Performance and Media Artist Robert Lepage brought his talent and unique multidisciplinary perspective to MIT during his residency from April 24-26, 2012. His time on campus was full from morning to night as he met with and collaborated with MIT students, faculty and staff, participated in two public programs and received the 2012 Eugene McDermott MIT Award in the Arts at MIT during a gala held in his honor.
Students were given exclusive access to Lepage during a special question and answer session moderated by Teresa Neff, lecturer from Music and Theater Arts at MIT. During this session, he spoke about the inspiration for the technologically dazzling set, dubbed “The Machine,” he created for the Metropolitan Opera’s new Der Ring des Nibelungen and showed clips from Das Rheingold and Wagner’s Dream, a documentary about the making of the Ring cycle for the Met. Lepage also collaborated with students in a performance practicum, a special theater class that he launched with a workshop when he first came to campus in February. He discussed the creative process used at his production company, Ex Machina, and introduced playing cards as the catalyst or “resource” for the semester. Students from MIT, Harvard and Emerson had developed scenes during the past three months, and presented for Lepage seven vignettes, complete with lighting, set and sound design. Lepage was particularly impressed by the depth and range of character development in the students’ work and engaged in a lively conversation with them about what he had seen.
Two free public programs provided the public and the MIT community the opportunity to see and hear Lepage in person: The Science of Illusion and Technology in Stagecraft and Storytelling.
The first program was co-presented by the Arts at MIT and the MIT Museum as part of the Cambridge Science Festival, on the topic of science, illusion and culture. John Durant, Director of the MIT Museum and Adjunct Professor in the Science, Technology and Society Program opened the panel and introduced the other panelists, whose work and research provided a range of perspectives on illusion and magic. In addition to Mr. Lepage, other panelists were Professor George Barbastathis, Singapore Research Professor of Optics and Professor of Mechanical Engineering; Assistant Professor Graham Jones, Anthropology; and Seth Riskin, Manager, Emerging Technologies and Holography/Spatial Imaging Initiative at the MIT Museum.
The panelists held a lively discussion about the relationship of illusion to human perception and offered insights into how magical thinking drives technological innovation and the human imagination. Panelists discussed everything from holograms to invisibility cloaking — techniques to make objects vanish by bending light to fool the eye — and the audience was treated to some magic tricks by Graham Jones–including a book that burst into flames.
The second program offered a fascinating glimpse into Lepage’s thinking, as he discussed his work with Peter Gelb, General Manager, Metropolitan Opera. The 90-minute program, Technology in Stagecraft and Storytelling, began with a discussion of Lepage’s new production of the Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera but spanned Lepage’s extraordinary body of work — from film to one-man performances, Shakespeare to Peter Gabriel concerts, Cirque du Soleil productions to spectacular architectural projections. The talk included a multimedia presentation showcasing the sophisticated sets for the Ring cycle as well as many other productions, including The Image Mill, an outdoor illumination in the Québec harbor that used the surface of the Bunge grain elevators as a giant screen. The discussion of Lepage’s diverse career as a multidisciplinary performance and media artist highlighted his versatility in a full range of theater craft: from directing to acting, to filmmaking and writing plays. Philip Khoury, Associate Provost and Ford International Professor of History, introduced the panelists and moderated questions from the audience.
Lepage and members of his company Ex Machina met extensively with members of the Media Lab and Theater Arts to exchange ideas about emerging research and new technologies. They attended the MIT Media Lab’s open house and viewed demonstrations of current projects in many areas, including Tod Machover and graduate students in the Opera of the Future lab, and Deb Roy and the Cognitive Machines group. A visit to Global Shakespeare with Professors Peter Donaldson, Diana Henderson, and Shankar Raman revealed new digital tools for Ex Machina to draw upon for future presentations of Shakespeare.
The residency culminated when Lepage was presented with the 2012 Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts by President Hockfield and Peter Wender, chair of the McDermott Selection Committee, at a gala held in his honor. This private event had a distinguished list of Honorary Hosts, which included Canadian diplomats and creative arts leaders from both Boston and Canada. Members of the Council for the Arts at MIT and the MIT Corporation were sponsors of the gala, which was attended by their guests, MIT faculty, and Mary McDermott Cook, the daughter of Margaret and Eugene McDermott, who traveled from Texas for the event.
The Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT was established in 1974 by the Council for the Arts at MIT to be bestowed upon individuals whose artistic trajectory and body of work indicate that they will achieve the highest distinction in their fields. The award, which recognizes Eugene McDermott, cofounder of Texas Instruments and longtime friend and benefactor of MIT, reflects MIT’s commitment to risk-taking, problem-solving, and the idea of connecting creative minds across disciplines. The Award is considered an investment in the recipient’s future creative work, rather than a prize for a particular project or lifetime of achievement. At $80,000, it is one of the most generous cultural prizes and includes a campus residency. Past recipients have included Gustavo Dudamel, I.M. Pei, Junot Diaz, Bill Viola, and Santiago Calatrava.
Robert Lepage responds to the Award:
“The survival of the art of theater depends on its capacity to reinvent itself by embracing new tools and new languages. In a way, innovators in both arts and sciences walk on parallel paths: they have to keep their minds constantly open to new possibilities as their imagination is the best instrument to expand the limits of their fields. I am thus deeply honored to be recognized by MIT, an institution committed to facing the challenges of our era and imagining a better future.”
Renowned as a director, filmmaker, playwright, and actor, Robert Lepage has created a diverse and expansive body of work that defies categorization. He and his creative team Ex Machina have made dazzlingly original contributions to theater, opera, film, stagecraft, circus performance, and public art. In his most recent work, Lepage transformed Wagner’s four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen with an adventurous and technically sophisticated set in a groundbreaking production for the Metropolitan Opera in New York—the most ambitious the Met has ever attempted. Lepage also has created two Cirque du Soleil productions and The Image Mill™, a spectacular architectural illumination and urban projection.