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Friday, May 9, 2014

Cold Basement Dramatics presents "The Half-Life of Memory"


By ERIC SCHELKOPF

Cold Basement Dramatics in Chicago continues to present thought-provoking productions.

Its latest production, "The Half-Life of Memory," tells the story of a deteriorating former Manhattan Project physicist who has discovered that radioactive material can be extruded from his memory.

Written by local playwright and actor Jason Lindner, "The Half-Life of Memory," will run from June 6 to June 29 at the DCASE Storefront Theatre, 66 E. Randolph St., Chicago. More information is at www.coldbasement.org.

I had the chance to talk to Lindner about "The Half-Life of Memory."


Q - I understand that the character of Salek is loosely based on one of your relatives, Professor Severin Raynor, who worked on the Manhattan Project. Did his stories inspire you to write "The Half-Life of Memory?" 

Many years ago I was introduced to the Radium Girls… in the early days of misunderstood radioactivity they were employed painting radium on the dials of watches – so those dials would glow in the dark… they used very fine brushes to do their work and that meant licking the brushes to make sure they kept their point.

You can only imagine what happened to the poor radium girls with the glow-in-the-dark tonsils. But no one knew what would happen– they didn’t understand the consequences.

That was the dawn of the atomic age and from there knowledge was something that was always the second step. Even as the most brilliant scientists in the world began to build the atomic bomb, the drive was about how to finish and not what would happen when it was done. But then it was done.


Starting from a point of this kind of darkness, mystery, and confusion behind atomic power, I was inspired by the work and tales of my relative to write "The Half-Life of Memory." He was a seriously tough guy – one of those tough guy Jews - more Mickey Cohen and less Woody Allen. 

He helped build the casing for the bomb, he was a renowned professor and in his declining years, fell into dementia. What might that be like, I considered, to be faced with the fact of the bomb, of your integral work, on something that had caused such horror, especially if you had spent your life suppressing it, not thinking about it? 

What might an addled mind exhale into a warped reality to force you to remember? That was where "The Half-Life of Memory" germinated – and, of course, the story is quite a bit different than the real life of Severin Raynor, but it was certainly the impetus, and I looked to his spirit for inspiration and for recrimination if something seemed not quite right.

He was a fascinating guy and a sarcastic son of a bitch. He told me that he moved to the suburbs so as to be out of the blast radius if an atomic bomb landed on Chicago. 

He told me (winking) that paganism was where it’s at – because of the proliferation of nymphs. He told me that if you fight with brass knuckles to try to punch up under the ribs and maybe pop a lung. I was eleven at the time.

He and his wife traveled the world, she was a famous photographer. They together had a power and grace that I still remember and when she was gone, after her own bout with Alzheimer’s, I remember him as a wrecked shell – jagged and hard, but still with a biting wit and lung-popping hilarious dark humor.

Did I mention "Half-Life of Memory" is a comedy? Well, there’s a lot of comedy in it, anyhow.


Q - How long had you been working on the play and is it being staged as you envisioned? 

I originally wrote "The Half-Life of Memory" as my thesis for graduation from the MFA playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama (‘02). It hasn’t exactly sat in a drawer since that time, but I have been careful with it, considering how I would like to revise it for subsequent production.

The amazing folks at Cold Basement were excited enough to give me the space, time, and process I needed to really make the show hum as it does in its present form. It wasn’t exactly as labor intensive as gleaning radioactive material but it does have a certain glow now.

As for staging – though I have a kind of vision, I don’t feel that’s really the realm of the playwright alone. I leave it up to our capable director, Sophie Blumberg, and the actors, and amazing technical folks. It’s a collaborative process that has a beauty to it in all of its composite parts.

I guess all that is to say – "The Half-Life of Memory" is most certainly not being staged as I envisioned it, and that is the most wonderful thing about it – because my vision is limited to just me… and in collaboration, a theatre piece becomes alive as the power of all these wonderful minds are unleashed on it. 

It would be terrible if a play was staged as I envisioned it… how boring is that?

Q - What would you like audiences to take away from "The Half-Life of Memory" when it opens next month? Is the play as timely now as when the Manhattan Project was going on in World War II?

Growing up, I thought that when any family got together for a meal, or for Thanksgiving, or whatever, the topic of conversation would always be WWII. My family was made up of survivors of the holocaust and they left Europe in the 1950s.

For me, WWII then will always be present and as part of a meal or a conversation as a piece of chocolate cake and a cup of coffee. That being said, the fact of the war and the Manhattan project are secondary in the play. 


Of course the play didn’t exist during World War II (it would have been pretty prescient if it did).

However, the backdrop of the building of the atomic bomb is used in "The Half-Life of Memory" as metaphor to tie more specifically to the theme of trying to understand the past and living with guilt or regret. This is a memory play within the context of the Manhattan project, but the war is only one war and the bomb is just another bomb, wars rage and bombs hit their targets in ourselves all the time.

What do we do with the explosions? Where do they go? If the universe is conserved (a preoccupation of mine these days) then memories and present events “happen” simultaneously. What are the implications of that on a scientist who is slowly losing his marbles?

Of course, every audience member will take what they will from this story, but I hope they are affected and have a chance to consider legacy, memory, and have a bit of a laugh through the dark cynicism of it all. 

Severin would have appreciated the laugh.

Q - You've written and performed for Second City. Why do you think Second City is such a launching pad, especially for budding comics?

Second City maintains a kind of raw energy that makes it spectacular – the ions of charged atmosphere bleed from the walls. The fact that as a neophyte I could stand on the same stage and breathe the same particulates that a Belushi or an Ackroyd or Colbert once breathed made for a real charge and as a young comic that makes all possibilities seem vibrant and accessible.



In my first class, the first exercise we ever did involved marching up on stage and announcing “I am an Improv God, so Fuck it!” Everything from there was an attempt to keep up that kind of free expression. It’s a beautiful place.

Q - What are your favorite topics to write about and why? How has it been seeing your work showcased by the likes of Disney and Fox TV?

I’m a dark humor and satire guy – all of my plays live in a kind of morass of comedy, dark and thick as nutella, on pumpernickel. My plays tend to be story based with characters inhabiting a story, rather than the other way round – though I am envious of writers whose characters seem to talk to them in the corners of their living rooms, that’s not really my speed – I like a plot and a story and then the characters live inside there.

There are so many talented people out there it is truly depressing… I mean.. uh inspiring (but also depressing). You consider that you have these gifts to bear and then you go somewhere like Disney and see a bevy of Kings from the Orient with myrrh to spare all piled into a corrugated metal warehouse. 

It’s a tricky thing because out there in the large entertainment conglomerates they are beholden to many masters. There’s perfection that can be achieved in that system, but there’s great restriction too.

Q - Do you have any dream projects?

I am fascinated by the possibilities of technology in theater – I wonder what can be done when the proscenium is atomized and an audience is online as well as in person. What possibilities does that open up?

I recently wrote a play that was performed by an actor in Singapore (the director was in Argentina) for an audience at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. It was rehearsed and performed entirely via Skype. 

That was exciting to me – how can we open up the world like that? Three dimensional projection technology and artificial intelligence are aspects I’d like to weave into future projects too.

Also, interactivity is not a fad, people desire their theatre to give them the option of investing in it as more than an observer. What is the extreme there, how can we move people with what they are able to contribute while still giving them a story and allowing them the chance to be captivated.

How does the theatrical medium stay vital in that context? I’m not sure – but I am excited to find out.

On the other hand.. just give a solid director three blocks and a few top-notch actors and it’s possible to magically perform any play in the world.