Even as a student, Jay R. Scheib, associate professor of music and theater arts, wasn’t afraid to take chances.
In the early ‘90s, while an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, he made his directing debut with a piece that called for his cast to enter a stage littered with trash and a huge mound of earth, stop, and remain quiet and still for 72 minutes. “The Device Machine,” presented at a theater festival in Hungary, garnered no applause.
“The place was roaring with laughter for the first 12 minutes,” Scheib recounts one recent morning in the Stata Center cafe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Then there was heckling.”
In comparison, Scheib’s latest piece, “This Place Is a Desert,” which runs at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art Thursday, March 22 through Sunday, March 25 could be considered a crowd pleaser. Inspired by the films of Michelangelo Antonioni (“Blowup, ”L’Avventura“), it presents a tale of relationships gone bad, framed by Scheib’s twisted, pop-culture savvy sense of humor. Six hand-held video cameras track the actors from different angles through a set shaped like a house, projecting their images on four panels above. There’s also break-dancing, dodge ball, nuclear disaster, and a romantic scene done partially in Italian.
For Scheib, who believes in using cinematic tools to make theater more powerful, “This Place Is a Desert” is nothing revolutionary. It’s just the latest of his hybrid creations. For the ICA, the production is something else: a tough sell.
“This is probably the riskiest thing I’m doing this spring,” says David Henry, the ICA’s director of programs. That’s because it’s so hard to categorize. “It’s not a dance, but it’s as physical as a lot of dance I’ve seen. It’s not a film or video, but you spend a lot of time watching a screen. It’s not theater, but there’s a set and actors down there.”
The script was developed largely out of a series of rehearsals and workshops that culminated two years ago in a short version performed at the Prelude Festival in New York.
The main characters — four couples in various states of dysfunction — “are essentially demolishing each other,” says Scheib. “In dealing with their loneliness, some of them embrace the impulse to make things worse.”
Though Scheib’s work is emotionally charged, the curly-haired director, 37, is soft-spoken in person. He’s tall, about 6 foot 4, and 190 pounds, only a bit heavier than he was in high school, where he was a standout high jumper.
There’s nothing new about using video in theater. But Leah Gelpe, the New York artist who handles the video in this production, describes Scheib’s approach to the medium as unique.
Gelpe, who recently worked on the American Repertory Theatre’s production of “Britannicus,” says that Scheib doesn’t merely use video as a complement to his plays, he makes it a central focus of the work. The cameras are brought in as early as the first rehearsal. “This is the only way to develop the media hand in hand with the performance,” says Gelpe.
Scheib says his use of video is an important link to his research at MIT, which focuses on integrating media with live performance. People throughout the world are familiar with movie techniques, he notes.
“They’re used to jump cuts, and seeing a story told through cinematic techniques,” says Scheib. “Whereas a lot of people are just bored at the theater.”
The VCR revolution
Scheib’s attachment to film began in Iowa. His father ran a farm. His mother worked as a warden at the state prison. The family TV got only three channels, and the town’s lone movie house showed second-run mainstream films. Then videocassettes arrived, and the teenage Scheib found himself mesmerized by Pasolini and Godard, John Hughes and Clint Eastwood.
Driving a tractor all day long developed his visual sensibility, Scheib says, his sense of scale and the landscape. He also noticed changes as the farm economy of the 1980s began to collapse. Barns went unpainted. Families moved away. That sense of desolation stuck with him and runs through his work.
At the University of Minnesota, where he would earn his undergraduate degree in theater arts, a professor exposed Scheib to the work of the Polish theater director Tadeusz Kantor. Scheib began to stage productions, first in the basement of a school gymnasium, then in the abandoned rehearsal space of the Minnesota Opera, and later on the stages of international festivals.
In 1997, Scheib entered Columbia University’s graduate program in theater directing, where he would study under Robert Woodruff and Anne Bogart.
“When he applied, I looked at his material and said, ‘This guy’s already a rock star,”’ remembers Bogart. “He’s clearly got a major career. His three years at Columbia, he basically used Columbia to do his projects.”
In New York, Scheib also met Gelpe and developed a rapport with some of the actors who will come to the ICA for “This Place Is a Desert.” April Sweeney, who is in the show, says that working with Scheib is liberating. He creates a script but leaves in opportunities — the dodge ball game in “Desert,” for example — to allow a moment to shift and turn differently each night. Most importantly, she says, he doesn’t abide by the rigid rules that she feels govern much of regional theater.
“You go to work in regional theater, and you only have a certain amount of time to make a play, actors aren’t supposed to talk that much, and there’s sort of this acceptable way of rehearsing and working,” says Sweeney. “It’s about doing a job as opposed to doing a piece of theater.”
“Desert” opens with a cameraman who has two names (Haskell Wexler, after the real-life cinematographer, and Glen Chick, after the real-life operator of the Three Mile Island control room) shooting away. Cut to a woman crying, a man working out, and another woman reading a Raymond Carver book with her cancer-stricken friend, named William Faulkner, in the room. Another character, called Richard Harris, is the son of the man who designed the reactor at Chernobyl.
What does it all mean?
Scheib describes the play as an examination of human loves and emotions in the face of industrial developments. He draws on Antonioni, he says, because the director explored those themes. But the play also incorporates testimonies from the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters.
“I think anyone who expects a staging of one of Antonioni’s films will be disappointed,” says Scheib. “Maybe outraged.”
As for the colorful names, some are purely comic asides, while others have deeper meanings. Harris, the late actor, performed in Antonioni’s 1964 film “The Red Desert.” Faulkner created an entirely fake universe — Yoknapatawpha County — to heighten the reality of his novels, a concept that intrigues Scheib.
As in all his productions, the idea is to get as close as possible to his characters, whoever they are. He doesn’t want them to speak with put-on accents or to hide anything, physically or emotionally. And video technology helps make that kind of intimacy possible.
“I’m working from the same position as a typical director,” says Scheib. “It’s just that I’m using some of the tools in our hands. I can be close to the action, I can see around corners, and I can present a stage design that turns the rules of stage design on its head.
“We’re trying to get as close to reality as possible,” he says. “In a way, my interest in theater is the same as it was in the 1880s. … Using fiction to confront reality and using reality to confront fiction. That’s my slogan, if I had one right now.”