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einstein's dreams : neverending fable
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A Short Neverending Fable
Adapting Einstein's Dreams for the Stage
by Camille Gingras
I first read Einstein's Dreams underneath an apple tree at dawn. It was the summer of 1994 and I had been up all night with Mike Bernard, embroiled in one of those meaning-of-life talks that never actually go anywhere but round and round. His eyelids were getting droopy and my chatter was still going strong when, seconds before falling into never-never land, he pulled this book like a rabbit out of a hat, handed it to me, and then - poof! - Mike B. was gone.
Now, one month into the twenty-first century, I find myself in a cold, damp room in England revisiting Einstein's Dreams via a computer screen. An adaptation of the novel as an interactive cd-rom by Daniel Canty and DNA Productions has cast a spell on my colleague and myself. For three consecutive nights, we have secretly scuttled out of the pub before the bell for last orders, eager to get back to this dank hovel and our little electronic theatre and personal time machine. As we freely navigate from one world of time to another, the witching hours swiftly unravel.
So what is it about Einstein's Dreams that has Everyman and his dog rattling the gates of Time Warner Books at odd hours, waking the night watchman with urgent requests that permission be granted to adapt this novel into another form? What metaphysical magic does this little book contain? And how can this now be translated into a live interdisciplinary performance on stage? I ponder all these questions carefully as I tip the book upside down and vigourously shake all the words into a heap on my desk...
I have done three adaptations in the past. As playwright-in-residence at the Thorndike Theatre in England, I compressed Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet into a contemporary two-hander where all the action takes place at a rave. I also expanded Lewis Carroll's poem, Jabberwocky into a full-length gobbledygook play, and transformed The Little Match Girl into a Brechtian musical.
The big difference with Einstein's Dreams is that it is a novel. I have never deconstructed a novel before, and although at 179 pages it does not appear to be a very large one, it is extremely wide in scope. I mean, here are thirty disconnected fables - each one a conceptual dream of time - which leap effortlessly from one location to another, and which are peopled by a passing parade of nameless figures dreamed up by none other than Albert Einstein.
To make matters more challenging, Einstein appears intermittently - not as a fully fleshed protagonist, but more as a symbolic reminder that all of these parallel universes are, in fact, stored inside his very large brain!?
Suddenly Aristotle's unity of time and space seem light years away and I find myself momentarily cast adrift, floating in an ethereal soup of gargantuan ideas, completely overwhelmed by vastness.
The all-inclusive vision that Vancouver-based Pangaea Arts has for this particular adaptation of Einstein's Dreams is even wider than the book.
For starters, I am not the sole writer on this project - the one who gets to kick off the creative process by spending ten years of solitary confinement in a garret. I am one of six performer-devisers who have been assigned the task of interpreting various dreams that reflect our own personal perspectives on time.
Later, as head writer, it will be my job to stand at the interface between Einstein's Dreams and everyone else's interpretation of what that means. This includes collaborating with artistic director Heidi Specht, multimedia designer Shawn Chappelle, and composer Judy Specht. It will be my responsibility to fuse, focus, and compress all these individual styles and perspectives into one ordered universe on stage.
I wake up drenched in sweat, reminded that Einstein's lifelong quest for a unified theory failed in the end. I briefly consider buying a one-way bus ticket to Seattle.
"Less is best, if not more." That's what Samuel Beckett said, and if he didn't then he should have, because he was the king of writing economical texts that resonated deeply within the confines of the stage. So what are the parameters when shifting from a very wide page to a very narrow stage?
In the final version of his book, Alan Lightman admitted discarding certain dreams because he felt that "many more dreams would have felt tedious to the reader." I wonder how many of the thirty possible worlds a theatre audience might absorb in one sitting before imploding?
Perhaps, I muse, if thirty worlds of time were performed over thirty days it would be possible to present all of the dreams, because the breadth of the event itself would give the audience space for these ideas to accumulate and resonate over time. But we are not on the same budget as Robert Wilson or Laurie Anderson. Besides, I am told if we run past one hundred and twenty minutes, we will have to pay the janitor at the venue overtime.
Another constraint of the theatre is that, while a book can freely shift between time and space zones, teleportation on stage is virtually impossible. The only performer who springs to mind in this regard was the great Harry Houdini. But even he couldn't escape the fact that, although from the audience's perspective he had disappeared, they hadn't actually gone anywhere very interesting themselves.M
But back to those words that now sit neatly stacked and untouched on my desk...
I suggest to Heidi that we make some of those words disappear before locking ourselves up in one room and embarking on a month-long creative process with six other people. I advocate sifting the novel down to its most essential core, and eliminating those worlds that do not lend themselves to live presentation.
"Let's cut that world 'People Live Just One Day'."
"Oh, but it's a beautiful idea!"
"Yes, it's a beautiful idea, but how can we SHOW that in sixty minutes?"
"We could sing about it."
"Right. Yes. What about 'Suppose People Live Forever'?"
"I think we should leave the book as it is and get everyone else's hits on the novel first."
"But we need to set parameters."
"Let's explore the possibilities. Allow accidents to happen in the lab, okay?"
"Okay," I say in my bravest possible voice. "But don't you think 'The World Will End on a Fixed Date' is a bit epic for six people on stage? I mean, where do we go after that ends?"
I am definitely a control freak - most writers are - but now I know why. One month later, after a highly fruitful creation period, my worst fears are confirmed: Einstein's Dreams appears to have grown into an unmanageable disease!
I find myself alone at my desk, laboriously wrestling with an elusive structure that refuses to be pinned down. Here are old words and new words that riff off the old words while a cacophony of voices, agendas, and clashing opinions runs rampant through my mind.
From my perspective, this is a nightmare! There appear to be too many shifting fragments, and I can't seem to rise above the flotsam long enough to fuse them into any semblance of order.
From Heidi's perspective, this is where the fun begins! She revels in the clutter and chaos and unexplained mysteries, for here we have a treasure trove of possibilities that might ALL be connected one day.
In this respect, it seems that she is the cosmologist and I am the particle physicist. Or perhaps it's the other way round?
Eventually I short-circuit before sliding off into the abyss.
As I fall down, down, down the rabbit hole, I hear Kafka's voice booming out to me from the dead. "Camille...," he says. "Camille...," he says again, "there is only one truth and it is this: that you are beating your head against the walls of a windowless, doorless cell."
"You need anchors," says the therapist, looking up from his Japanese teacup.
I NEED EQUATIONS.
I.o I return to my desk and immediately gravitate toward the symbol of Einstein, who stands in the eye of the storm with his head in the clouds but both feet on the ground. He is the bridge between the conscious and unconscious realm, between reality and dream. In the book, all the dreams begin with him in the Prologue, and end with him in the Epilogue. In the Prologue we meet Einstein just after completing his theory. And in the Epilogue we see him handing his manuscript to the typist after spending two hours recollecting all the dreams that finally bring him to this moment in time. The novel's three interludes reinforce the notion that he is the static point around which all the dreams revolve. I come to the conclusion that we need to visually reflect this on stage by using him as the lynchpin around which all the conventions for the design of the play are to be set. His function as he "waits for the typist to come" is to be ever present, to recollect his dreams while marking the passage of real time in the play. There will be no Harry Houdini theatrics for him!
I.i I return to Aristotle's unity of time and space as a concept. From now on all the dreams will be set in the patent office - a "long narrow room full of practical ideas" - and all the interludes into reality will be set on the street outside the office. My sister - a long narrow girl full of practical ideas - suggests using a door to physically travel from dream into reality. A door! Why didn't I think of that? That's so simple! I write down the words "office, street, door" and begin to chant them like a mantra. Feeling marvellously liberated, I then sweep all those tongue twisters like Kramgasse, Gerberngasse, Zytogloggeturm, Zurich, and Rome into a brown manila envelope, which I mark "For Einstein's Dreams, the movie. To be shot on location."
I.ii I return to a phrase from the text: "In his hands, he holds twenty crumpled pages, his new theory of time." I recall how Jimmy Tait, one of the other performer-devisers, gasped when he read this. "That's it! That's the story! Einstein's holding the entire world of the play in his hands!" I thought Jimmy was speaking figuratively at first, until he showed up at rehearsal the next day with twenty pages attached to wires. These could be manipulated to magically rise up out of Einstein's hands - to fly! I take Jimmy's idea of literally relaying the dreams from the page to the stage via Einstein, who is, as Daniel Canty once coined it, "Homer: the symbolic poet."
Einstein's Dreams takes on the form of a Greek drama. I don a toga and sandals, change my name to Euripides, and begin writing a play with a Chorus of Patent Clerks, and Einstein as a modern-day mythic god. As a twentieth-century icon, I decide to place Einstein on stage purely as a symbol, an omnipresent figure, a silent witness who reflects the role of the audience while the Chorus play out the stories of his dreams.
Pop! My lofty poetics for Einstein go down like a lead balloon! Heidi sees Albert more as a Ulysses than a Homer. She wants him to be a mortal who physically journeys inside his own dreams.
"But," I counter, "it says in the book that he waits. That's all he does from beginning to end is he waits."
"He can't just wait."
"It's kind of ironic, huh? Einstein, the creator, who holds the theory of time in his hands, has to sit and wait for the typist to arrive during the entire length of the play."
"But where's the drama in that?"
"The drama is in his dreams."
"Then let's put him inside his dreams."
"But he's a symbol."
"He's a character."
"Fine. Then the dreams won't be about time."
"What do you mean?"
"The dreams will be about him."
"No, we can't have Einstein on stage doing nothing but waiting."
"Because it's boring!"
"I don't know, Beckett got away with it for at least forty-five minutes in Waiting for Godot."
"That's because Vladimir and Estragon were compelling characters."
"Okay..." Me and my big mouth! Now I definitely can't convince her of the dangers of turning an icon into a fully fleshed character. From Heidi's point of view, we are cheating the audience out of an opportunity to engage with the character of Einstein. From my point of view, I am petrified that the audience will be vastly disappointed the
minute he opens his mouth.
"What if he spoke in gibberish?" I say.
"Or was a clown?" No sooner do the words fly out of my mouth than my toga falls down.
Media: I have been avoiding the interdisciplinary part of this live performance because I am a technophobe.
After skim-reading Marshall McLuhan Made Easy, I imagine in my own private universe that the performance will be working in relation to the media via counterpoint. However, after meeting Shawn Chappelle, I discover that in his private universe, he envisions using the media as scenography.
We quickly establish some basic parameters for the media by lifting some recurring images that resonate for us from the book: the walls of the patent office that morph into images of rivers, clouds, inner mechanisms of clocks, patented inventions, equations by Einstein, and condensed versions of text that appear as silent film titles.
After Shawn talks me through his ideas, I can clearly see how the video screen integrates into the work, as a representation of the outer limits of Einstein's interior/exterior world. It is no longer this clunky, inanimate object that must be negotiated around. Rather, it has transformed into a fluid landscape of floating symbols that have the look and feel of a Magritte painting. It has added a visceral layer to the narrative - an elusive quality that is so prevalent in the novel, but that I was unable to translate into this particular script.
I write myself a little memo for future reference: "When working in collaboration, it is sometimes good to meet with the other writers."
Terry Johnson the playwright once said, "The play is never finished." Robert Lepage once said, "The play is only written after it has been performed." In the case of Einstein's Dreams both of these truths are very real. The stage version of this story has neither been finished nor performed yet.
At the moment, I am feverishly working on draft number five before my first scheduled appearance with the cast, who will be congregating in a rehearsal hall sometime in the not-too-distant future.
By the time anyone reads this essay, Einstein's Dreams will already have experienced its finest hour: its twelve-day run. It will be a thing of the past. Save for a script, a musical score, a lighting plot, six uninhabited costumes, a series of disconnected images, and perhaps future plans to remount the production at another space in time, the "live" moment of this particular production will be gone, gone, gone...
(Why does it feel as if I'm writing an epitaph suddenly?)
And then, what next, I wonder? After the dust has settled? Perhaps you will find me and my dog rattling the gates of Time Warner Books at an odd hour, waking the night watchman with an urgent request that permission be granted immediately to take over his job! Or perhaps you will see me relaxing underneath an apple tree this summer with Mike Bernard, the two of us embroiled in one of those meaning-of-life talks that never go anywhere but round and round and round...
Camille Gingras is a playwright and physical theatre performer. She has recently moved from Briston, England, where she was one of the founding members of the Roughouse collective, back to British Columbia, the setting for Roughouse's last play Autobiography of Nowhere.
Pangaea Arts' adaptation of Einstein's Dreams premiered at the Roundhouse Community Centre in Vancouver on May 3, 2002.