Loving and leaving in the subatomic world with playwright Matthew Wells
Playwright Matthew Wells (inset, bottom right) following the world premiere of his play, Schrödinger's Girlfriend. (below) Cast members are all smiles after a successful performance: Whitt Brantley and Georgia Ribeau (top right corner) were joined by (from left) Hope Mills, Jen Apgar, Bill Murphey and (front) Jim Roof.
New York playwright Matthew Wells deliberately kept his expectations low for audience turnout at the world premiere of his play, Schrödinger's Girlfriend, presented as a staged reading in the Georgia World Congress Center during the APS Centennial meeting in Atlanta. He knew there would be scheduling conflicts and competing special events, not to mention the lure of Atlanta restaurants and night life, to distract conference goers from the event, and figured if 20-50 people showed up, he could deem the evening a success.
But when the lights went down, Wells was astounded and gratified to find the room filled almost to capacity with roughly 200 in attendance. And it was a decidedly appreciative and responsive audience, laughing and clapping enthusiastically throughout the 90-minute performance. "It was a unique group of people who were listening," says John Cairney, a microbiologist at the Institute of Paper Science and Technology in Atlanta by day and semi-professional actor and director by night, who was tapped to cast and direct the reading. "They were informed and erudite and cultured, but also had the specialized knowledge of physics that enabled them to get the jokes."
Wells first conceived of Schrödinger's Girlfriend a few years ago and submitted the idea to the Sloan Foundation, which was looking for original plays with scientific themes at the time. Although he didn't receive funding for the project, the foundation referred him to the APS' Brian Schwartz, who was organizing the Centennial-related Physics Festival and looking for a science-based theatre piece. Once committed, Wells wrote the entire play in about a month and forwarded the draft to Cairney, who essentially pulled the entire production together in three weeks, aided by what he describes as "a very fine group of actors. They were instantly able to recognize what Matthew intended and embellish upon it."
Schrödinger's Girlfriend is best described as "Einstein meets 'The Blue Angel,'" according to Wells, referring to the 1930s German film starring Marlene Dietrich as a husky-voiced cabaret singer - an abstract, burlesque romantic comedy "in which Love obeys the crazy laws of subatomic physics." Physicist Erwin Schrödinger is grappling with the logical absurdities that govern subatomic behavior when he meets the maddeningly unavailable Hansi Haas, a cabaret singer with a knack for theoretical physics who counts Einstein, Niels Bohr and Max Planck among her many admirers. Schrödinger soon succumbs to her charms as well, until Hansi leaves him for yet another physicist: Paul Dirac. It is while plotting his revenge that the devastated Schrödinger eventually realizes that the truth of love - as long as you don't ask the question, the answer can always be yes - is also a truth of quantum physics, and creates the famous thought experiment that bears his name: Schrödinger's Cat.
Despite the esoteric content of the play, Wells himself has no formal education in science beyond the standard high school courses, although he does confess to a long-standing interest in the subject, beginning in the 1970s when he read a biography of Einstein. "I could never get into the math, but I found the concepts behind it, the visuals and analogies, fascinating," he says. His interest in the theater also began in high school, with a "very watered down" version of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. Wells and his fellow cast members chose to ad-lib large portions of dialogue, with Wells feeding some of the best witticisms to various performers. "I realized, in my 17-year-old arrogance, that I could probably write my own plays," he says, adding, "It was another 10-15 years before I started writing anything that was actually any good."
Wells has had a few other plays produced Off-Off-Broadway in New York City, and Schrödinger's Girlfriend was performed as yet another staged reading in April, at the Ensemble Theatre Studio. While also a success, Wells confesses that the audience response wasn't quite as knowing as the physicists in Atlanta. However, "The main reason the APS performance was such a success was because of John Cairney and his expert choice of actors," he says. "They walked into it with very little rehearsal and made me look like a genius."