Presented by People’s Branch Theatre
April 30-May 3 at TPAC’s Johnson Theater
Collaboration is the essence of theater, as playwright, director, actors, designers and a willing audience all come together to participate in what happens onstage. But collaboration can be of particular value when budgets are tight and programming is at a bit of a lull. Nashville gets a prime demonstration of this on April 30, when the intriguing Einstein’s Dreams opens at TPAC’s Johnson Theater for a brief run through May 3.
Officially, People’s Branch Theatre is the producing organization for this stage adaptation of Alan Lightman’s 1993 best-selling novel concerning the young Albert Einstein and his Theory of Relativity. Yet People’s Branch, under the artistic guidance of Brian Niece, has had a rough six months financially. The unexpected cancellation of last fall’s controversial production of Waiting for Godot forced the company into retrenchment, resulting in the subsequent postponement of a new stage version of Tennessee Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. In getting back on the beam, People’s Branch has entered into a temporary collaboration with Mockingbird Theatre, an arrangement that should reap artistic and marketing benefits for both organizations.
Einstein’s Dreams is a People’s Branch show, Niece explains, but the company is doing the play in conjunction with the New Southern Theatre Festival, or NeST, Mockingbird’s annual weeklong celebration of new works by Southern writers. The event began on April 21 and features staged play readings, a performance showcase by Mockingbird’s apprentice program and a playwriting seminar. Tying Einstein’s Dreams to the NeST extends the latter’s scope, yet it also provides audiences a chance to take advantage of both in a budget-conscious way, with a $25 All-Festival Pass gaining the holder entrance to all NeST programs as well as the play. (The passes are available only through Mockingbird; call 242-6704.)
“Brian was kind enough to let me 'leverage’ him into connecting the production to the NeST,” says a smiling David Alford. Mockingbird’s artistic director, Alford is also the director for Einstein’s Dreams. “Basically, we’re calling this an artistic collaboration.” The duo also collaborated on the adaptation of Memphis native Lightman’s thoughtful, intellectually challenging book. “The fact that Lightman is a native Tennessean makes a lot of sense for me,” Alford says. “We’ve always been very focused on Southern writers. That Lightman’s a Memphis native is yet another good excuse for Mockingbird to be involved.”
Not that Lightman hangs out around these parts much anymore. His academic résumé is that of a heavy hitter: Princeton, Cal Tech, Cornell, Harvard. Physics and astronomy have been his scholarly pursuits, but in 1989 he moved on to MIT because there he was given the chance not only to teach physics but also to serve as director of the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. Despite a keen mind for the scientific, Lightman also wanted to be writer. During his teaching years, he began to do just that, producing essays that attempted to make science understandable for the general reader and explained the relationships among science, art and literature. After cracking into The New Yorker and other well-known journals, Lightman completed Einstein’s Dreams in 1991. He has since published other well-received nonfiction works and novels, crediting his influences as Salman Rushdie, Italo Calvino and the magic realists Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez.
A play of ideas rather than strictly of character, Alford and Niece’s 80-minute drama is set in Switzerland in 1905, where the 26-year-old patent clerk Albert Einstein is working on his famous paper explaining the Theory of Relativity, which will catapult him to fame and radically change the world.
“The story concerns the dreams Einstein has over the course of a couple of months,” says Alford, “each of them dealing with a different aspect of timewith a world in which time is perceived differently. For instance, in one world time flows backward. In another, time splits into three dimensions at every point of decision. What Lightman is most interested in is not necessarily the physics, but in how the changes in time might affect people and how they interact with each other and society.”
Lightman’s original work encompasses a prologue, an epilogue and three interludes that probe 30 dreams. “For our purposes, we’ve narrowed the material down to 12 dreams,” says Niece. “Basically because we had to be conscious of length, but also because there was significance in that the number 12 corresponds to the hours on a clock.”
Besides Niece as Einstein, the production features only two other actors: David Wilkerson plays Michele Besso, Einstein’s best friend, and Jenny Littleton plays the typist who helps Einstein organize his theoretical paper. “As always,” says Niece, “I love to find physical things in my characterizations. That’s where things open up for me. We’re trying to find the specific physical characteristics of a young Einstein.”
“We’ve tried to be very faithful to the book,” says Alford. “There have been a number of previous stage adaptations, and Lightman hasn’t given anyone exclusive rights. According to our research, ours is by far the most faithful. I’d say 95 percent of the words are Lightman’s. What we’re doing is a bit tricky. In a traditional play format, we’ve lifted Lightman’s narrative describing these dream worlds and split it up among the actors. The biggest challenge for us is to find a simple dramatic way to physicalize the ideas from the text so that each is distinct.” The production will also benefit from video enhancement and an incidental score of classical music selected by Niece.
“What’s brilliant about the book,” says Alford, “is that you can be fascinated with it and not know a thing about physics. Lightman is less interested in the physics of the moments, but comments instead on suppositions regarding timeabout our lives if time were constructed differently. Lightman’s text poses this essential question: If time is not absolute, then what else could it be, and how would that affect us? This is what drew both Brian and me to the material.”
This will be the first time People’s Branch has ever performed in Johnson Theater, which is “maybe the finest space in town,” Alford says. “It offers a lot of possibilities.” Talented designer Anne Willingham has been tapped to create a symbolic, expressionistic set that emulates a giant cube. The set piecescomprising geometric shapes such as cylinders, boxes and triangleswill be manipulated by the actors as the play progresses. “Anne’s idea is terrific,” Alford adds. “It’s intensely theatrical. It needs to be, because we jump in and out of reality. We’re talking about dreams; we’re talking about theoretical physics. And we wanted to be as experimental as we could.
“I think our production will fascinate people who like to thinkwho enjoy ideas and are willing to entertain concepts outside their sphere of reality. What remains to be seen is how it hangs together as a dramatic piece, and we won’t know about that until we get an audience. One thing we can promise: It won’t be boring.”
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