Friday, 3 August 2007

THEATRE FOR TECHIES

The engineers and scientists know more about theatre and arts than playwright Alan Brody. At least that has been Brody’s experience as the former Associate Provost of Arts and Professor of Theatre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) of the USA.

Initially, the theatre classes were made available to the tech students of MIT. Students who opted for the classes were not very serious. “Those who took up the course thought the paper would help them to get better grades. But once they were in the studio, they realised it was not the case. They took theatre seriously and loved to be part of the MIT theatre productions”, says Brody, who has been an accomplished, award-winning playwright and teacher for decades. “It is not easy to understand MIT students”, he says with a little mischief in his eyes as he remembered his early years at the MIT Theater Arts and Dance


The general perception about the MIT has been it is all about technology. It could be surprising to find MIT students taking up theatre. “But we believe, the engineering students must be well integrated with the larger world and must know about the existing art forms”, Brody informs about the MIT-policy in this regard. As the Professor of Theatre, Brody teaches playwriting, history of theatre and directs ‘Playwrights-in-Performance’ each spring. “We produce full-length plays which are much appreciated by all the faculties at the MIT”, he says. And these plays originate from varied settings. “We have students bringing in plays from Calcutta (India), Puerto Rico and other parts of the world. Our dance teacher is an African American. That makes the whole initiative truly multicultural”, Brody elaborates over a cup of coffee.

For the students and the faculty of the MIT Theater Arts and Dance, one of the high points was – each one knew others. “I knew each of my students by name, which was a rarity, considering the vastness of MIT”, says Brody. “There was a personal bonding between us and this helped us to carry forward the art form in a completely tech-oriented atmosphere”, Brody adds. This attachment still continues at the MIT Theater Arts and Dance even though the faculty has grown over the years.

While teaching playwriting at the MIT, Brody tries “to find plays which suits the talents of the students”. As part of the curriculum, there are workshops, extended One Acts; three to four plays are produced out of the course. “The students are made to understand the whole process of theatre and the demands of the stage”, he informs.

One of the things that MIT students at the Theater Arts and Dance do is playwriting from memory. “Students write from their own experiences as a child. You see.. a child’s perceptions are shaped a lot during the formative years of six to 11. That’s the goldmine period to write something about. I ask my students to recall their experiences about things, which probably they didn’t understand then…but looked at them through innocent eyes. The technique works wonders for the students and some of the best plays have come out of this process”, Brody shares trace of his celebrated teaching methods.

Talking about memories of childhood, the professor gives an insight into some of his works. In many of his plays like the Invention of Fathers and Sons (which won the annual Rosenthal Award at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in 1989) and Victory Blues, Brody dealt with generations of Jewish-Americans. “My grandfather died when I was one-year-old. My father died when he was 48 and I was 15. So, there are lot of things, which possibly I could not share with them. In Invention of Fathers and Sons, for example, two men - both 48-years-old - meet. They are father and son who retrace four generations of Jewish-American family life. The two men are my memory-characters though it’s rather a wacky premise, I’d say”, the playwright shares his view.

Referring to his workshops he says, “It’s very difficult to describe. You know Biswadip, you have to be at these workshops to understand what exactly goes on. What I also do is to make the students understand the relationship with their body. It’s not just dialogue. What I demand is full physical and vocal commitment”. Ideally, he says, the “exercises should make the students take attention off oneself and turn it to others. That gives greater freedom to the actors”.

As we look at the lush green settings around, Brody goes back to America of the 1960s. “It was turmoil all over. Younger people were angry about Vietnam. I was part of the protest too. Women were becoming more vocal and free. They were vibrant, adventurous and courageous. The structures of education system were also changing. As a result of these movements, things became lot more focussed in early 1970s. Students could have an inter-disciplinary approach to education they wanted. Even a rigid MIT had to open up and thus teaching theatre to engineering students came into being”, the revered professor traces the timeline. “Those who look down at ‘Feminist’ movement now, forget that because of such movements women have become freer”, Brody sounds little crossed.

Turning our attention to politics and theatre, America’s policy about Iraq dominated our conversation for a while. “I don’t attack any political policy directly in my plays. But there are references of whatever goes on and the plays are often set in the political context”, he explains, as students in the campus queue up for a dose of coffee. He glances at them and continues, “Politically, things have changed. Unlike the ‘Vietnam War,’ there is no ‘draft’ now. People are unhappy about Iraq but… students have become more conservative, there’s a constant fear in peoples’ mind and students are more interested in getting high-paying jobs”. Despite the slight anxiety in his voice, Brody hopes things would become better again.

We go for a flashback and Brody describes his younger days. Acting attracted Brody since his childhood. Coming from a Jewish-American family, he grew up amidst religious heritage. But gradually, Brody realised, theatre was taking over from the traditions. So, in later years he joined the School of Dramatic Arts at the Columbia University to pick up the skills. “I then joined theatre as a professional actor for four or five years. Got my Ph D in literature, some of my fictions got published. Then I left theatre for teaching literature at a Liberal Arts College. It was there I had an opportunity to rebuild the theatre department and realised – theatre was calling me again”, Brody sounds happy about the shifts in his career.

He then moved into playwriting around 1976. “Some of my plays got published and produced. I made a comeback and I was surprised that people in the theatre still remembered me and didn’t even notice that I had left”, Brody says with a smile. He moved to New York with his wife “to follow her career there”. As he remained busy with his stint as ‘Guest Artiste’ in the ‘Big Apple,’ MIT came up with the Theater Arts and Dance. Brody accepted the offer to be there at the prestigious institute.

Talking about the influences, the playwright recalls “a great teacher and actress Uta Hagen”. But the greater influence was an actress from German-occupied Poland as Brody specifically mentions Rita Karpinovicz (Rita Karin), a Jewish actress of the Yiddish Theatre in Poland. Her story of surviving the holocaust and then moving base to Munich and later on USA, had moved young Brody so much, that he wrote the play The Company of Angels. “Rita Karin was a remarkable woman and I could relate to her story being the child of émigré Jewish-American parents”, Brody says. In the process he learned Yiddish language, which helped him to understand the Jewish heritage a lot better. “For me telling the story meant – realising, there has to be joy in our lives despite problems and tribulations we face. Without joy, the devil wins. That shouldn’t happen”, says Brody who was happy to show Rita Karin the production of The Company of Angels just before her death. “I had always asked about the value of the works I do. I tried to find an answer through The Company of Angels”.

And as he plans to write a new play - based on the recorded conversations of German atomic scientists (imprisoned by the British and Americans, after the World War II), when the USA dropped the Atom bomb on Japan - Brody is hopeful about the values of modern science. “I am in constant dialogue with the scientists. MIT as well as my scientist friends have influenced me a lot”, he admits before another round of coffee.