Have you ever second guessed a decision you’ve made? Maybe it was something as simple as not talking to guy at a party or as significant as declining the perfect job. Well, the first play of the Dallas Theater Center’s new season sort of takes on the idea of ‘what would happen if…’ to the ultimate conclusion with British playwright Nick Payne’s cosmic romance “Constellations.”
The play is cosmic because it’s about the love affair between a beekeeper and a theoretical physicist. It’s set in a multiverse, and, as the physicist explains, in a multiverse, there are many ways their relationship could play out. We get to see them all. The good, bad and even the ugly. “Constellations” stars just two actors – Alex Organ as the beekeeper, and Allison Pistorius as the scientist. I sat down with the pair for a conversation. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. But you can click above to listen to the whole chat.
Alison, during this play, pivotal moments in the couple’s relationship are replayed, multiple ways. At one point, your character – Marianne – has downed a few drinks. A split second later, she’s completely sober. These rapid changes happen constantly. How do you prepare for that?
AP I do as much preparation as I can, in knowing specifically what is going on intellectually. And then the challenge is to jump from one to the next and allow myself to leave the previous situation behind completely; wipe the slate and be completely, fully present in the new one.
So there’s a little bit of forward thinking?
AP A little bit, but then the trick is to know it so well that you don’t have to be constantly going, ‘Okay, what’s next? Okay, what’s next in three lines? I have to walk over there. Then I have to say this.’ That’s the trick.
AO Yea. You know it’s ideal to be as present as you can within the scene that you’re doing, but also have the ability to turn on a dime and enter a new scene with a new set of circumstances. It’s pretty tricky.
Alex, the structure of ‘Constellations’ gives it this odd stop-start, stop-start rhythm. How do you develop or maintain a consistent character when, half the time, you’re hitting the re-set button?
AO Right. It’s an interesting question because one of the ideas that we’ve spent a lot of time trying to unpack is that if all of these scenes are happening in different universes, then technically these are all different people. The question becomes, ‘If we’re playing playing 50 different people, how much work do we have to do to go back and create backstories and all of these things?’ So our director Wendy Dann was really helpful, establishing this idea that there’s a spine to these characters that remains constant through all of these universes. And that in each different universe, there may be different limbs, or accessories, or whatever, that are slightly different but there is a constant center. And when we landed on that, that was really valuable for me to hang my hat on, ya know?
AP Same for me. It allowed for freedom of choice with the limbs and accessories because of the stability of that central spine.
What drew you to both to these characters and this play?
I read this play a couple years ago – before I even knew that it was being considered at the Theater Center – and I really loved it. But what attracted me to it was the science. I was really interested in this idea of the multiverse and this idea of time, as explained in this play. It’s something that my wife and I have been really interested in for years and we’ve tried to read up on it and watch a lot documentaries on that kind of thing.
When this play came around and I kind of heard through the grapevine what it was about, I grabbed a copy really quick and ate it up and really loved it. But then when we found out that we were gonna get to do it, it opened it up in new ways. On the page, it can be a little dense. It looks a little clinical on the page. And so, it’s a little intimidating as well. But we found that the center is actually really simple. It’s just a love story and it has an enormous amount of heart. And that was the thing that allowed me to sort of break into it as an actor.
AP I would say the same thing. At first glance, what I thought I would really enjoy about it was the science. And the first time I read it all the way through, I do what I always do when I am reading a play, I read all the characters and I read it out loud. But by the end, I was moved more than I thought I would be. I was weeping with joy and with all of these other emotions. The thing that stole my heart about the play was this really wonderful relationship story that is so relatable. There were so many things that resonated with me in profound and very simple ways. So it was kind of unexpected. I feel like the science is the hook, and then it pulls you into this really beautiful simple story about people.
Alex, you mention watching documentaries about the multiverse, and I’ll tell you myself that I love a good sci-fi movie with a multiverse. But it can be a gimmick. When ‘Star Trek’ used it for Nimoy, we called it a gimmick. What makes this not a gimmick?
AOOh. Wow. Good Question. You know, the fact that we do this 50 different times kind of takes away the gimmick. It’s established early on, the structure of the play. We’ve only done a few shows, but so far, our experience has been that people catch on to the game really fast and then forget about it. And then, they’re just watching a story. And in that way, it’s not gimmicky. It’s not cliche or casual.
Alison, we wonder all of our lives how one decision affects another; how our lives would have turned out different if we made different choices. I am curious if this play has brought to mind any instances of ‘Oh man, I really wish this had happened?’
Well, it’s not even so much of a ‘I wish this had happened.’ But it has certainly brought up things that I wonder what would have happened? I mean, when I was in my early 20s, living in New York City, I had lived there for two years, then one of my family members had a health crisis and I made the choice to come back to Texas. So I left a guy I was dating and a totally different career path.
Had I chosen to not relocate, my life would look completely different. I may or may not have had the same job. I don’t know that I would have met my current husband. It would be a completely different trajectory. And I don’t know that I necessarily wished that the other one would have happened, but it’s such an interesting thing to contemplate. Somewhere, in some universe, there is a me who has a totally different life. Who has that life. You know? And it’s just super interesting to me. And it’s almost freeing. It doesn’t feel oppressive or scary. It just feels like a sense of wonder about the universe. And can I say having our little story mentioned in the sentence as Leonard Nimoy and ‘Star Trek’ really made me happy?!?
What was the funnest part about playing these two characters and the multiple versions of each of them?
AOUmm. . . there’s an awkwardness to Roland that is pretty constant throughout the 50 scenes. That’s part of the spine that remains the same. Unsure…
He’s very British.
AOOh yes! Both of these people. This is a very British play, no doubt. But you know awkward is a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun.
AP There’s an enthusiasm and curiosity about Marianne that I find exciting and energizing every night. I mean, trust me, there’s an awkwardness of her own that I also really enjoy. But I think it’s fueled by something a little bit different. She’s got this boundless enthusiasm, you know? Like in terms of the world and in terms of the universe. And I think that is incredibly refreshing and a wonderful thing to step into everyday in rehearsal and now every night in performance.
She’s probably the most optimistic pragmatist I’ve ever read.
AP Absolutely. She deals with numbers and the amazingly complex structure of the universe and the thing that it gives her is this sense of hope that I think is just delightful.