Backstage at the Tarragon Extraspace. Thirty minutes before dance call.
I’m sitting knee-to-knee with Amy Rutherford (Carmen) and Paul Braunstein (Elliot) in a tiny dressing room. There’s a sound of shuffling and Vivien Endicott-Douglas (Sarah Jean) enters through the back door in her winter jacket: “Oh right we’re doing this today.” It’s cast-interview time.
It’s also my first time seeing everybody again since opening night and there’s a strange kind of swelling in my chest. It’s good to be back.
Paul and Amy, when you first began working on Infinity with Ross in 2015, one of the things that you did was visited the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. What did you encounter there that maybe informed your approach to your characters?
Paul: Ok two things happened. One: I went, “Man I’m never going to be able to get close to fully understanding the science that’s real in this play!”
But what made me feel ok with that is that I saw that there is this huge institute devoted to people who are thinkers and dreamers and who have massive imaginations. They have the language of physics to help them realize those ideas on a chalkboard, in a book, or on a computer. But basically I felt closer to them as an artist. I realized my link to a theoretical physicist was as an artist, and as a thinker and as someone who has to be open to ideas.
That’s where I felt ok about the science part of Elliot’s character being a completely different language for my brain.
Amy: We met all sorts of really inspiring people of all ages ranging from 14 to over 65. And they were all considered equals there. There is a belief that innovative great ideas can come from any source no matter what the age. They don’t need formal education necessarily to come up with unique groundbreaking ideas.
There was one boy there that was being mentored by Lee Smolin. We asked Lee, “How are you mentoring him? What are you teaching him?” And he said, “I’m not telling him anything. I’m trying to create an environment where we’re not interfering with his ideas.”
They share their projects as they’re in progress. It’s not like they hole up in a room and protect what they’re working on. They actually share. In fact Lee talks about this: about the democratic world of theoretical physics and why it works. And there’s a lot to learn in that. I think the most fulfilling and effective creative projects I have been in throughout my career have been ones where those involved are secure enough to be collaborative. They don’t have to hold onto hierarchy in order to feel valuable in the room. Where people are able to share ideas creatively through true collaboration.
Amy, your character, Carmen, has undergone some changes since Hannah has continued working with the script. I’m wondering whether you can talk a little about those changes and how you’ve adapted to them.
Amy: I was thrilled by the changes! I think their greater impact was on the script as a whole, as opposed to it changing my character in any great way. So it feels like this time around the audience seems to understand the love between Carmen and Elliot better: that they’re not just simply a dysfunctional couple. It’s clearer now that Carmen is just as successful and that on some level and she understands Elliot. So I think the play has a different impact.
Vivien, you and Ross have been playing around with different ways into the character of Sarah Jean and the last few rehearsals I felt like there was a kind of shift that took place.
Vivien: I don’t know if it was so much as a shift but a building that happened.
Amy: In ten days!
Vivien: It took me a little while to get into the world of the play, and there was so much happening that I couldn’t necessarily prepare for, in terms of what’s happening to Sarah Jean in the transitions. I think that rehearsing the transitions actually informed the monologues in a really helpful way. The more we ran the play and the more I got to do the scenes as the child with my parents, the more it informed looking where Sarah Jean’s at.
Because before that we had been doing a lot of work on [young Sarah Jean] separately. And I think that as much as [young] Sarah Jean is in a different time, there are psychic kind of links to where she’s at when she’s an adult and what’s going on underneath what she’s saying. I could only get that in my body through running the play.
Plays and movies about love and science seem to be cropping up more and more: Theory of Everything, Constellations…
Vivien: The Imitation Game!
Yeah, I’ve always been fascinated by that pairing! Why do you think people want to make art about this, or want to see art about this?
Paul: I don’t know. I guess something as unquantifiable as love might be kind of exciting up against attempts at quantifying things, maybe.
Amy: Yeah, maybe there’s a hope that strong emotions such as love, anger, betrayal can be explained.
Vivien Endicott-Douglas in Infinity
Paul: Even in physics they have names for particles that they haven’t even actually seen. You know, there’s all that talk about the ‘god particle’ – the unknown unseen thing, the force, the energy, that hasn’t yet been seen as an actually physical thing…
So you go, “Maybe, we’re trying to explain something that is so full of magic, the same way that love is and we don’t know how to say exactly what love is.”
We’re trying to describe things with words and make sense of things. The feeling of love – how can you properly describe it, either in words or through science? It’s impossible. Words and science don’t actually do a lot of things justice – the things that that are in our hearts and what we feel.
Amy: And I think theatre also brings us closer to those existential questions.
Vivien: There’s something really interesting about watching people grasp for tangible answers or quantifiable things. And then the journey is asking people to realize that we have to be ok with the unknown. There’s a parallel among all of those stories. All of the people in those stories can’t fully grasp what they are reaching for.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview coming next week!
Based on sold-out shows Infinity is back from March 22-April 2 for a limited time run at the Tarragon's Extraspace. Click here for tickets!