Students were given exclusive access on Tuesday, April 24, to Robert Lepage, the recipient of the 2012 Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT, when he came to campus for a day that included two special events.
During the afternoon of April 24, Lepage participated in a student-only question and answer program. Students from across the Institute filled Killian Hall eager to learn from the distinguished artist and ask him about his creative process. In the evening, Lepage revisited the Performance Practicum that was launched in February with a small group of students to continue their collaboration. Students performed and discussed the progress of their work for Lepage and members of the Council for the Arts at MIT.
The afternoon’s Q&A event was a lively conversation between the renowned multidisciplinary performance and media artist Lepage and students from MIT. Moderated by Teresa Neff, lecturer from the Music and Theater Arts Section at MIT, the program included video excerpts from Lepage’s work on Wagner’s Ring cycle staged at the Metropolitan Opera.
Robert Lepage discussed his attraction to opera as the meeting of all art forms, from architecture to music, dance to visual art, theater to literature. In such a grand art form there is the opportunity to innovate on a great scale: the orchestra, sets, voices and choreography are all scaled up. This is particularly true for Lepage’s staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera house, the largest in the world and the site for his most ambitious project.
Students were especially interested to learn about the technical challenges of staging the Ring cycle. Lepage explained the technology behind the massive moving set required not only precisely calibrated technology, but also 24 stagehands to physically maneuver the 45-ton machine. His vision for creating the set drew upon his knowledge of Wagner’s opera, tectonic plates, visits to Iceland, and from his education in geology prior to working in theater. He went on to show the 3-D technology used to create stunning scenes that followed the movement of the set without the need for 3-D glasses.
One student asked how the singers were able to climb up the steep stage and later slide down so effortlessly. Lepage replied that he learned about special fabrics and techniques from his work with Cirque du Soleil and used specially designed shoes and wires that allow opera singers to move about the stage and execute choreography on the complex set.
Music students were also very curious about Lepage’s interpretation of Wagner. Lepage was enthusiastic in his reply “he [Wagner] would love it! ... I don’t know if he would have approved of everything, but he would have been excited.”
Following the Q&A, a reception was held outside Killian Hall where students conversed informally with Lepage and learned more about his projects with his production company Ex Machina while he signed posters and posed for photo-ops.
That evening, Lepage met with students who had attended a workshop in February that kicked off a semester of experimentation in performance. Lecturer Sara Brown provided an introduction to the program of vignettes and thanked MIT Music and Theater Arts, the Arts at MIT, and the Council for the Arts at MIT for ongoing support for the project.
The series of performances opened with a playing card hanging from the ceiling that was literally transformed into a speaker. The card narrated a story of first love while on summer vacation that was acted out with shadow play. The seven vignettes ranged from humorous to heartbreaking as themes such as grandparents, abandonment, and gambling were explored. The performances were sophisticated in their staging, with clever lighting effects, sound, two-way mirrors and sets. Students then engaged in a discussion with Mr. Lepage, who was particularly impressed by the development of characters that were present throughout the performances.
The students were a diverse group of both graduate and undergraduates, coming together from MIT, Emerson, and Harvard, including Alexandra Allwine, Noah Arbesfeld, Ben Bloomberg, Yarinda Bunnag, Gershon Dublon, Madelynne Hays, Devorah Kengmana, Bex Kwan, Elizabeth Mak, Stefan Martin and Edwina Portocarrero.
Sara Brown, director of design for Music and Theater Arts at MIT was the course instructor. Co-instructors for the course were Anna Kohler senior lecturer, Music and Theater Arts, and Alan Brody, professor of theater arts. Guest lecturers included Michael Ouellette - senior lecturer, Music and Theater Arts (retired); Graham Jones, assistant professor of anthropology and Shankar Raman, associate professor of literature. Additional collaboration was with ACT.
Robert Lepage is in residency at MIT from April 24-26. During his time at MIT, he will participate in two free public programs:
- The Science of Illusion: Panel Discussion, took place Wednesday, April 25, at the MIT Museum
- Technology in Stagecraft and Storytelling: Robert Lepage in dialogue with Peter Gelb, General Manager, Metropolitan Opera will take place today, Thursday, April 26, at 5 p.m. in MIT Kresge Auditorium
More information about the McDermott Award and Robert Lepage's residency at MIT is available at http://arts.mit.edu/mcdermott