Playwright Lynne Kaufman reflects on collaborations, complex partnerships in ‘Two Minds’

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Berkeley is full of great minds. One of these great minds is Daniel Kahneman, a former professor of psychology at UC Berkeley for eight years. Along with his collaborator and former Stanford professor Amos Tversky, Kahneman produced groundbreaking research on the way the mind works to make decisions.

Their work garnered the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, contributing greatly to our understanding of behavioral economics. While the award went to Kahneman after Tversky passed away in 1996, Kahneman is outspoken about sharing the credit with his longtime research partner. They conducted research together for several years, during which they formed a deep intellectual connection despite their vastly divergent personalities.

Lynne Kaufman, a playwright and the on-site program director for Cal Discoveries’ “Inside the London Theatre Scene,” was extremely interested in the complex friendship between these two men — her research ultimately led her to write a play about it. Kaufman’s play “Two Minds,” premiering at The Marsh in San Francisco on May 4, explores the inner workings of this partnership. While Kaufman was fascinated by their friendship, it was their professional collaboration that initially piqued her interest.

“I have been interested in the work of Kahneman and Tversky ever since I heard about their research on the hidden biases that we all have and the way our brains are wired to weigh information and make decisions,” Kaufman said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

Kaufman then became aware of the interesting friendship beneath this work relationship upon reading Michael Lewis’ book, “The Undoing Project,” which delves into the intricacies of Kahneman and Tversky’s relationship.

“They had so much fun working together and one could almost finish the thoughts of the other — their skills complemented each other,” Kaufman said.

The two researchers then attained positions at different universities upon coming to the United States and their friendship faced multiple strains and conflicts — it almost ended entirely. But then Tversky was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, of which he eventually died. It was the news of this diagnosis that mended the friendship between him and Kahneman, which struck a chord in Kaufman.

“Whatever differences they had just melted away and they resumed that deep friendship,” Kaufman said. “What intrigued me was the human element of emotions that override our logic and the healing power of really caring about another person.”

Kaufman also found herself drawn to this story after recently finishing up a creative collaboration of her own. In 2014, she worked with composer Alex Mandel, workshopping the musical “Painting America” — she wrote the book; he wrote the music and lyrics. Kaufman reflected on working so intensely with another person, in which the struggles and joyous moments prove to be ultimately rewarding.

“Every line has to be agreed upon, it has to work for both of us. … I knew firsthand the fun of banging heads and coming up with something that neither one of us would’ve done alone. Personally, that was the inspiration for writing ‘Two Minds,’ ” Kaufman said.

Kaufman’s working relationship with Robert Kelley is another source of inspiration. Kelley is Artistic Director and founder of TheatreWorks who oversaw “Painting America.” He will now bring “Two Minds” to life for The Marsh as its director.

“It’s just a joy to see him dig into the text. The words come alive. He just knows my work really well,” Kaufman said.

Meanwhile, the two lead actors of “Two Minds” also worked on “Painting America,” so she knew they possessed the onstage chemistry needed to accurately convey Kahneman and Tversky’s working relationship. The play manages to present serious issues while still being extremely comedic, as humor was a key element of Kahneman and Tversky’s real-life friendship.

“There was a lot of banter. They teased each other because of their very different personalities. Kahneman is thoughtful, cautious and given to second guessing. Tversky is bold and brash and supremely confident. … Different personalities, different skill sets,” Kaufman said.

While the work produced by these men was vital to the evolution of psychology and economics, “Two Minds” dives into the human elements behind the accomplishment of great scientific work. Behind this research was a partnership that was far from straightforward. And it was this relationship between these two men that allowed them to produce such groundbreaking work.

“It was a kind of marriage of deep minds. Kahneman said when you find someone you have that creative spark with, you really love being with them and working with them,” Kaufman said. “It’s bliss.”

“Two Minds” opens at San Francisco’s The Marsh on May 4.

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].