Experiencing and learning about theater at MIT

Despite their strong penchant for science and engineering, many students come to MIT with extensive previous experience in theater and film. And, while it seems that a school like MIT might be the last place on Earth to find interesting theater classes, the Institute offers various and eclectic courses for students who want to continue exploring their interests in this field, and for students who had no prior exposure to theater and film.

Besides pursuing a major in 21M, students are also able to minor and/or concentrate in Theater Arts. Theater Arts classes are divided into three groups: Introductory Subjects, Intermediate Subjects, and Advanced Topics and Practica. Some of the intermediate-level subjects and most of the advanced-level ones usually appeal only to students who wish to study this field in more detail throughout their experience at MIT, but almost all of introductory classes and many of the intermediate-level ones get packed with students from various academic backgrounds and with different goals.

21M.600, better known as “Intro to Acting,” is the most popular Theater Arts class among the general MIT student population. A 9-unit HASS-A and HASS-E class, 21M.600 is offered fall and spring term, and it is usually taught by several MIT lecturers and professors.

“In Intro to Acting, students acquire and sharpen the necessary skills: concentration, imagination, courage, listening, emotional susceptibility, awareness, keen observation, flexibility, readiness of the body, and voice to respond to impulse,” says Professor Janet Sonenberg. “To act well, one must play and one must be serious, until the seriousness and the play become one and the same thing. By the end of the semester students will be braver and more aware in many ways, all requisite qualities for the art — and useful in life.”

Kristen D. Wilhite ’14 (Course 20) describes 21M.600 as “wonderful because it does not assume that you have any prior experience with acting, which was great because I had never acted a day in my life before taking this course”. And, from Wilhite’s experience, the acquired skills were notably visible after taking the class — “It gave me many opportunities to explore my ability through different tasks and games that, on the surface, did not seem to relate to acting at all, yet were key in getting more comfortable with showing emotion and building range with my acting”.

“21M.600 did not just teach me acting,” said Dimitrios Pagonakis ’15 (Course 1), “but it also helped me learn more about myself, my personality, the ‘masks’ I subconsciously put on several situations and I learnt how to manipulate these personality masks and also be able to even add more.”

Other introductory courses take a more specialized flavor in terms of acting. 21M.624, “Acting with the Camera,” addresses the a different notation of acting. “If you are like me and have always secretly known that you belong in Hollywood,” jokes Colette P. Abah ’15 (course 2), “21M.624 is the perfect class for you. You do breathing and relaxation exercises, you watch movies, and you act, make, and feature in mini-movies throughout the semester. It was just a really nice — and sometimes well-needed — escape from all the science and engineering.”

Similarly, other specialized Theater Arts classes, like 21M.790 (Directing), allow students to directly explore additional techniques that are of great importance in the world of film and theater. According to Victor Y, Valov ’15 (course 18) taking 21M.790 was one of the best decisions he made at MIT: “I got to experience a lot of the work of a real arts person and just being around our instructor, Jay Scheib, and observing his methods of teaching directing was an incredible experience, very different from everything else at MIT. I am very happy that we also got to direct many different pieces and even act our selves in some of them. It was tons of fun and I made great friends among the other students in the class.”

For those who are interested in learning more about the process of creating a theatrical piece, classes like 21M.604J (Playwriting I) and 21M.785J (Playwright’s Workshop) expose the students to the skills needed to create and write scripts. Laura Harrington, the 21M.604J instructor, says that the primary goal of the class is “to encourage students to write quickly, fluidly, and fearlessly. Our emphasis is on experimentation and process. This class is demanding — it’s MIT after all — but it’s also fun. The workshop format is very ‘hands on’ and the small class size enables you to get to know your fellow students very well.” And, as for the class prerequisites, Harrington says, “Bring a spirit of adventure and a desire to play”.

Some classes, like 21M.606, “Introduction to Stagecraft,” tackle the hands-on side of the theater. “I thought it was fantastic that there was a class dedicated to exposing us to so many different aspects of the behind-the-scenes work of theatrical performance,” says Alecia M. Maragh ’15 (course 20). “I ended up learning a lot while doing lots of cool things — I made myself a pair of pants, built myself a bookcase, and learned how to look 50 years old, to name a few. This was a really fun class — it never felt like I was doing work.”

Many students agree that Theater Arts classes often cultivate a relaxed, approachable and friendly atmosphere. “Theater classes at MIT have really kept me sane during my science-heavy Course 9 and pre-med curriculum,” says Kira S. Kopacz ’15. “My favorite class thus far has been ‘The Actor and the Text’ [21M.705] with Professor Alan Brody. Having an enrollment of just 20 students, it’s been the only class at MIT that I’ve gotten to know my peers on a personal level while enjoying the relaxing atmosphere of the theater curriculum.”

*21M.790 will not be offered this spring.