Theater : Interview

Rocks and Gravel: Jay Scheib

by Alex Zafiris

Alex Zafiris talks to theater director, writer and media designer Jay Scheib about his recent play, World of Wires, which closes his trilogy, Simulated Cities/Simulated Systems.


Jay Scheib. Photo by Naomi White.

In Jay Scheib’s new play, World of Wires, a computer simulation mirrors the world as we know it, prompting the question: are we the actual world, or an immaculate reproduction of one? Adapted from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 television series, Welt am Draht—itself adapted from Daniel F. Galouye’s 1962 science-fiction novel, Simulacron-3—Scheib creates, with live performance, a virtual consciousness to investigate what is, and what might not be.

World of Wires is the third part of a trilogy, Simulated Cities/Simulated Systems. First was 2008’s Untitled Mars (This Title May Change), based on real-life space simulator pods inhabited by hopeful Mars visitors, together with the ideas of Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem and Kurd Lasewitz; then last year’s Bellona, Destroyer of Cities, an adaptation of Samuel R. Delany’s overwhelming science-fiction novel, Dhalgren. All three were developed during Scheib’s current residency as Professor for Music and Theater Arts at MIT, where, in contact with a world completely different from that of his own, his perception of realities, and ways in which to think about them, was stretched. The plays are captivating. Fear, delirium, humor, sex, love and hate are magnified, like dream states. Meaning and context shift, and truth runs amok. Conflict thrashes itself out within this battleground, pushing and shoving between balance and tension. Throughout all of it, humanity persists. Cameras are positioned on stage to project live video, bringing more perspective to the set and ultimately, towards the final argument. For this new production, Scheib will be on stage, as director, with a handheld camera, capturing the action, even giving direction.

Scheib himself is an embodiment of unusual connections. He credits his upbringing on a farm in Iowa to making him resourceful—fixing a broken down four wheel drive tractor on his own in the middle of a field, running the combine, using an auger to fill a grain bin—and finding beauty in a freshly plowed landscape. A professional high-jumper at an early age, he reached 6th place in the junior Olympics, only to switch to the arts once he arrived at the University of Minnesota. Choosing theater over painting and sculpture, he then went to complete an MFA at Columbia, attracting mentors such as Anne Bogart along the way. His enthusiasm for other forms, such as cinema, reappear through his work: 2005-8’s This Place is a Desert was inspired by six of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films. More traditional plays assume different identities, such as his adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness (2005), and Chekhov’s Platonov, which evolved to become In This Is The End of Sleeping (2004). As a director, he leads another career in Europe, staging national productions like Beethoven’s Fidelio and Brecht’s Puntila und Sein Knecht Matti in Germany. A new personal project, The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, a dance-theater piece with choreographer Yin Mei in Hong Kong is upcoming in March 2012, and then he’s off to Oslo to direct Heiner Müller’s FATZER with the Norwegian Theater Academy. World of Wires is at The Kitchen January 6th through the 21st.

AZ I want to ask you about movement and space. You can tell right away from the action that it’s dealing with an alternate reality. And physicality. You have very charismatic, sexy actors.

JS It’s true! People do comment on that a lot. We work really hard at being unselfconscious, and the more unselfconscious, the more attractive. And also, pushing the world into a place where these kinds of existence questions are really in the fore. That’s where a lot of conflict happens, so it makes good theater.

AZ It’s bare bones: you hear the treading of the boards, you see the sweat.

JS Space is one of the best narrators. How we handle space, especially negative space, is something that we talk about a lot. It is very central to how I think about theater, even more than text. Which might be why I like Antonioni’s work so much. It’s not always the words that carry the information. Sometimes it’s composition. I’m a writer, so I do like language, but finding a way to make space function, and have it play a role and have a character, is really important.

AZ There’s so much cinema in your work. And now, Fassbinder.

JS Now Fassbinder. Another filmmaker. There are a few reasons for it. One is: trying to get to reality. I started working on the issue of naturalism, a genre of theater that was a huge failure. The idea was that it should be a one-to-one representation of life. Like a scientific process: let’s examine a social situation under a microscope, rehearse it, then take away a fourth wall. Which meant that you would rehearse in a room with four walls. At the very end, you would decide which wall to take away. That would be the perspective through which an audience could view, say, a divorce—actually learn something about that suffering and pain. I started out trying to do that, and eventually decided that it was never real enough.

AZ Do you mean in your whole career, or for World of Wires?

JS Not in this production, but I consider World of Wires to be toward the end of a series of about twelve works. That’s why I’m on stage in this one. And I wanted to use the camera in terms of representing reality, to find a way to use it architecturally in the theater. To hijack the camera’s cultural capital. People complained for a while. They would say, “Oh, I feel so bad, because here’s this phenomenal actor onstage, live, but I really only want to watch the screen.” Or, “I don’t understand. The screen feels much more realistic to me than the stage.” I think we are ultimately a cinema culture. Germany is still a theater culture, but the US is really a cinema culture.

AZ I wonder how much of that has to do with the fact that with TV, there’s no chance of anyone looking back at you.

JS That could change!


World of Wires rehearsal. Photo by Leah Siegel.

AZ When you go to the theater there’s that tension. We’re all in the room together. It could break at any moment.

JS It’s funny, sometimes when we’re rehearsing—especially if we’re using a live camera onstage—I still always say, “Look at the audience,” but actually I mean the lens of the camera.

AZ For your last play, Bellona, Destroyer of Cities, you adapted Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren. Science fiction is obviously suited to your sensibilities.

JS This is part of a trilogy that is all about borrowing ideas and methodology from science, engineering and urban planning, and using them to put pressure on dramaturgy and theatrical form. The first one was called Untitled Mars (This Title May Change). It was based on something that I heard at MIT, where I’m a professor. Joseph Gavin, the director of the lunar lander for the Apollo mission to the moon, wrote this very famous letter that basically proposed a one-way mission to Mars. He criticized the moon landing as having been “a huge expense to bring back a couple of bags of rocks.” Essentially, he proposed we send a habitat to the martian surface, then supplies, then people. I was teaching a freshman arts seminar, and I asked them what they would be doing in fifteen years, if their dream came true. This girl said, “I’ll be the first woman on Mars.” I asked her if she would go one way. She said, “Yeah. Duh.” I asked everybody in the room, and all but one person agreed.

So that became a kernel for the first production of this trilogy. There’s a couple of research stations where they do false simulations of life on Mars. One is in the Canadian arctic, where the temperature is close, and they live there in full simulation, pretending with very real consequences. Well — with very fictional consequences. I contacted these guys, and asked if we could do a series of experiments where we would play out scenes from Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time Slip as a means of testing crazy social scenarios on the Mars surface. Like, what happens when two crew members have an affair? Because they simulate everything else: a hole in the wall, someone forgetting to close the door, taking soil samples, everything. You need a big experience bank. And I thought, how do you simulate having to take showers around each other, or attraction, or greed? And they said yes! So we started building this production.

AZ Is there a date for when these people in the simulators get to go?

JS That’s the sad part. It keeps changing. Obama took it off the table. We could have not done Iraq and built a hotel on Mars for roughly the same price. I asked a private space agency, SpaceX, which was created by the guy who founded PayPal. Elon Musk. I asked somebody from their office what would it cost me to take a crew and talent, to Mars, film this piece, and then bring everybody back. I asked him about the one-way issue. He said, “You know, I wouldn’t go two ways.” His thing was different. It wasn’t about being Columbus. It was, “If you manage to land on Mars, then imagine the difficulty of landing on Earth. We have a lot of infrastructure here.”

AZ That’s the technical way to look at it.

JS Exactly. That’s an engineer thinking very well. Your chances of success dramatically shift. But he put the cost at about 16 billion dollars. Tag 20 percent on as rates of inflation. He said, “If you pulled the trigger today, and you front that cash now, 16-17 billion will get you there and back. With a studio.” 16 billion? I could recoup that in Pay Per View! I’d get OJ Simpson on board, or some very famous person who’s twirling their thumbs. But that’s MIT. It’s been a place which really made me think that there’s another world, and it’s in this one. I didn’t do that much science fiction before then. I read it, but I didn’t realize that some of our most prominent practitioners of artificial intelligence are reading it, taking ideas and making them reality.

AZ When I came to the World of Wires rehearsal, I was surprised to see that you are on stage with your actors, while directing them. In this production, you’re going to stay there.

JS Well — who knows. I may freak out and fire myself in the last rehearsals, which I have done before. But I’m going to make a concerted effort to stay. It’s a very challenging thing. How we see is wildly important to me. You’re so close to this thing that you can’t see the frame. You only see the details. It’s a bit nerve-wracking. One of the actors, Mikéah [Ernest Jennings] said in a post-show conversation, “It’s an insane feeling because Jay is so close, and then he just gets farther and farther away.” Which is kind of funny. But in this case, I’m going to stay very close.

AZ Have you always worked like this?

JS Yes. It’s really important for me to get to know the people I’m working with. I make it possible to be at speaking distance. I talk a lot about postponing the leap to performing, when the wall gets cut away and you’re aware of the audience. I want real behavior, and real reactions and life as we understand it, to be solidly in everyone’s bodies. It helps me notice if one of the performers is flexing or pushing toward an audience.

AZ I think that happened when I was there on Saturday.

JS Because you were new in the room. That’s the amazing thing. It’s like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle business: as soon as you start looking at something, you change it.

AZ I also noticed that your actors really love your notes. Then it suddenly all comes together, and is so compelling.

JS In the best situation, everyone is hunting this thing. No idea belongs to anybody. An actor can understand what they’re doing from any of the improvisations that we began with, or this, or that or whatever. They just take what they need.

AZ Can you tell me more about this transition to actually being in the play?

JS Fassbinder was in a lot of his films. He was a playwright and a director. I don’t know if he was in his plays. He had a theater company called the Anti-Theater. He got into some trouble, but he was a really interesting artist. We wanted to get a sense of his vast productivity. We spent the first two weeks shooting 90% of a feature, with a lot of improvised text, vaguely based on the plot line of one of his early works. Our goal is to make roughly four feature films this year, and a couple of plays, which would get us on track with his schedule. If I do a play in January, a ballet in March, another play in Oslo in May, and four features before August, we’ll pretty much be in Fassbinder’s league. Something he did in his films that almost nobody has done was use the same actors again and again. His theater company was really a film studio. I should go intern at one of these big Hollywood film studios just to understand how it works. How many actors are there? What does their ensemble look like? These studios were all built by theater people from Eastern Europe. It would be interesting to get a sense for that, because we don’t have a true repertory theater in the US anymore. That’s a bit of a dream of mine. To have an ensemble with ten or eleven productions in repertory, and actually play a role in the cultural life of the community. And film makes sense as part of that. In a way this is all launching that idea.

AZ Is it a coincidence that his World of Wires was just issued on DVD?

JS I proposed this whole trilogy in 2007. I was in Berlin, and I called his estate and they lent me a VHS recording from the television. It still had the TV logo in the corner. The film is based on a novel by Daniel Galouye, Simulacron-3, which also was just reprinted in June, and before that it had been out of print for years.

AZ I think science fiction is popular again because of the depression. Maybe because people can’t see the future anymore?

JS Well, this play is about a computer simulation set up to simulate the future. The play itself attempts to simulate what might actually be the future. But I don’t think about the future that much, because I feel too in the trenches, but maybe that’s exactly what you’re describing. There’s a sort of leveling that’s going on, culturally. A really conservative attitude. People are afraid. It’s hard to see far away, to take risks. A lot of what Marx had to say has come true. People are stammering through the issue of capitalism folding in on itself. It would be very interesting for somebody to show up with a great paradigm shift. I don’t know who that is. I’m not hearing much about it.


Puntila und Sein Knecht Matti by Bertholt Brecht, directed by Jay Scheib. Photo courtesy of Theater Augsburg.

AZ I feel that a lot about your style revolves around balance. You direct a lot of traditional plays in Europe, on a much larger scale.

JS They do inform each other, though there’s not that much difference between how I’m working. In some regional, repertory, and state theaters, the performers are making six productions a year. Like when I did Fidelio: it’s the German national opera. The guy who played Florestan, this was the 17th production he’s done of this opera. He’s done it once or twice a year for fifteen years. He just asks, “Where do I stand?” He’s not cynical, he’s an artist and he’s engaged, but he’s done so many of them, and seen so many possible solutions. German theater actors have done all the standard plays, everything by Brecht, Shakespeare, and Chekhov. Twice. You’re always in the footsteps of some other famous director who has had a particular take on it.

AZ That seems claustrophobic.

JS It is. The good artists are the ones who take that, and make their next experience deeper. So then, your job is a little bit different. You help people in that process of breaking through different barriers. We have those barriers too, but they’re different. In the American theater, we don’t do repertory, so an actor is in one theater for six weeks, then they’re unemployed, then they’re in another theater for five weeks, then they’re doing a commercial, a TV show. They have a really disjointed experience. The hard part is that you don’t meet actors who are playing King Lear on Thursday, and Tusenbach in a Chekhov play on Wednesday. They don’t have that massive range. Which I like, and learn a lot from. They say to me, “You want me to hang from the chandelier and do this speech? OK.” They have the tools to do it, and they don’t have a preciousness about them. It’s not the only time they’ll ever get to do this production. There’s no pressure. The Germans are always like, “Let’s try.” That’s the German word for rehearsal. Probe. To test. In French it’s to repeat. Répétition.

AZ In English it comes from ‘to hear or listen to again.’ Re-hear.

JS Then I guess it’s a reader’s theater in the end. That makes action really scary.

For more information on Jay Scheib and his work, visit jayscheib.com. To purchase tickets for World of Wires, visit the Kitchen.

Alex Zafiris is a writer based in New York. Her bi-monthly column for BOMBlog, Rocks and Gravel, looks at creative relationships. For more information, visit www.alexzafiris.com.

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