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MIT Better World

By Michael Blanding

The play, written and directed by Claire Conceison, the Quanta Professor of Chinese Culture and Professor of Theater Arts, was a three-part show about two mothers—one adoptive, one biological—fighting over a child. The last act dealt with the real-life custody case of Anna Mae He, a Chinese girl born in the United States in 1999. Initially, set designer Sara Brown planned to use a backdrop of legal documents to illustrate the case. Landez, working as a student assistant on the production, suggested they use photographs of Anne Mae and her parents instead.

“We wanted to really solidify with the audience that the story being told by the actors was about real people, which doesn’t always happen in theater,” Landez says. He made a mockup of three panels with photos interlaced with text. Brown loved the idea and worked with Landez to turn the panels into collages that would float behind the actors as they performed—offering a moving counterpoint to the drama on stage.

Landez is one of many students involved in creating the sets, costumes, and lighting that make theater productions at MIT come alive. These elements provide a rich environment for the actors but are performances in themselves as well. Their making also teaches students a language of expression that’s as enriching as their coursework in science, math, and engineering.

“A lot of architects think of set design as mini-architecture,” says Landez, who is majoring in the subject. “But the two practices are quite different in the way they approach the built environment.” The focus in theater on what an audience sees—in contrast to the more immersive elements of building design—has made Landez more conscious of how buildings appear from different vantage points and enabled him to exercise his creativity. “Coming from the architecture realm, where everything needs to be safe and buildable, it’s great to come into a space where I can try and create my own reality.”

Making it real

Brown, an assistant professor of theater at MIT, encourages students to use their creativity in making theater set designs both for classes and productions. Because theater is such a dynamic environment, students must apply their skills so that sets will function and last through an entire production run. “Students have to create a machine to run seamlessly on all dimensions of space and time. If everything isn’t where it’s supposed to be, the whole piece can fall apart,” she says.

That’s what Margaret Kosten ’20 found so thrilling about working as stage manager for the production World of Wires at W97 last spring. Written and directed by Class of 1949 Professor Jay Scheib, the play, based on a television series by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is a madcap evocation of characters living inside a hyper-intelligent computer simulation of the world.

“There were pyrotechnics on stage, fake blood everywhere, random props being thrown, and people crawling over things,” says Kosten, a mechanical engineering major, who is considering a double major in theater. “It was insane.” The centerpiece of the production was a huge wall constructed from dozens of white cardboard boxes, upon which a video was projected. Halfway through the show, the wall exploded into pieces, littering the stage with boxes in a moment that had to be perfectly timed for maximum effect.

“Stage management and engineering are pretty similar—you have to be very organized and think through problems before they happen,” says Kosten. “But there’s something about the length of a show and the human variability that makes it a much different kind of temporality than thinking about the turnover of an engine or the filling of a plastic mold.” Her favorite part is calling out the cues that ensure the production runs flawlessly. “You have to call it when it feels right. It’s not going to be the same every night.”

Challenging students

Scheib originally conceived of World of Wires eight years ago in workshops with Brown and students in which they experimented with many different types of materials and sizes before settling on 18-by-18-inch cubes. Last year, he taught an advanced studio course called Live Cinema Performance, in which he challenged students to design their own short pieces out of a series of prompts—a tornado, a failed fist fight, an embarrassingly long embrace. Students wrote scripts and developed a video framework with which to shoot the performances, which were broadcast live to an audience this past spring.

Photos of the real people involved in a custody case form the backdrop for MIT’s 2018 production of The Chalk Cycle. Photo: Daniel K. Landez
Rionna Flynn ’21 can be seen behind the wall of boxes that was a central element of the set for World of Wires. Photo: Sara Brown

“Using audio and visual technology allows artists to use multiple tropes of storytelling simultaneously,” Scheib says. In creating the pieces, he encouraged students to think beyond the 4-by-8-foot flats used for traditional theatrical scenery. “Students used rocks and sand and buckets of fake blood,” Scheib says. “I think they learned to see a broader range of potentiality in objects we have on hand.”

Designing for the theater teaches students to work with multiple elements to make a theatrical vision a reality. In high school, Sam Seaman ’21, started out acting but quickly realized that she preferred working behind the scenes. Since coming to MIT, she has designed lighting for productions of Spamalot and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Her favorite shows to design for, however, are dance performances such as those for the Asian Dance Team, which requires lighting changes to be made on the fly. “There’s no better feeling than the satisfaction you get when you’re doing a bunch of stuff behind the board and making the lights go crazy for a big wind-up in the music, and then you time something like a strobe hit or a rotating pattern hit exactly in line with the drop,” she says. “It’s definitely one of the most fun things as a light designer.”

Working on lighting design, Seaman says, has given her a better eye for color and lighting angles—and even changed the direction of her studies. While she initially planned to double-major in physics and math, designing for theater made her realize she wanted to create more tangible products.

Now she is an architecture major, and she’s also taking classes in mechanical and aerospace engineering. “Lighting design was the start of my realizing that I’m not a scientist, I’m an engineer.” Creating for the theater can also have a profound emotional impact on students’ development. In a course on set design with Brown, Landez was given an assignment to create a set for The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks about a black Abraham Lincoln impersonator who is assassinated. “It’s a really devastating play for me, being of mixed race,” says Landez, who is half-white and half-Hispanic. “It made me think a lot about how I perceived my brownness growing up.”

As a child, he says, he always thought of his brown skin as “dirty.” In designing his set, he intentionally set out to create the opposite impression. “I designed the entire set in steel, marble, and granite,” he says. “I really liked the idea of creating a monument for a man of color that was clean and polished.” Even though he only created the set on computer, it remains one of Landez’s favorite projects—affecting him as much as a designer as it would any audience. “It helped me think about who I am,” he says, “and how I fit into the puzzle that is MIT.”