Bringing Andrew Schneider and Company to MIT
Albert Einstein once said of his teaching style, “I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” That quote essentially describes how OBIE award-winning performer, writer and interactive-electronics artist Andrew Schneider came to launch the inaugural season of the MIT Performing series, presented by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST), with the premiere of his work NERVOUS/SYSTEM.
The idea to bring Schneider to MIT originated with Josh Higgason, Technical Instructor, Music and Theater Arts, MIT. His goal was to find artists who were “making some of the most interesting work out in the world, and bring it right to our student’s doorsteps.” Schneider’s theater work met that high mark.
The initial plan was to bring Schneider and his collaborators to MIT to present a piece from their repertoire; the proposal later evolved, bringing Schneider to MIT as a CAST visiting artist to present a new work in W97, MIT’s new state of the art theater arts facility. The piece launched MIT Performing, the new prototyping and presenting series curated by Jay Scheib, professor of Theater at MIT, which aims to promote research based artistic practices and serve as a new platform for contemporary performance.
The modern black box theater saw the premiere of NERVOUS/SYSTEM on November 9th -11th. The piece is the final part of a triptych that builds on two previous works from Schneider: YOUARENOWHERE (which explored parallel universes) and AFTER (a theatrical examination of shared consciousness).
To augment his independent research, Schneider spoke with MIT faculty and staff across departments, including mechanical engineering, brain and cognitive research and philosophy. These discussions gave him a clearer understanding of space, time, and perception–ideas that would inform the structure and concepts in NERVOUS/SYSTEM.
Schneider returned for a two-week residency at Building W97 in July, 2018, working closely with his recurring collaborators. The group continued to finesse the theatrical design and technical logistics for NERVOUS/SYSTEM, using infrared video tracking, computer-controlled programming to stage complete blackouts as well as to devise blocking schemes that create seamless scene changes, which play a critical role in NERVOUS/SYSTEM.
Described as “synaptic theater” by one experimental theater devotee in the audience, NERVOUS/SYSTEM examines the way humans connect–or more often disconnect–through a series of seemingly random vignettes. Some scenes are literally seconds long before abruptly going black and quickly juxtaposing to an entirely different combination of performers in a new setting. These rapid scene changes often reflect the relentless bombardment of information that informs our technology-driven modern life.
Telling Stories in New Ways
While the technical effects are nothing short of astonishing, more striking is the ability of Schneider’s performers, who are called on to handle the constant movement of props and backstage logistics. In this way, NERVOUS/SYSTEM is more of an impressionist movement piece than it is theater, as the actors seamlessly execute complex scene changes while communicating emotionally complex storylines, often with few words. Their ability to focus gives the play its visceral power.
“With our theater, it may look very hyper-technical–and it is hyper-technical–but that is all in service of telling these stories in new ways,” says Schneider. “We’re trying to work on your brain, so instead of latching onto a narrative about this person who’s failing to achieve success in their life…we try to work on you in a different way.”
Recurrent scenarios thread throughout the piece, such as the frustration the main character encounters when trying to engage their therapist or friends in meaningful conversation, or their repeated attempts to survey busy people in the street, with varying degrees of success. These misfired connections run through the heart of NERVOUS/SYSTEM. “That’s what a lot of the work is about,” says Schneider. “The difficulty of communicating with other people in the world, and (how) that is leading to many of the problems that we have as human beings. And that’s what I think our work is trying to explore.”
Schneider says his experiences at MIT changed his concept of art, science and technology and the ways in which those disciplines intersect. While much of that shift in thinking came from his one-on-one conversations, it’s also something he sees as “just in the air” at MIT.
“Everyone feels it–the whole cast and crew. Being here feels like more of a research laboratory than being in a warehouse space in Brooklyn. So we’re thinking about things differently here.”
NERVOUS/SYSTEM is the initial offering of the inaugural season of MIT Performing, a prototyping and presenting series curated by Jay Scheib, professor of Music and Theater Arts, presented by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology, with support from the Council for the Arts at MIT. The series promotes a research based artistic practice and serves as a new platform for contemporary performance. NERVOUS/SYSTEM will be given its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December, 2018.