Training Theatre Artists to Make a Difference

Spooky Action At A Distance: An Interview with Playwright Matthew Buckley Smith by Marian Donahue

matthew buckley smith

Tell us a little bit about the show. How did you get interested in this particular subject? What was the initial inspiration?

“Spooky Action at a Distance” takes place over nine months in the early 1970s, as the Vietnam war was rumbling to an end and a physics experiment in Berkeley was quietly settling a long-standing dispute between Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein.

In 1935, Einstein published an article proposing a thought experiment––impossible to perform in the real world––the premise of which seemed to undermine the validity of the uncertainty principle, the author of whom was Bohr’s protégé, Werner Heisenberg. The article suggested that a consequence of the uncertainty principle, which had never smelled right to Einstein, was the occurrence of long-range, faster-than-light communication. Einstein’s derisive term for this phenomenon was, “spooky action at a distance.” Such things, of course, do not happen.

Ten years after Bohr’s death, a pair of Berkeley physicists managed to construct the thought experiment in the material world. The results surprised them. Rather than upsetting Heisenberg’s principle by revealing the quotidian hidden variable Einstein had predicted or disassociating uncertainty from faster-than-light communication, the experiment demonstrated that “spooky action at a distance” was in fact a physical reality.

My play deals with three private individuals for whom this experiment is merely a backdrop to personal conflicts. Thanks to my father, I’ve been fascinated with theoretical physics since I was a twelve, but no good play is at its heart about ideas. It has to be about desire.

“Spooky Action at a Distance” is a love story. To be more precise, it is three love stories.

What was it like working with a three-person cast? How does the work differ from working with a large ensemble?

I prefer small casts. Partly this is a consequence of my experience writing for low- (or no-) budget productions. Any script is first of all a wish list. It’s easy for a playwright to ask for things––characters, sets, properties, music, violence, nudity, special effects––but if a show’s actually going to come off, somebody’s got to bell every one of those cats. In my scripts, I try to ask for as little as possible. This way I find it’s easier to get the few things I do ask for. A large cast is more likely to have at least one weak link. I’ve been very lucky with this production to have three actors who are all equally strong.

What kind of challenges did you encounter either during drafting or rehearsals? How did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge was that the script kept being bad. To the credit of the extraordinary creative and technical teams, they did not complain (to my face) during the first couple weeks, when I brought in a new draft of each scene every time we rehearsed it. Since then, I’ve mostly limited changes to line adjustments worked out with the actors in rehearsal, meaning that while everyone involved has had a hard time thanks to me, Grant, Kiernan, and Amie have had the hardest time of all.

The script’s problems have been legion: logical inconsistencies, anachronisms, physical inaccuracies, unclear motivations, bad jokes, offensive jokes, confusing jokes, and of course boring scientific explanations. Problems doubtless remain. I’m a slow thinker, a slow reader, and an even slower writer. God bless everyone who’s put up with me.

It is probably also worth mentioning that the two male actors have faced the special hardship of inconvenient facial hair. Grant, in particular, suffered for weeks with a period-appropriate-but-anti-aphrodisiacal mustache, only to be asked––a week before opening night––to shave it off. Surely it has gone to a better place.

Matthew Buckley Smith is a third year M.F.A. Playwriting student at the Catholic University of America


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This entry was posted on March 15, 2013 by and tagged , , , .
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