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

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.

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