Patrick Wohlmut is a member of Portland's notable playwrighting group Playwrights West. Wohlmut's play, CONTINUUM is about to open next week at the CoHo Theater, and Patrick took the time to talk with me about this play and its journey from inception to world premiere.
Debbie Lamedman: Can you tell me a little bit about your history with Playwright's West?
Patrick Wohlmut: I am one of Playwrights West's founding members. We first formed back in 2009, when many of our member playwrights, myself included, were part of a unit at Portland Center Stage called Playgroup. It had been started by their literary manager at the time, Mead Hunter, as a focal point for local playwrights to come together into a community of practice. After Mead left, Playgroup dissolved; and many of us formed Playwrights West following conversations about our admiration for groups like 13P and Workhaus Collective, and our desire to be produced in the city we love and live in. We wanted to be part of the conversation around, and help shape the landscape of, new, original theater here in our home town.
DL: CONTINUUM opens at the CoHo Theater on August 10th. Is this the world premiere? What sort of production history did the play go through to get to this point?
PW: This is the world premiere of CONTINUUM. It was commissioned by Portland Center Stage and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as part of the New Science and Technology Plays Initiative back in 2007. It has since had two public readings: the first in January of 2009, just before the first Fertile Ground festival kicked off here in Portland, and the second last year at the JAW: Made in Oregon festival. Both readings were at Portland Center Stage, and both were directed by Stan Foote, the artistic director of Oregon Children's Theater, who is also directing this production. I really wanted him to be involved with this production. He's an incredibly savvy director, he knows this play inside and out, and has a real feel for what it needs in terms of its story.
DL: How much involvement do you have with the current production? Were you or are you still tweaking the script? How long did the process take from origination to this production?
PW: As I mentioned before, it's been a five year process for this play. During those five years I worked with Robert Reynolds, a Professor of Physics at Reed College, to refine my understanding, and presentation, of the science in the play, and to make sure that the science and the story served each other. I also made changes throughout the process. CONTINUUM is a very dense play, and it's been a long road getting it to a point where audiences can easily find a way into it, yet remain challenged by it both structurally and in terms of content. For this production, I did continue to make changes up until about a week ago, and attended some rehearsals. I've been in contact with Stan, and we've discussed the play and what it needs in production, what I had in mind and what he sees when he imagines it on stage. So I've been able to collaborate on this production in a way that is beneficial for myself and everybody else.
DL: What can Portland audiences expect from this production? What was the impetus for writing this play?
PW: The purpose of the Sloan commission is to inspire playwrights to write plays about the hard sciences - physics, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy - in order to increase public understanding of them. It specifically addresses what C. P. Snow referred to as "The Two Cultures," the humanities and the sciences, and the gulf that exists socially between them. The idea is to present science and scientists in a complex, human, and accessible way. The impetus for writing the play came from an astronomy professor I had in college, who one day told us about a theory that the planet Jupiter is a failed star - what's called a Brown Dwarf, a star that ignites, but doesn't have enough fuel to sustain thermonuclear fusion. The way he told us about it, he made us think that it was still a theory that was being explored. I later found out that this theory had been invalidated five years before, when the Galileo mission to Jupiter finally reached the planet! So the question I wanted to explore was, why would a professor in a university teach his students a scientific theory that had already been disproved as possible fact? Like any play, what I hope audiences can expect is to be entertained, to be moved to feel, and to be inspired to think. My own preference as a playwright is to reward audiences for paying attention and for engaging with the play in an active cognitive manner. What I mean by that is, I don't write plays that only expect the audience to sit there and be worked upon. I'm a mystery fan: I like the people watching to have to figure things out as they go, in terms of both the story and what the story's about. Engaging in that process means you're building knowledge about yourself and about the world you live in. That's one of the minimum outcomes I could hope for as a playwright. So audiences can expect a puzzle with two very intelligent characters at its heart who are trying to get past each others' defenses to find the answers to that puzzle, and neither of them want to let the other in. The basis of CONTINUUM's story is that cat-and-mouse game, and the drive to understand another person who you thought you knew, but it turns out you didn't know at all.