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MIT Better World

By Nicole Estvanik Taylor

The production’s cast features more than 20 students, with another 20 working behind the scenes.

What’s not apparent, viewing that set between performances, is that it’s activated during the show by nine cameras that feed into multiple onstage screens. Another surprise: one wall, marred by a jagged crack, is not just shabby but shatterable. “Someone gets thrown through it. It’s pretty classy,” jokes Jay Scheib, the production’s director and head of the MIT Theater Arts program, sitting on the edge of the deserted stage one afternoon during the show’s run. He gestures stage left. “Someone also gets thrown through that window, which we make out of heat-shrink plastic.”

These two dynamic elements—the blending of action and live video, and the violent breaching of walls—are bread and butter for Scheib and for the department’s director of design, Sara Brown. It’s an aesthetic they will continue to explore with their students come spring, under a new roof: the Theater Arts Building (W97), soon to open in a gut-renovated warehouse on Vassar Street.

W97 marks a new era for a growing department where Scheib and Brown have been faculty since 2003 and 2008, respectively. Their collaborations on and off campus include World of Wires, a dark tale of virtual reality that opened with the smashing of a literal fourth wall—a moment the New York Magazine reviewer called “one of the most thrillingly witty displays of illusion I’ve ever seen on a stage or a screen.” For that production, Brown designed a warren of rooms divided by a narrow central hallway, with handheld cameras weaving through the action and capturing close-ups.

World of Wires, like the rest of Scheib’s Simulated Cities/Simulated Systems trilogy, was workshopped at MIT before its professional debut. Each installment, according to that show’s program notes, emerged “through dialogues with civil engineering and urban planning, computer science and artificial intelligence, aerospace and astronautics.” MIT theater students’ backgrounds in those and other fields not only influence the dramaturgy of works developed here, but provide a baseline comfort level with the technology that Scheib and Brown bring into the room from the very first rehearsal—building the physical world of the play amid a tangle of microphones, cameras, cables, and computers.

MIT Theater Arts director of design Sara Brown and program head Jay Scheib. Photo: Shawn G. Henry
Slated to open in spring 2017, the new Theater Arts building at 345 Vassar Street (W97) will become a new destination for the MIT and Cambridge community to view live performance.
Brown encourages students to develop designs that go beyond illustration to provide active environments for performance. Students in her theater design courses develop skills in drawing, painting, and model making as well as digital image manipulation and 3D CAD drawing. Photo: Jon Sachs / MIT SHASS Communications
Scheib (shown here in a 2015 rehearsal for a new chamber opera, Persona) works with his students to integrate technology into the physical world of his productions. Photo: Courtesy of Jay Scheib
A 2015 workshop performance at MIT of Persona, an operatic adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 classic film, composed by MIT faculty member Keeril Makan with direction and libretto by Scheib. Photo: Courtesy of Jay Scheib
Historically, MIT Theater Arts performance courses, like this one taught by Scheib, have been held in facilities separate from the department’s design courses and productions. When W97 opens, all of MIT Theater Arts activities will be united under one roof. Photo: Jon Sachs / MIT SHASS Communications

Brown describes one memorable project, from a workshop with visiting theater artist Robert Lepage. The students were asked to devise scenes around the motif of playing cards. “One of the students turned a playing card into a speaker—an actual working speaker—and it told the story for him while he performed silently.”

Scheib, too, frequently marvels at his students’ ingenuity. “I might say: ‘OK, we’re going to make a five-minute performance in which there have to be ten exits and entrances, four sentences, two failed kisses, one display of strength, one use of video from your cellphone, three sound cues, a dance solo, and a wrestling match. You have 20 minutes. Get started.’ And usually they go: What?! And then, they make stuff. And some of the pieces are astonishingly beautiful.”

Invention that transcends constraints is practically an MIT sport. But theater education, and theatrical design in particular, injects a bracing dose of aesthetics into the process. As Brown puts it: “Before you can design, you have to see. I teach a class where students have to research the history of a particular chair and what else was going on in the world when it was designed. When you put a chair on stage, you’re putting that web of references on stage, too.”

Apparently, MIT students welcome new ways of seeing. Theater Arts enrollment has more than doubled in recent years, and a major was established in 2015. As the program has grown, it has dispersed outside its barebones home base in E33 (the erstwhile Rinaldi Tile Building), making nomadic use of shared facilities for classes, productions, and semester-end exhibitions.

With E33 slated for demolition as part of Kendall Square’s transformation, the new building at 345 Vassar Street is an opportunity to consolidate all this scattered activity. Its 25,000 square feet include a two-story, 180-seat, multimedia-equipped venue that can be reconfigured for each use; as well as a rehearsal studio, dressing rooms, and set and costume makerspaces.

Brand-new facilities are a boon for a department used to operating out of an industrial garage, even as W97’s design honors the old space’s “nothing-is-finished, nothing-is-precious” aesthetic. But the ultimate upgrade is centralization. “It gives us an opportunity to think about programming in a much more autonomous way,” Scheib says, “to turn that building into a destination, both for the campus and locally for Cambridge and the greater Boston area.” Theater students will move easily between adjacent design, rehearsal, and performance spaces, with ready access to maker tools, and opportunities for immediately trying out what they’ve made. No longer will the theater be the place “where you show up the day before you open and unpack everything you’ve been working on and hope it works,” says Brown. And no longer will design and acting classes be divided by geography. “We’ll be able to bring those things closer together. We really don’t think of them as separate items, and this is going to make that ethos, which has always been a goal, much more possible.”

If it seems ironic that a program so keen on knocking down walls will flourish thanks to solid new ones—well, drama is fueled by such contradictions. While many MIT buildings are dedicated to solving problems, W97 will in some sense be devoted to creating them: constructing microcosms of conflict to see what transpires. As Brown puts it, “I think a lot of design in other areas is about making something better, more logical, more efficient. And sometimes in theater we have an opposite problem: how do you make it fall apart? How do you make it a challenge for people to navigate the space? There are lots of parallels with theater and architecture, but theater has such a different relationship to time. It has to rewind itself every night.”