Photos: Jonathan Sachs, MIT SHASS Communications
As an MIT freshman I was 100% sure that I would study math, but I mused about how funny it would be if I dropped all that for theater or some other drastic switch like that. Well, that didn't exactly happen, but over one and a half years I've discovered and developed an unexpected interest in acting.
This November, I acted in my first-ever play: Everybody, an existential dark comedy about finding somebody to die with you. This contemporary adaptation of the fifteenth-century morality play The Summoning of Everyman inaugurated MIT's new theater building (MIT News). Its underlying narrative appears in many cultures: a journey towards death, in which the protagonist learns that they cannot bring their possessions and people with them—except for one, which teaches them what is most important in life. I learned so much from my director Anna Kohler and my wonderful fellow actors!
Here is a (private) clip from my performance, followed by a reflection on the creative process as an actor.
Ever since I hit the jackpot by discovering my interest in acting through MIT's Intro to Acting class, I've practiced acting as a means of introspection, to help me learn more about myself. I absorbed some important acting paradigms and approaches from Anna Kohler in her Actor and the Text class, while appreciating her wit and her appetite for philosophy and breaking convention. I learned so much from those classes that I could go on learning without performing on stage, though I did enjoy acting in play readings organized by Anna. But Anna told me about Everybody and so I auditioned, knowing that the show would probably fit my personal taste too. I was right, and I can't believe my luck.
We actors got hammered into shape by Anna, who continually pushed us to increase our variety and intensity of expression, and experiment with completely different routes of delivery. It was quite inspiring to see this work of art take shape between us over eight weeks, the director and the actors, each of us adding, remixing and absorbing from the creative pool under the guidance of Anna's vision. I really respect her vision and her ability to give it form.
I'm grateful that this play challenged me harder than I could completely rise up to; I have a lot to work on next time! Reinventing myself and remaining present were most difficult. Anna kept reminding us to say every line as if for the first time, not as if we memorized it. (But without reinventing the lines themselves!) I easily fall into a "muscle memory" of well-practiced intonation and gestures, but tried every performance to break that pattern--to keep it fresh and exciting, even for me. Another personal challenge was to remain present: staying aware of my surroundings and my fellow actors even as I follow the emotions of my character. To take guidance from emotions without being completely absorbed!
Anna gave another piece of good advice which I'll have to continue working on in future shows: stay in the center, aware of my surroundings, and depart in various (emotional) directions as needed, but always keep the flexibility to return to the center and move in another direction.
This show has also been my first exposure to the different parts of theater production, from sound and light to costumes and props. I'm impressed by the monumental scale of such a project. We have so many amazing and dedicated production staff, whose roles are less visible, but our collaboration has been crucial to materializing and enhancing our common vision. And efficiently, at that!
Prof. Michael Artin once told one of my friends that he should learn math by going deep into one subfield and using it like a coat-stand, and "hang" all his other knowledge on it: that is, to learn other subfields through their connection with the first one. To extend that analogy, I hope that going deeper into math and theater gives me two coat-stands, one in the sciences and the other in the humanities, between which I can hang a clothesline to survey wide swaths of human knowledge and experience.