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Morley’s Theorem: Maths and Moonshine

What’s it like performing with the RSC in a major UK tour whilst at the same time completing the final year of your degree?

By day, he’s analysing Quantum Field Theory. By night, he’s pushing a dog on wheels around in front of a live laughter-filled audience.

Tom Morley (Nottingham’s Starveling) tells his story.

We first heard about the RSC Dream16 project back in October 2014. At the time, Lovelace Theatre Company were busy rehearsing for their annual pantomime, Aladdin and the Little Mermaid. Despite being asked to audition for a main role, I’d opted for a role in the chorus so that I could spend more time focusing on my degree. At the time, I was in my third year of a four year maths course at The University of Nottingham. When I heard about the RSC project, though, I knew that I had to be involved.

My dad didn’t necessarily agree.

Me: “Dad, I’m going to audition for the RSC.”
Dad: “When is the performance?”
Me: “May 2016.”
Dad: “Is that a good idea? Isn’t that the same time as your final exams?”
Me: “Yeah. I’ll be alright.”

In April 2015 we had our first auditions for Dream16. None of the Lovelace team expected to get anywhere with it – for us, the chance of a weekend’s workshops with the RSC was a prize in itself. We weren’t Shakespearean actors, Shakespeare wasn’t ‘our thing’.

We went and gave it our all and in June 2015 were given the exciting news that we had been chosen to represent the East Midlands in performances at Nottingham Theatre Royal and then in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Me: “Dad, we got it! I’m going to be acting with the RSC.”
Dad: “Well done. But what about your maths degree?”
Me: “I’m only playing Starveling. I’m not going to need much rehearsing. I’ll be alright.”

Rehearsals kicked off in September, with the RSC setting us a different task every month in the run up to Christmas. The tasks were a lot of fun, and helped us to develop our characters in different ways – a dance task helped us to look at movement, a radio task helped us to look at voice, and for the first task I was given a duologue (with James ‘the lion’ McBride) to develop our relationship as characters.

It was at this time that my fourth and final year of my degree kicked in. A word of warning for anyone thinking of doing a four year maths course: fourth year is tough. You notice the step up from third year. It’s crazy.

I also had to pick a topic for my dissertation. I was very interested in Quantum Field Theory (QFT), and went to see a supervisor about extending the study of QFT from flat space to curved space (curved space allows us to introduce gravity into the equations and gives us a more accurate picture of real life.)

My supervisor suggested a project which involved looking at the Symanzik Polynomials (equations that represent particle interactions) in a curved spacetime. She told me it was going to be a difficult project, and that the investigation that I would be undertaking had never been done in-depth. If I were successful I would have done something that had never been done before!

It wasn’t going to be easy, she assured me, but it would be rewarding. On the other hand, I could just look at QFT in curved spacetime in general, summarising the work of many great mathematicians but not really adding anything new to the existing work. Of course, I wanted to do the more difficult new stuff.

Me: “Dad, for my dissertation, I’m going to do something that’s never been done before.”
Dad: “Sounds good. But what about the RSC? Will you have time?”
Me: “Sure I’ll have time. Don’t worry about it. It’ll be alright.”

November arrives, and by now I’m well into my dissertation project, and RSC rehearsals are still continuing. I’m also working weekends at John Lewis selling vacuum cleaners. I was getting tired. I don’t think I’ve ever been as tired as I was back then. I didn’t get a break.

My job was all day on Saturday and Sunday, and as soon as Monday arrived I was back at uni in the day, and at RSC rehearsals in the evenings. I used up all my holidays at John Lewis so that I could attend weekend RSC sessions run by Kim Sykes (Assistant Director) and Sinead O’Keefe (Movement Coach).

I was falling behind in coursework, I was struggling to keep up in lectures, and something had to give. Naturally, I gave up my job at John Lewis in November.

January arrives, and with it comes January exams. Fourth year exams are ridiculous. Each module I took has so much content that my days leading up to those exams were spent just doing maths and nothing else. Literally from 9 in the morning until 7 at night, with an hour break for lunch (if I was lucky).

January is also when the RSC rehearsals kick in properly. The professional cast have been announced and we meet them all via digital Google Hangouts and also watch some of the other amateurs rehearsing. The night before my exams, instead of having one last skim through my notes, I’m watching amateurs from Glasgow performing their version of Act 3 Scene 1.

As if this wasn’t enough, January is also the month of Lovelace’s pantomime. But this wasn’t just any pantomime. This was Peter Panto – written by me! I don’t know when I found time to write it, it was just something that happened.

I’d been absent from a lot of rehearsals due to the RSC, and all the time other members of Lovelace had been working incredibly hard to put everything together. I knew I had to see it, and not just once – I wanted to go and watch every single performance.

Me: “I’m going to watch all the Peter Panto performances.”
Dad: “All of them? Isn’t that the same week as exams?”
Me: “Yeah. I’ll be alright.”

In the end I got to see 6 out of 7 of the performances (I had to miss one for, you guessed it, an RSC rehearsal!) and I thoroughly enjoyed every single one. I don’t think there are any words to describe what it feels like to have something you’ve written brought to life in front of you. The entire Lovelace team made me very happy and incredibly proud. It was a fantastic production that I will remember forever.

From February everything seems to die down a little. Exams are over (they went well, and I get a first in both modules) and RSC live streams end as the tour begins in Stratford. Our rehearsals continue, but they are more spread out and the nights aren’t as long.

As we reach April, everything begins to move at an exhilarating (and terrifying) pace. The number of rehearsals begin to increase as we prepare for the RSC to arrive in Nottingham the following month.

A problem also crops up in my dissertation. The equations don’t seem to match the physics – the conclusions that I’m drawing don’t make physical sense. My supervisor suspects that something’s gone wrong. So, six weeks before the deadline, I go back to the beginning and begin checking my work… and there it is. A typo. A plus sign instead of a minus sign. The following 20 pages of maths are wrong.

I panic. I call a ‘crisis meeting’ with my supervisor. She tells me not to panic. There is still some salvageable work, and we can change the project a little to make it more general rather than the initial planned investigation. I, however, don’t want to settle for second best. So, the weekend arrives. After a meeting with Linda (our Quince) to discuss the plans for the Lovelace Juniors Summer Showcase (I help Linda to run the junior group on a Wednesday evening), I head onto campus and shut myself in the library and begin my dissertation again.

Progress is made. It turns out that the equations are not as horrible as I first thought, and in a week’s time I’ve reached my conclusion (so, yeah, I basically did my dissertation in a week). I find that in a curved background the Symanzik Polynomials are, in fact, not polynomials at all!

It’s quite an outcome, and one that could possibly change this area of mathematics going forward (polynomials have fairly nice properties, but non-polynomials are pretty horrendous, meaning that we can’t make certain assumptions). Within my dissertation, I propose this as a new theorem (although I do manage to resist the urge to name it “Morley’s Theorem”).

The next few weeks are taken up with putting the finishing touches to my dissertation, and preparing for the Nottingham run of Dream. Our first performance is on 3 May, my dissertation deadline is 9 May and my final exam is 16 May. So, May’s looking to be a pretty busy month.

The run in Nottingham goes by without a hitch, and it’s a fab experience. Again, something I will never forget. Acting with the RSC is just out of this world, and that week was one of the best in my life. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. I must also thank my great friends from university (Joe, Joe, Hayden and Owen) who took time out from their revision to come and support me, as well as my sister Jo, who came back to Nottingham for the weekend before her exams to see me in Dream (she is studying maths at The University of York).

As soon Dream is over, however, it’s back to the maths – I have to hand in my dissertation and make sure I’m prepared for my final exam.

It’s now July. Two weeks ago, we performed at the RST in Stratford (something which I’d never even have dreamed was possible 2 years ago).

Last week Dream came to an end, and yesterday I graduated university with a first class degree in MMATH Mathematics.

Two amazing adventures have come to an end within a matter of days. This really does feel like the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.

And what does the next chapter hold?

Well, in October I begin studying at The University of Sheffield for a PhD looking at the quantum effects in black holes. Around the same time, I’ll begin directing this year’s Lovelace pantomime, The Three Musketeers (along with one of my best friends, Chris Stevenson).

The Three Musketeers will be performed at The John Godber Centre in Hucknall, Nottingham from 19-22 January 2017. It’s the first time I’ve ever directed anything on this scale. It might seem a strange time to undertake something like this when I’ll have so many other things going on at the same time – starting at a new university, getting to grips with how PhD study works, as well as running tutorials for undergraduates.

But for me this seems like the perfect time. I’ve learnt so much from Dream16 – from Kim, from director Erica and from voice coach Michael Corbidge – and I feel I need to share this with more people. The pantomime (which will have a cast of around 50, including 30 children) seems like the perfect time to pass this on. And the hope is that the cast members of The Three Musketeers will then pass on everything I’ve taught them to more people in the future, and the circle of people affected by Dream16 will grow and grow and grow.

Me: “I’m going to direct the Lovelace pantomime this year.”
Dad: “Are you sure you want to do that when you’re meant to be starting a PhD?”
Me: “Ah, I’ll be alright.”

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