MIT Performing Shifts into High Gear

The season continues, presenting the work of three powerhouse talents.   

The inaugural season of MIT Performing—the new presenting platform for contemporary performance—returns for a swift-but-powerful mini-festival, which runs through February.

Jay Scheib, professor for Music and Theater Arts at MIT, curates the series, a collaboration with the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology and supported in part by the Council for the Arts at MIT. Scheib’s own theatrical work runs the gamut, from transgressive live-cinema experimentalism to the recent West End Meatloaf-inspired rock-opera Bat Out of Hell, so he brings an eclectically ranging taste to the proceedings. There is, though, one consistent curatorial goal: audacious innovation.

A Place for Theater Finds a New Home

When MIT launched its massive east campus development project several years ago, it generated an accidental but fortuitous outcome. On the east side of the campus, the program for Theater Arts had converted an unheated garage into a performance space that was then suddenly slated for demolition. “Hilariously,” says Scheib, “it was an understandable oversight that we quickly turned to an advantage.”

Necessity became the speedy midwife of invention, however, and with dedicated support from MIT, the department renovated two adjoining, derelict buildings on the far western fringe of the campus. These would become the state-of-the-art Building W97. “In a super barebones super functional way,” says Scheib, “we developed a performance space, performance studios, a shop—and poof! MIT has a modest but fiercely committed performing arts facility.”

If you build it, they will come, as they say—particularly when a theater community is hungry to experience the development of new and innovative works. “We wanted to find ways to expand our curricular mission by creating opportunities for our students to engage with an array of visionary performance makers,” says Scheib, “and that mission has evolved into festival-like presenting program which places lectures and conversations alongside process-based prototypes and iconoclastic productions.”

The series serves the MIT campus community, as well as the greater Boston and New England performance scenes. With plans for continued collaborations of both national and international significance, MIT Performing aspires to be an energizing addition to the scene—promising to bring MIT’s signature impulse for cross disciplinary collaboration to the continued development of new and exciting platforms for performance.

“It is in MIT’s blood and guts to bring a kind of wheels-up, innovation-forward daring to bear on profoundly challenging problems. For this, we are thrilled to offer a performance series that aspires to a similar kind of daring, and a similar grappling with civically scaled ideas. MIT Performing endeavours at W97 to play a valuable role in the social and intellectual life of its community.”

A Barn Burning Series of Performances

The series is, as Scheib says, among the first of its kind at MIT, though it builds on the university’s long tradition of supporting artists through collaborations and residencies—the Center for Advanced Visual Studies was “way out in front” in this regard in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, Scheib notes. He readily admits that a full-fledged theatrical festival adds a new level of complexity.

“We’re not exactly starting small,” Scheib said in an interview after a long flight back from London. “For our first time out, we have focused on solo artists with large ensemble vision.”

The MIT Performing series debuted in November 2018 with Andrew Schneider’s “synaptic” physical-theater work NERVOUS/SYSTEM.  The inaugural season moves into 2019 with three powerhouse women: the boundary-smashing acrobat-dancer-comedian Adrienne Truscott, the Irish actor and Beckett specialist Lisa Dwan and the multidisciplinary phenom Ayesha Jordan.

First up from February 7–9 is Truscott, whose barn burning piece THIS defies categorization: part memoir, a little bit cabaret, some stand-up, and, of course, all theater. THIS was also nominated for the New York community’s dance-focused Bessie Award—despite its having almost zero dance content.

That makes sense, though, as Truscott thinks like a choreographer (crafting a phrase, then embellishing it with variations). In THIS, she tells a series of hilarious stories (like living in a van without a flushing toilet) that all somehow fuse into her raspy-voiced manifesto on performing autobiography.

Scheib first saw THIS in 2018 and was blown away by it, and immediately wanted to bring it ready-made to the festival. In contrast, one of the other artists in the MIT Performing season will show a piece that is still in the earliest stages of development alongside another work which is a kind of lecture demonstration illuminating an already existing body of work.

On February 15, self-described “glamazon hip-hop icon” Ayesha Jordan will show a “really early step” of a new work titled Line by Line (made with DJ and designer Justin Hicks) that is slated to later be premiered at The Shed in New York in 2020.

“What I adore about Ayesha and her work is how good she is at engaging communities by exploding our assumptions around what it means to be on-stage,” says Scheib, “and so her project with Justin Hicks will be an event that evolves into an unpredictably, decidedly personal, bounce-infused dance party that will invite audiences from on campus and off to a not-soon-to-be-forgotten-night in the theater.”

Then on February 21, “Lisa Dwan gives us a lecture-demonstration on performing Beckett—and, in particular, performing Beckett alone,” says Scheib, referring to Dwan’s position as our greatest current interpreter of Beckett solos like Not I. In her piece, A Body of Beckett, Dwan reflects on Beckett’s complicated, sometimes tortured metaphysics and what she’s discovered in absorbing them into her psyche.

MIT Performing events take place in MIT Theater Building W97, 345 Vassar Street, Cambridge MA

Adrienne Truscott: THIS performances February 7-9, 2019 Reserve seats
Ayesha Jordan and Justin Hicks: Line by Line work-in-progress showing + dance party February 15, 2019 RSVP
Lisa Dwan: “A Body of Beckett” lecture demonstration February 21, 2019 Reserve seats

Posted on January 15, 2019 by Helen Shaw