Creativity and Chaos: An Interview with Heisenberg Playwright Simon Stephens

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.

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