Sept. 10, 2012

Physics, romance collide in Schwartz Center play

Extra performance
Tickets for the Sept. 20-22 performances are sold out. A 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 performance has been added.

Physics, agoraphobia and romance will entwine for an unusual production at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts next week: "Emergence," a play that's a creative collision of theater and science professionals.

The play, which includes interactive components with the audience, centers on the concept of emergent phenomena, which is at the heart of Cohen's research in condensed-matter physics. "Emergent phenomena" refers to how complex matter systems and patterns arise from interactions between solids and fluids."Emergence," playing Sept. 20-22, is presented by Cornell's Department of Performing and Media Arts (PMA) and Redshift Productions. It is an experimental meeting of the minds, primarily between Melanie Dreyer-Lude, the play's director and an assistant professor in PMA, and Itai Cohen, associate professor of physics, who contributed the scientific concepts woven throughout the story. The play, in fact, is about a research scientist who is also dealing with romantic endeavors, and on top of that, agoraphobia.

cast photo
Andrew Gillis
Clockwise from left: Bashir Hassan, Chandler Waggoner and Carol Bass torment Adrienne Jackson, center, whose character suffers from agoraphobia, in a scene from 'Emergence.'

The play also received critical consultation from Max Evjen and Megan Halpern of Redshift Productions, whose theater company is often inspired by scientific concepts or themes, and Aoise Stratford, a Cornell graduate student in theater arts who served as playwright.

"As a creative artist, I'm interested in the source of creative inspiration -- how we think, how we can frustrate or excite the ways we think so we can broaden our interactions with the world," said Dreyer-Lude, who began working on the concept with Cohen, Evjen and Halpern nearly two years ago. "I'm always looking for ways to disturb my own habits."

lead characters
Andrew Gillis
Chandler Waggoner and Adrienne Jackson play lead roles in 'Emergence.'

Cohen's comfort zone was also stretched, and he approached the creative endeavor as a scientist would -- as an experiment. "The experiment, from my point of view, was: Can we talk about the kind of physics most people in physics departments do in a way that's engaging to different audiences, in this case, theater audiences?" he said.

Cohen and Dreyer-Lude first met several years ago at a new faculty get-together, and they concluded it would be fun to collaborate. Cohen brought in Evjen and Halpern, with whom he had worked in 2010 on a smaller-scale, science-infused dance production called "Dance of Scales."

The initial meeting with Cohen became a "playground" of ideas, Dreyer-Lude said, which eventually led to Stratford taking on the difficult task of writing a cohesive story.

"The form and the amount of exposition was a challenge for my way of approaching writing for the stage," Stratford said. "However, challenges are a good thing ... I think any time you stretch yourself, you're working toward making yourself a better artist."

Nor does Stratford buy stereotypes about scientists and creative types. "Scientists have to be creative because they have to ask wild and crazy questions and then dream up ways of exploring those questions," she said. "And playwriting is, in places, quite a systematic craft."

Dreyer-Lude agrees; in fact, she recently wrote an analysis of the primary differences in the ways scientists and artists approach problems, and found that although they sometimes diverge on their methods, it is true that scientists are creative and artists are analytical.

Working on the play also led Dreyer-Lude to appreciate the beauty of physics, in large part thanks to Cohen's ability to bring relatively esoteric scientific concepts to life.

"He's persuaded me. Can we persuade the audience?" she said.

The play will be performed at 7:30 p.m. in the Black Box Theatre. Tickets are $4. For more information: http://www.schwartztickets.com or 607-254-ARTS.