Disclaimer: Emergence, a fascinating play blending the power of physics and drama, may possibly make your physics class or drama class (or both) just a little less fascinating in comparison. Sitting down with five members of the student cast, I felt that I was observing high-energy particles, bound to each other by the forces of the cosmos — so strongly did they cohere. Talking over each other at times and bubbling with exuberance about the show, they all conveyed a keen sense of enthusiasm for the upcoming performance.
The title of the play refers to the emergent phenomenon in physics when complex systems or patterns emerge from relatively simple interactions. The story is of a physicist who struggles with agoraphobia, a panic disorder, while she attempts to find a balance in her life. The play features interactive scenes through which the audience can better understand the physics behind the performance.
Since Emergence is unlike the typical play, there were unique obstacles the actors had to face. At the time of casting, no one knew the specific story or the characters, but only that “it had something to do with physics,” Chandler Waggoner ’15 recalls. After auditioning the past spring semester, they finally got the script in the summer and have had rehearsals since August 13, the Monday before classes. They have been working four hours a night, six nights a week over the past five weeks. A major obstacle that all actors readily agree on was the technicality of the physics within the play. They all struggle with the difficult language and syntax that is used to illustrate scientific strategies and theories. Bashir Hassanc ’15, who is in the College of Arts and Sciences, expresses how difficult a line can be if it has a series of words that none of the actors actually understand. When they finally finish a sentence, they feel, as Waggoner quips, “exhausted.”
Consequently, it is challenging for the cast to figure out how to convey the language to the audience in a manner that is approachable. Though it has been tricky, they have been successful in boiling down the concepts to their simplest form. There are a number of interactive scenes, and the purpose of these scenes is to teach the audience the physics behind the esoteric jargon. During some rehearsals, the cast brought in test audience members from the production crew to participate in the interactive activities and see what needed to be altered.
The challenge of explaining scientific processes caused numerous changes to the script. The playwright, Aoise Stratford, worked closely with the cast. “She would see what’s not working, which was great,” says Bass. Not so great, on the other hand, was when she would bring in new scripts for the cast. Working with seven scripts in total, the actors had to constantly memorize new lines, remember the changes and, as Hassan says, realize, “Wait a minute, this monologue wasn’t here before!” Instead of succumbing to frustration, however, the actors could not have risen up to this challenge with greater spirit. They appreciate that it is a rare experience to work with a playwright and to “craft new plays with someone,” Adrienne Jackson ’14 says. To her, and to all the actors, “it’s magic.”
The cast also has Prof. Itai Cohen, physics, as a collaborator on the creative team. The actors admit that working with a physicist has been “complicated … yet necessary.” They know if they get something wrong, they can always trust that he’ll be shaking his head. He has very much helped the actors understand the scientific concepts at a basic level, which in turn helps the actors convey them to the audience. Though it is tough to have their mistakes constantly pointed out, it is clear that the actors highly value connecting with the audience and communicating the correct message.
All of these factors serve to create colorful rehearsals for the cast. Though there are certainly “days when nothing goes right,” as Waggoner admits, rehearsals are what these actors look forward to the most. Bashir elaborates on how he “loves those moments when [he doesn’t] know what the other person is doing.” It is obvious that these actors relish the mistakes that create the “opportunity to really act,” as Jackson and Carol Bass ’14 put it, as “that’s all part of being an actor — nothing’s ever going to be the same.”
So far, the play has been “almost like a physics class” for the cast, says Bass. Waggoner only half-jokes when he says, “If all physics classes were like this, I might have been able to learn something.” In a way, the actors are classmates, erring and learning together as they tackle the challenge of physics.
All the actors have had experience with acting at Cornell, except Christina Brewington ’14, communications. Though she is nervous about her first performance, she is grateful for all the help and support she has received from the other members of the cast. It is already apparent that the cast works like an indissoluble team in an intricate system from simple interactions, not unlike an emergent phenomenon. Look forward to a sold-out show of science, theater and magic.
Emergence is playing at the Schwartz Center. A 7:30 p.m. performance on September 23 has been added, as the September 20-22 performances have been sold out.