Richard Partridge is a physicist by day, working as group leader on a project involving dark matter research at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
By night, the Los Altos Hills resident recently worked in a vastly different setting: on stage, where he volunteered to explain physics concepts to actors in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “Constellations.”
The play explores the concept of multiverses through the story of a young couple who meet and connect with one another to various outcomes.
After conducting research on multiverses and string theory, director Robert Kelley contacted Partridge, an old friend, and asked him to illuminate the difficult physics concepts in “Constellations.”
“In order to feel comfortable directing the actors, the first thing I did was get ahold of Richard,” Kelley said. “After (doing) reading and being pretty much still in the dark, I asked him if he would mind doing a session with me to try to answer questions and help me out.”
Partridge, who became a member of the TheatreWorks community through his late wife, Kathryn Green, agreed to help Kelley with the physics aspects of “Constellations.”
“Not only did he come talk to me, he asked for a copy of the play and read it, took extensive notes, and then we had a great session of training,” Kelley said of Partridge.
However, Kelley also thought it would be useful for the actors to learn more about physics. Carie Kawa portrays Marianne, a quantum physicist who falls in love with beekeeper Roland, played by Robert Gilbert. To help Kawa speak more authoritatively in her role, Kelley asked Partridge to come back for a second session with the actors.
“The concepts are challenging, and the whole creative team did a good job of trying to really look and see what the physics concepts were that were discussed,” Partridge said. “They’re not reading for graduate studies in physics, but I think they got the basics.”
According to Kelley, Nick Payne, the author of “Constellations,” became intrigued by multiverses upon his father’s death. Payne wanted to explore the idea of a universe in which his father had not yet passed. Considering this, Kelley wanted to understand how potential audiences would react to the play: Were the concepts controversial? Were they accepted by physicists everywhere? He called on Partridge to answer his questions.
“Understanding in physics develops through theoretical advances, predicting how matter and energy behave in the universe,” Partridge said. “Much of what was presented in the play is not easily tested, and it’s hard to say whether there’s any deeper truth behind this parallel universe presentation.”
Partridge enjoyed working on the stage and said he would consider partaking in such a project again.
“One of the things that’s interesting about being a physicist is that people are genuinely curious about how the universe works, and physics has something to say about that,” he said. “It’s always a joy to run into people who want to understand it better.”
Partridge joked that he will be available whenever Kelley may need him for help with future productions, as Kelley will be participating in Partridge’s upcoming wedding as the master of ceremonies. Until then, he will continue his work at SLAC, leading a team trying to discover dark matter.
“Ultimately, I’m hoping that one of these experiments that’s being done – the one I’m working on is one of several – will work,” Partridge said. “Before I retire, I’d like to understand what dark matter is, and I’m hoping that one of the paths that people are taking to figure it out will work.”
“Constellations” is scheduled to close Sunday at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. Tickets are $40-$100. For tickets and more information, call 903-6000 or visit theatreworks.org.