea is the observer effect, which is what playwright Simon Stephens is interested in parsing out over the course of Heisenberg. The observer effect states that the act of measuring something affects its outcome. Through the characters of Alex and Georgie, the play applies this concept to people, rather than particles. “What’s going to happen as these two living, breathing organisms affect each other?” Brooks asked. “Where are they going to end up, and can we measure that? I don’t think we can, but we can at least follow along as the mystery unfolds.”

Actors James Carpenter and Sarah Grace Wilson at the first rehearsal of A.C.T.'s production of Heisenberg.
Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
Brooks and set designer Alexander V. Nichols designed the set to reflect the science. “We want for the set to make it seem like we’re witnessing an experiment of sorts, of two molecules in space, attracted and repulsed, pulling together and pulling apart, and putting them in six different locations,” Brooks said. The two actors who will be interacting in this unpredictable space are the New York–based, award–winning, Sarah Grace Wilson, and Bay Area favorite James Carpenter. After years of performing as Ebenezer Scrooge in A.C.T.'s annual production of A Christmas Carol, audiences will have the chance to see him slip into a very different role as reserved Irish butcher Alex Priest. “James has been a gift of a collaborator for so many years,” A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff said. “I was so glad when we sent him the play and he said, ‘I love it and I’m terrified.’ Those are two good things!”

A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and director Hal Brooks at the first rehearsal of A.C.T.'s production of Heisenberg.
Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
The fact that Heisenberg is a two-person play is one of the reasons Brooks was drawn to it from the get-go. “I read this play and immediately wanted to direct it,” Brooks said. “It’s mysterious. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. And you think, well, there better be a third person coming because I don’t know how these two are going to make it, but that’s not the case. It just keeps persisting. And I find that magical.”

Heisenberg begins at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater March 14 and runs through April 8. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about A.C.T.’s production of Heisenberg? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Welcoming Humor: An Interview with Vietgone Director Jaime Castañeda

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

When theater-makers Jaime Castañeda and Qui Nguyen were both living in New York, they’d seek out each other’s work. Castañeda was the artistic associate at Atlantic Theater Company, while Nguyen was writing for his downtown theater company, Vampire Cowboys. “Qui and I were always plotting to hatch a project together,” says Castañeda. “We have similar tastes and we’re both hip-hop theater nerds.” Their similarities run deeper than music. Like Nguyen, Castañeda is a first-generation American—raised in Texas by parents who emigrated from Mexico. “A lot of Qui’s story relates to my own experiences,” he says. “It really has me thinking about my parents and how their history informs me as a person.” In celebration of Vietgone’s opening night this week, we talked to Castañeda about his direction for this hilarious and heartbreaking play.

Director Jaime Castañeda. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.
Vietgone is a funny show set in a not-so-funny time. How do you plan on navigating these tone shifts?

One of the best ways to cope with something tragic is by not only embracing what’s dark about a moment, but also welcoming humor to it, and that’s Qui’s natural sensibility as a writer. What makes Vietgone uniquely Qui is that he takes what seems like a traditional immigrant story and turns it into this wild, epic road-trip fantasia. There’s fights and there’s music and there’s dancing and there’s sex. It’s all in Qui’s head—that’s what makes this a fun ride.

How does the Vietnam War fit into this narrative?

I always describe any theatrical event or story that’s based in reality as just one person’s truth, and this is Qui’s truth. This is the pursuit of his truth within his own family, and it feels honest and raw because he’s asking real questions. Vietgone strips away the politics of the war and our historical baggage because it’s not really about the war itself. It’s a story about Vietnamese immigrants dealing with difficult circumstances. And it’s these circumstances that are the foundation for what brings two people together, and brings about Qui’s birth.

Nhan (Stephen Hu) and Quang (James Seol) flee Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. Photo by Kevin Berne.
What’s your approach to storytelling?

I always aim to create theater that is inclusive and accessible to many different cultures. I try to approach a play by looking at the intersections of race and story, while staying true to a specific cultural point of view. My hope is that a lot of communities will be able to interact with Vietgone, but I’d be especially happy if it generated some excitement within the Vietnamese community.

Vietgone runs through April 22 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about Jaime Castañeda’s direction? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

From Saigon to the States: A Brief History of the Vietnamese Refugees in Vietgone

Friday, March 2, 2018

By Simon Hodgson

As Communist tanks rumbled south toward Saigon in April 1975, American strategists raced to implement Operation Frequent Wind, the plan to evacuate at-risk Vietnamese allies and US civilians. Despite opposition to the American military presence in Vietnam, thousands of Vietnamese had worked alongside US personnel in the war—as military servicemen (such as Vietgone’s pilot protagonist Quang Nguyen), interpreters, administrators, doctors, drivers, nurses, and analysts. When the Americans evacuated, more than a million Vietnamese—fellow soldiers, co-workers, spouses, children—were in danger.

A Vietnamese family at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Courtesy UCI Libraries Southeast Asian Archive.
Tan Son Nhut Air Base was the main route out of Saigon; planners had scheduled dozens of flights by military transport aircraft. But when the North Vietnamese started shelling the airstrip, the Americans were forced to use helicopters, carrying far smaller numbers. Thirty thousand Vietnamese were eventually airlifted to safety, with a hundred thousand more escaping on US warships. Almost all the departing Vietnamese believed they would come back soon, when it was safer. Most would never return.

In the camps, the new migrants found a strange and regimented new world. Rows of olive green canvas tents stretched out for miles, surrounded by fences. Green portapotties at regular intervals. Lines of water faucets, with Vietnamese bent over them, washing their clothes in cold water using the blue plastic washbasins that each family was issued. White, wooden administration buildings with queues of people waiting to fill out resettlement forms. 

A Vietnamese boy eating a cookie, Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.
Courtesy UCI Libraries Southeast Asian Archive.
For most refugees, the resettlement process started with sponsorship letters from American families, small-business owners, community organizations, and churches across the nation. After exchanging information about the size of the household, each Vietnamese family would travel to the sponsor’s hometown. In Vietgone, Tong is sponsored by a family in El Dorado, Arkansas. Some Vietnamese families would find support, generosity, and love. Others would encounter greed and cruelty, as small-business owners exploited the newcomers. For many refugees, assimilation would continue to be marked by enduring discrimination, prejudice, racism, and intolerance.

The 130,000 Vietnamese who arrived in 1975 represented a sizable demographic addition, yet they were just the tip of the iceberg. By 2014, the Vietnamese American population in the US had grown to 1.3 million, most of them refugees in the 1980s and ’90s who had braved danger and piracy to flee by sea. While their backgrounds and their journeys were different to the wave of 1975, almost all shared a drive for a life free from fear and oppression. In a nation founded by migrants and at a moment when the issue of refugees and deportation is more divisive than ever, the Vietnamese who came to America in the last five decades continue to show resilience and resourcefulness in the face of ongoing challenges.

Vietgone runs through April 22 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the history in Vietgone? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.
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