In Search of Alex and Georgie: A Psychologist Explores Heisenberg’s Two Characters

Friday, March 30, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

“The meeting of two personalities,” wrote Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, “is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” This is what happens when the seemingly incompatible characters of Georgie Burns and Alex Priest collide in Simon Stephens’s Heisenberg. To find out what makes these characters tick, we reached out to Dr. Mason Turner, the director of outpatient mental health and addiction medicine at The Permanente Medical Group in Oakland, and the host of A.C.T.’s Theater on the Couch—an interactive discussion that follows one Friday-night performance of each mainstage production. After reading the play, Dr. Turner offered some psychological insights into the behaviors of Georgie, Alex, and human beings in general.

James Carpenter as Alex Priest and Sarah Grace Wilson as Georgie Burns in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Heisenberg. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Simon Stephens explores how people can surprise us, no matter how well we think we know them. To what extent is human behavior predictable?

MT: Human beings continue to surprise me each and every day, including people that I have known for 30 or 40 years. This is because, as individuals, we can learn from our mistakes, and effectively modify things that we don’t like about ourselves. That’s partly what I do every day with patients: I help them figure out what they need and want to change. To say that human beings are predictable is a real fallacy in some ways. We are often predictable, but we always need to be open to the possibility that people can and do surprise us.

What motivates Georgie's habit of lying?

MT: She could be lying because she wants to remove herself from her own reality. After all, in the first scene she lies about not having children, and then we later learn that she’s estranged from her son. A lot of questions go through my mind about her behaviors: Does she lie because she’s trying to hide from the fact that she wasn’t the mother that she hoped to be? Is she not willing to talk about it because she doesn’t hold up to society’s standards of motherhood? To what degree is this just pure manipulation?

James Carpenter as Alex Priest and Sarah Grace Wilson
as Georgie Burns in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Heisenberg.
Photo by Kevin Berne.
For most of Alex’s life, he’s been doing the same thing every day. What makes people cling to routine?

MT: For most of us, routine will bring a sense of safety and security because it’s predictable. On the other hand, most people recognize that living a life of order and routine can be somewhat unfulfilling because there’s no spontaneity. Alex’s case is special since he experienced a lot of emotional trauma in his early childhood and adolescence. For children who grow up in unpredictable, chaotic environments, it can be very challenging for them to make sense of their world and figure out how to be safe in it. So, the reason that Alex might gravitate toward routine is because it gives him the opportunity to take control of his life.

As the host of A.C.T.’s Theater on the Couch, what do you think audiences will take from the Heisenberg conversation?

MT: It’s always an interesting discussion for me to have. There will oftentimes be big disagreements between audience members about the characters’ motivations and things of that nature because we project ourselves onto those characters. The real benefit of watching an introspective play like Heisenberg is that we get to know ourselves better and understand a little bit more about our own motivations and our own personalities.

Heisenberg runs through April 8 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Join us at The Geary tonight for Theater on the Couch! This discussion of Heisenberg will be the final Theater on the Couch hosted by Dr. Mason Turner before he relocates. Want to learn more about the motives  behind the characters in Heisenberg? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

M.F.A. Program Alumni Update: Kemiyondo Coutinho (Class of ’15)

Thursday, March 29, 2018

By A.C.T. Publications Staff 

Congratulations to M.F.A. Program alumna Kemiyondo Coutinho (Class of 2015), whose first short film, Kyenvu, has just won the Grand Jury Prize at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles and has been selected for the Women's International Film Festival in New York.

Coutinho wrote, directed, and stars in Kyenvu, the story of an independent young African woman who is struggling to find her footing in modern Uganda, where a controversial law banning miniskirts was passed in 2014 as part of a directive for “dressing decently." But as she lives through the taunts of others on public transport, she finds love in a bittersweet moment.

When asked what inspired her to create this film in a recent interview with We Are Moving Stories, Coutinho said, “I was tired of other people telling our own stories. I was also tired of complaining about it so I decided to do something about it.” Do something she did, traveling to Uganda and putting together a team of local artists—including Ugandan musician MoRoots—and crew to make this film a reality.

“It’s important to see African issues presented in their complexity,” said Coutinho. “Uganda is not one thing. . . . I wanted to showcase the beauty of Uganda, the colours, the humor, and a three-dimensional story that we never see.”

Coutinho's artistic vision was supported by several members of the A.C.T. family; M.F.A. Trustee hosts and members of the Board of Trustees Diane Hoge, Patrick Thompson, and David and Carla Riemer are executive producers on this film.

With its win at the PAFF, Kyenvu is now eligible for an Academy Award nomination in the short film category.

To learn more about Kyenvu, visit the film's website and share its page on Facebook. To read the rest of Coutinho's interview with We Are Moving Stories, click here.

Cadence, Rhythm, Flow: An Interview with Vietgone Composer Shammy Dee Part Two

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

By Elspeth Sweatman

Vietgone composer Shammy Dee began performing at a young age, but it was in junior high school that he discovered his medium: hip-hop and the smooth turntables of the DJ deck. Since releasing his debut album Transcripted Thoughts in 2006, Shammy Dee has produced and performed on many other music projects, such as DJing for top brands including Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, and Burberry, as well as for celebrities including Mary J. Blige, Michael Bublé, and the Kardashians. We sat down with Shammy Dee to chat about his process and the inherent energy of hip-hop. This is Part Two.

Vietgone composer Shammy Dee performing. Photo courtesy Shammy Dee.
What makes hip-hop a good medium for telling a story about immigrants?

That’s where hip-hop came from. When hip-hop culture was birthed back in the day, it was a subculture of primarily Black and Latino people in New York. It wasn’t on a mass stage. It was something akin to punk when it came around; it was very underground. Hip-hop contained this raw energy that the mainstream culture didn’t understand. People initially thought it was a fad, that it would pass; they didn’t think that it could be something bigger. But, if you lived the culture, you knew and felt the energy behind it. There’s something about outcasts, being an outcast and having this music and culture you can relate to, that gives you this sense of belonging. There’s a palpable feeling that comes with loving this music and knowing that there are others who vibe with it too.

What advice would you give to a young performer who wants to become a better emcee?

Google, download, and stream the top 20 classic hip-hop albums of all time, including JAY-Z’s Blueprint, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. Eric B. & Rakim, Paid in Full. Dr. Dre’s Chronics, Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele. ATLiens by Outkast. Ready to Die by The Notorious B.I.G. Nicki Minaj, The Pinkprint. Eminem—he has a lot of albums. . . . I’ll say The Marshall Mathers LP. Oh, Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

Tong (Jenelle Chu) rapping to Quang (James Seol) in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Vietgone. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Also, look at Shakespeare’s plays. Inherent in a lot of Shakespeare’s writing is a built-in cadence; study the way a sentence flows with its various inflections, rhyme schemes, and tone. If you memorize the words and the flow of Shakespeare and these hip-hop emcees, get their cadences under your tongue, you’ll become a better emcee. To any future rapper who reads this advice and wins a Grammy, I expect my obligatory shout-out. [Laughs]

Vietgone runs through April 29 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the hip-hop in Vietgone? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

A Universe Between Two People: An Interview with Heisenberg Director Hal Brooks

Friday, March 23, 2018

By Elspeth Sweatman

It was while he was studying acting in A.C.T.’s Advanced Training Program (the precursor to the M.F.A. Program) in the early 1990s that Hal Brooks discovered he wanted to be a director. After getting his feet wet creating and directing in the Conservatory’s student cabaret, Brooks returned to New York, where he directed Don DeLillo’s Valparaiso and Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing), among other plays. Soon, he found himself not only directing off Broadway at The Public Theater, Second Stage Theater, and Manhattan Theatre Club, but also at regional theaters across the US. Now, Brooks is back where it all started, directing Simon Stephens’s Heisenberg for the Geary stage. We sat down with him to discover his love of Stephens’s work and two-person plays.

Director Hal Brooks at the first rehearsal of A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Heisenberg. Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
What drew you to Heisenberg?

I’ve always been interested in the relationship of two people onstage, and how they interact with each other. Oftentimes, they’re saved by a third character, and a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth, but it’s always interesting when it’s just the two of them, when a universe is created between two people over the course of an unfolding of time.

Georgie and Alex are meaty, complex roles. What fascinates you most about them?

What makes Georgie a wonderful and wild character is how you are unable to pin her down to facts. It is because of her slipperiness that you are compelled to watch her; you want to know what is really motivating her behavior. It’s a great mystery. The other part of that mystery is why Alex continues to engage with her, given her being very upfront about what’s not true, and her perpetually saying just that one thing more that might force Alex to leave. There’s an instability about her that is fascinating and compelling, whereas Alex feels like he’s the stable component.

How do the technical elements of the production support this central relationship?

Stephens asks us to strip the world of the play down, make the stage as bare as possible. How do you take that stage direction and apply it to The Geary, a bigger, higher, wider space? We’re dealing with two people with whom we have to live throughout the course of this journey. We want to make sure that the play is about watching the mystery of that relationship unfold. You just really want to get out of the way of the two actors.

Sarah Grace Wilson as Georgie and James Carpenter as Alex in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Heisenberg. Photo by Kevin Berne.
What can the two characters in Heisenberg show us about who we are?

Heisenberg asks us to be outside of ourselves and to be fully enmeshed and immersed in a relationship of two people whom we like but don’t entirely trust or know. What we’re ready for is investing in them and in the possibility that they’ll work things out. Because in the end, as unlikely as it is, sometimes we just have to wake up in the morning and be very personal with the person that we’re with. It takes a layer of faith to be with another person in this very intimate way. And it always does in real life.

Heisenberg runs through April 8 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about director Hal Brooks’s vision for this production? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

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.
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