Portrait and a Dream’s Jacob Marx Rice on the Intersection Between Theater and Astrophysics

08/16/2011 8:57 AM |

Cast members Kate Dearing and Frank Winters
  • Emily Hal
  • Cast members Kate Dearing and Frank Winters

Jacob Marx Rice is a bit of theater wunderkind. The man is in college, studying both theater and astrophysics, and he’s still found time to put on a production of his play Portrait and a Dream at this year’s Fringe Festival. It centers around a young man named Nick, whose new, seemingly perfect life falls apart after he makes a series of tragic mistakes. Portrait of a Dream opened last night at the First Floor Theatre at La MaMa. We talked to Rice, who grew up near Berkeley, CA before moving to New York and helping found the Cabbages and Kings Theater Company, about looking to Jackson Pollock for inspiration, the challenges of being a student/playwright and the similarities between writing and astrophysics.

So, why should audiences come and see Portrait and a Dream?

One of the things that makes our show really unique is how it combines a variety of things. It jumps around in space; it’s very interesting formalistically. It’s very funny and heartbreaking and a little bit scary. We also have great actors. We had a huge paring down process, moving from 600 potential actors to a cast of three, which was great because we got to pick artists who were incredible and brought such life to the text.

You’re a playwright and a student at Columbia University; do you find it hard balancing the two?

Absolutely. It’s always a challenge to write when you are in school, where there are so many distractions. I’m actually a double-major; I’m majoring in theater and astrophysics. It’s really hard to reconcile that with writing plays, but the reward of writing is so great that you just have to make the time. I also have a great support system here at Columbia and I work with two great groups that produce new work: Nomads Theatre Company, which put on the original production of this play, and a group called LateNite that does shorter pieces. I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to see productions of my work almost every semester since I’ve been in school.

Astrophysics seems like an odd choice for a playwright.

I originally planned to be an astrophysics researcher studying high-energy black holes and other general relativistic objects in space until I realized that I wanted to write plays. Often people comment on how different they are, and in some ways they very much are, but in other ways there is a lot of overlap. Both astrophysics and writing are about leaps in creativity and rigorous structures; you can’t create a play without playing, to some extent, within a certain set of rules. You have to figure out what rules you can break and which ones you can’t break, and within those constraints figure out how to create something new. Astrophysics is like that too; it’s about working within the knowledge that has been created so far and building something new, just in the language of math instead of the language of human emotions.

Tell me a bit about your inspirations for Portrait and a Dream.

Portrait and a Dream is really inspired by Jackson Pollock; it’s named after one of his paintings, one of the last he made before he died in a car accident. I based my play on the idea of short, quick scenes that don’t seem to go together at first, but as they build they add up to a more full understanding of someone’s existence. In terms of theater artists, I’m really fascinating by the younger generation of artists that are coming up in New York who are really challenging the borders between naturalism and realism and absurdism, as well as the borders between comedy and tragedy, artists like Anne Washburn and Lucy Thurber.

What’s the idea behind your theater company, Cabbages and Kings?

It’s named after a line in the poem The Walrus and the Carpenter [by Lewis Carroll] that goes “’The time has come,’ the Walrus said, ‘To talk of many things: Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax — Of cabbages — and kings.’” The idea is that the theater company talks of many things—we do plays about everything; each play really varies within itself in terms of genre, we don’t really constrain ourselves. We make plays that are tragic and beautiful while also being funny and silly and totally approachable.

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