This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Spectrvm.
Jay Scheib just staged Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in Saarbrucken, Germany, put on a ballet in Hong Kong and brought home an Obie (off-Broadway’s highest honor) for a production in New York that lit up critics’ radar screens. So why, with a burgeoning international reputation and simultaneous projects writing, designing and directing, has Scheib decided to call MIT home?
“There was a time,” Scheib admits, “when I thought, ‘What? There’s a theater program at MIT?’” But today this associate professor and newly appointed director of the Theater Arts Department regards his move to Cambridge from Berlin nine years ago as “one of the great decisions of my life — the start of an incredibly fruitful relationship.”
Scheib, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow, vaulted onto the global stage in his early 20s, directing, designing, writing plays and adapting screenplays. Along the way, he picked up video and film production, and earned an MFA at Columbia University. Recently named Best New York Theater Director by Time Out New York, Scheib says he brings the “challenges of the field, and the experience of grappling with them” into his undergraduate studio classes. “Building on those kinds of journeys hand in hand with students, as a day-to-day artistic practice, has been enriching,” he says. The benefits flow both ways, since these students collaborate with Scheib, contributing ideas at the earliest stages and later becoming directly involved in productions.
The kinds of questions that fascinate Scheib, discussed in the classroom and made manifest in his productions, connect to work emerging from MIT’s science and engineering departments. He attends talks by MIT colleagues on such topics as robotics and advanced prostheses. “Their language makes its way into my thinking,” Scheib believes. “It’s important for me to take science and technology as central considerations in whatever I do, whether operas, plays or ballets.”
He finds the notion of human exploration of other worlds, whether in outer space or digital, particularly resonant. “Untitled Mars,” the first drama of a three-part trilogy, was sparked by a proposal from Joseph Gavin, Jr. — an MIT aero/astro graduate and a lead in U.S. lunar exploration — that astronauts should travel to Mars with the understanding that they would never return. “The idea for me was hugely shocking, but when I asked my class if they would go on a one-way mission, they all said yes,” Scheib says. “I totally get that adventurous spirit.”
Scheib is also “very engaged in finding ways to incorporate different technologies, whether video, or sensors or microphones, into live performance.” These are not intended as whiz-bang fillips to a production, but as strategies for “reflecting on the world we live in.” Scheib’s off-Broadway theater piece, “World of Wires,” was conceived at MIT, and tells the story of a scientist who is surprised to find himself living inside the computer simulation he is designing. To convey this complex duality, Scheib includes a live, uncut video view of the action (he mans the camera himself for the single 90-minute shot during performances). “I want to find ways to work with these tools such that they are deeply embedded in the action,” he says.
After a brief vacation at his childhood farm in Iowa — “I plan to drive around in a pickup truck” — Scheib will take on a packed agenda, which includes helping to reshape MIT’s theater arts curriculum. While undergraduates frequently choose theater as a “companion piece” to a course of study in architecture or physics, says Scheib, he hopes MIT “will emerge as a destination for students seeking to concentrate in performance and scenography.”
The ultimate multiplexer, Scheib will also be developing a production for the New York City Opera, and designing a Chekhov performance as a live, drive-in movie sited next door to the Pinwheel House, a winner of MIT’s $1K House initiative — an effort to bring supremely affordable and sustainable homes to the world’s poor. “I’m happy to be doing a lot all the time,” he says. Plus, there is a “pitch and energy to MIT that I find energizing.”