Live theater meets peak cinematic modernism in a new work inspired by a Bergman movie

Reserve your ticket to The Silence, part of the MIT Performing Series

The Silence
Work-in-Progress Performance
Directed by Jay Scheib
December 12-14, 2019 / 7:30pm
Free for students, $5 general admission
MIT Theater Building W97, 345 Vassar Street, Cambridge, MA

Jay Scheib revisits Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 masterpiece The Silence as part of MIT Performing

Since his death in 2007, Ingmar Bergman, the famed director of about 60 films, has regularly been in the news—the theater news, that is. Indeed, such diverse theatermakers as Ivo van Hove (Scenes from a Marriage, Cries and Whispers), Robert Woodruff (Autumn Sonata) and David Leveaux (Through a Glass Darkly) have directed stage works based on Bergman movies. 

Add to the list Professor for Music and Theater Arts Jay Scheib, whose workshop production inspired by the 1963 film The Silence will be performed on Dec. 12-14 as part of the prototyping and presenting series MIT Performing, which is presented by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology and supported in part by the Council for the Arts at MIT. 

This is actually Scheib’s second encounter with the Swedish director: In 2015, he wrote the libretto for and directed an opera based on the iconic 1966 feature Persona, with a score by Music Composition Professor Keeril Makan. “I thought, ‘How interesting would it be to have an opera in which one of the main roles is silent?’ ” Scheib says with a laugh, referring to Liv Ullmann’s Elisabet, an actress who has stopped speaking.

The Silence has similarities with Persona, with relatively little dialogue and two women taking center stage. Here, they are two antagonistic sisters (accompanied by the young child of one of them) who interrupt a train journey to spend a few days in a foreign city’s hotel. The trio doesn’t understand the country’s language (which was made up by Bergman), and around them tanks ominously roll by, portents of impending war. Alienation, incommunicability, the opposition between carnality and intellect are some of the themes Bergman tackled in a frank, often brutal way, and in a visually sumptuous black and white. Due to the controversy fueled by the sensuality and explicitness of some of the scenes, this was the filmmaker’s biggest box-office hit up until then — much to his surprise and chagrin.

As its title suggests, The Silence is quite a departure from Scheib’s previous project, the Jim Steinman rock musical Bat Out of Hell. “I’m coming off several years of making this massive spectacle where our motto was ‘Everything louder than everything else,’ ” Scheib says. “So I felt a strong desire to re-engage in the smallest possible emotions, the smallest expressions of emotions. Bergman seemed like the right place to return. I resaw The Silence three years ago and it’s been on my mind for a while.” Among the collaborators he is bringing along are Lacey Dorn, who played Elisabet in Persona, and Ayesha Jordan, who developed a prototype of her performance piece Line by Line as part of MIT Performing back in February.

Scheib discovered Bergman as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. “There was a back-to-back screening of films by Sergei Parajanov and Andrei Tarkovsky,” he recalls, mentioning a pair of influential Soviet directors. “Parajanov, with all his dream imagery, was an insane discovery for me at the time, and I learned Tarkovsky was a massive Bergman fan. I thought, ‘Well, if Tarkovsky likes him, I need to check him out.’ ” 

Scheib’s stage version of The Silence, for which he received an MIT CAST Mellon Faculty Grant, actually allows him to nod in Tarkovsky’s direction, because he sees parallels and connections with his 1986 drama The Sacrifice, which takes place in a world threatened by nuclear armageddon. “It dawned on me the last time I watched The Silence that Tarkovsky had adapted it when he made The Sacrifice,” Scheib says. “I don’t know if that’s actually true, but everything I read these days with regard to the climate and ecological catastrophes makes me think of these two works. What would it look like to put two people in a hotel room in a coastal New England town with the water rising and fires burning and mega-migration under way? How would it feel? What sacrifice might be necessary to make things right?”

Another, less obvious influence that might come into play is Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie, from 1969, in which the actors Louis Waldon and Viva meet up in an apartment, chat, have sex — all detailed with documentary-like matter-of-factness. “The thing I found surprising about Blue Movie is that it has a level of improvised detail, lightness and nuance that is also achieved by the super-controlled, precise work of Bergman,” Scheib says. “Bergman is creating a whole life, he improvises, he intuits but he also has this massive intellect at his disposal. Warhol does as well but the whole operation is different, he just lets the camera roll on life itself. Somewhere in between these two ideas, I think I’ll develop a theatrical approach.”

In The Silence, the child roams the hotel — some of the shots inspired Stanley Kubrick in The Shining — and Gunnel Lindblom’s Anna sets out on explorations of her own, while Ingrid Thulin’s sickly Ester is stuck in her room. The combination of live action and video that characterizes much of Scheib’s work — Persona, for instance, had “a big filmic apparatus, with a big crane centerstage, video mix stage left, two camera operators moving all the time in a small, confined room” — should allow him to suggest these parallel narratives. “In a film, we cut from one room to another but on stage, the thing that’s happening in that other room is still happening, it’s still moving forward in time,” Scheib explains. “I think we can experience all of those realities roughly at the same time — I need to find a way, of course, to shape the experience — but the simultaneity feels like life, like life-like.”

The show slides in naturally with the rest of the MIT Performing season. “In the early phase we were talking about works that would address community in unusual ways,” says Scheib, who curated the series. “The Silence is an outlier but it fits, in so far as it has to do with thinking about colossal failure in collective human endeavor. The work of McKersin and The Block, his Afro-diasporic musical, address community in a head-on, embattled way. Lisa Dwan is thinking about Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea in which the past shows up to disrupt the idyllic. Choreographer Constanza Macras is speaking to the necessity of collaborating with closed communities as a way to tie relationships out into the world. I guess The Silence runs a little bit the opposite: two women in retreat hole up in this little hotel on the coast and hide from the world, and each other.”


Written by Elisabeth Vincentelli

Posted on December 9, 2019 by Arts at MIT