The Opening Response: Jay Scheib
The Opening Response titles a special series of interviews with artists, curators, writers, composers, mediators, and space-makers around the world. Dialoguing within and around the thematics which have rapidly emerged as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, we offer within this frame a differentiated, honest, and beautiful bid at understanding. Weekly, distinct doors are opened into the lives of the contributors; into their experiences dawning on pleasure, productivity, metaphysics, and paradigmatic shifts. Hopefully, these conversations can act as way-posts and lead to furthered empathy, unison, and co-creation. The Opening Response meets the need for weaving the autonomy of a web of conscious communications in times of extreme perplexity.
Jay Scheib (Director, Designer, Xr Operator) is internationally known for genre-defying works of daring physicality and the integration of new (and used) technologies in live performance. His recent works include Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell at New York City Center and in London’s West End at the Coliseum and the Dominion. Scheib also recently created the world premiere staging of Na’ama Zisser’s opera Mamzer/Bastard with the Royal Opera House at the Hackney Empire Theater in London. Other operas included a new opera collaboration with Keeril Makan based on Ingmar Bergman’s iconic film Persona, which was produced by Beth Morrison Projects and premiered at National Sawdust in New York followed by performances at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston, and with Los Angeles Opera at RedCat in LA. Other auteur staging’s from Scheib include the acclaimed production of Heiner Goebbels’ Surrogate Cities interwoven with Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung which played to rave reviews at the Opernhaus Wuppertal in Germany and with New York City Opera the Thomas Adès’ opera Powder her Face at BAM in Brooklyn. Named “Best New York Theatre Director” by Time Out New York in 2009, and “one of the 25 theatre artists shaping the next 25 years of American theatre” by American Theatre Magazine, Scheib is a recipient of the MIT Edgerton Award, The Richard Sherwood Award, a National Endowment for the Arts/TCG fellowship for Directors, the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and an OBIE Award for Best Direction following his staged Fassbinder-adaptation World of Wires. Scheib is currently a Professor for Theatre Arts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he curates the MIT Performing Series in collaboration with the Center for Art Science and Technology.
Josseline Black – In this phase of forced isolation, how are you articulating your response in a public discourse? What is your role in this larger conversation?
Jay Scheib – I find myself staring into a crisis of imagination. We have so much to invent and, in a hurry, and so I split my time advocating for politics to be set aside or to be eclipsed altogether and for the disciplinary silos that bind us to be eroded in favor of collaboration. Collaboration without borders. So, my role I guess is to prod the process toward a world in which collaboration succeeds without regard for litigation — or the struggle for power, wealth, trade advantage, intellectual property, etc. It’s a good moment to advocate for imagination at scale and if ever there was an interdisciplinary moment — this is it — Artaud’s dream as blasted from a cannon. The mundane, the radical, the super-scale, the super-local and the super-global are all equals in this particular cauldron. Change is on everyone’s lips. Kissing strangers however remains definitively forbidden.
JB – Has your artistic practice changed through isolation?
JS – Seems it will change. It is still unclear as to whether or not the theater, the opera—and other large public assembly art forms will survive! Without question it’s going to be a hot minute before the dust settles. I am still reeling a bit. We were two weeks shy of the first stop of a two-year world tour of Bat Out of Hell. It was slated to begin in Atlantic City, NJ on 27 March 2020. Technical production was under way in New York and rehearsals were nearing completion in London. Two days before the cast and creative team were to fly to New York to begin stage orchestra rehearsals the call was made to postpone. And so that little dystopian live cinema musical about motorcycle-riding rebels belting their tits off came very suddenly to an end. The confetti canons, the video walls, the cameras, costumes, motorcycles all suddenly on ice. But more importantly, and this is the thing, some eighty artists are suddenly without work and many of them without a place to live. Shelter in what place? So anyway, Bat Out of Hell was meant to be playing arenas in Australia, New Zealand, and ultimately every city in the UK followed by dates in Korea, Las Vegas and further dates in the United States. It’s pretty surreal.
Ironically my next major project has a massive XR aspect, so I have place to submerge myself for the foreseeable future? And so at least for now the research phase for Parsifal is fortunately not vastly disrupted — I’m hacking away at a laser scan of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and working through grail mythology from deep inside a head-set.
JB – How has your practical capacity to produce work been affected by the pandemic?
JS – Practically speaking, I guess that the greatest distraction at the moment is having so few distractions. Maybe that’s a bit glib. I used to force myself to pass a café and read the paper to clear my head/reset. It was a welcome respite. Now it’s the opposite. So, I’ve been submerging myself in opera and by equal measures, Science Fiction and doing my best to ignore the various covid-19 scoreboards.
JB – What is your approach to collaboration at the moment?
JS – Utterly network-based at the moment, but my approach is going to shift as I look for a stronger connections to the super local. Currently, like many of us, I contribute to mostly global ecologies and it’s time to maybe begin to consider this as a fault. As we have witnessed in the spread of sickness, people certainly do know how to fucking travel and travel — and hey me too. I haven’t been at home this long in years.
JB – How would you define the present moment, metaphysically/literally/symbolically?
JS – Well it is the moment that is defining us.
JB – Do you see the potential for renewed support for cultural production in spite of macro and micro economies which are currently rapidly restructuring?
JS – Yes. But I’m reminded of the great East German poet and dramatist, Heiner Müller who said “I am Neither a Dope — Nor a Hope — Dealer.” I aspire to be both. It’s good moment to be radically optimistic. Did I happen to mention that the Vice President of the United States just told the American people to spend more time on their knees and less time on the internet!? I think he meant praying, but he might have actually meant sucking cock or licking pussy as a way of coming together as a population. Imagine everyone coming together. The jury is out — logic defies interpretation in the time of the plague the great Camus conceded. Me, I’m optimistic, but also mindful of the indelicate fact that there are still morons out there who would see the drafting of legislation around “essential services” as a brilliant opportunity to shaft Planned Parenthood. I wonder how they could manage to remember to shaft Planned Parenthood while also hoarding toilet paper? Suspending my disbelief for a moment I suspect that some of these types will also have an opportunity to reduce our cultural institutions truly to rubble. When they rise again, my hope is that enough artists will be at the table. For that I am advocating very hard.
JB – E.M Cioran writes: “in major perplexities, try to live as history were done with and to react like a monster riddled by serenity”, how do you respond to this proposal?
JS – Days like these I find myself mostly looking for my favorite clown nose while hoping to stumble across something that also happens to be true. “You look ridiculous if you dance. You look ridiculous if you don’t dance. So, you might as well dance,” replied Gertrude Stein in Three Lives. My actual response to Cioran’s proposal was to disappear for most of a day reading his horrible, horrible, horribly beautiful aphorisms. There is solace in the serenity of monsters.
JB – How is this time influencing your perception of alterity in general?
JS – I remember working in Hong Kong after SARS. Small neighborhood restaurants would serve the utensils with a bowl alongside a pot of boiling water so that customers could sterilize the objects themselves—alterity was already embedded in the modest understanding that the unclean was already a priori. While this tradition preceded SARS, I was told practice gained extra traction afterwards. A cough on a bus signified the unthinkable. I think back on that time. Alterity, today, in the age of the asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic is something not completely different. As a result I guess I understand the experience of my collaborators in HK so much more deeply now than before. On the street, in the market, everywhere, everyone becomes, a priori, an outsider, sinister, suspect, questionably unclean, unquestionably maybe possibly a real viral shedding body moving through space.
JB – How is your utilization of technology and virtuality evolving the paradigm within which you produce work?
JS – For a while now, it seemed the underside of my entire body of work has been tuned to embrace the conflict between reality and fiction — and post 9/11 it seemed always to be increasingly necessary for this confrontation to be made to matter. Confronting reality with fiction, and fiction with reality has been an organizing principle for me. All of the old orders had to fall—after all, any recognizable metric for truth had long failed in the power swamp of relativity. The integration of new and used technologies in live performance provided a means of acceleration and virtuality tantalizes with a bit of escape velocity promise. Let’s check back in next year.
As a Professor for Music and Theater Arts at MIT we have an extraordinary opportunity on our hands in the form of distance learning. Nothing makes me happier than finding ways to teach these very physical art forms in a virtual environment. But it is not a welcome challenge for everyone of course and there are big considerations with regard to access. Not everyone has a laptop, smartphone, camera, or xr device. Not everyone has a reliable wireless connection. There is a lot of work to do. Maybe you could join my class for session?
JB – What is your position on the relationship between catastrophe and solidarity?
JS – Every now and then, I guess if we’re lucky, our practice leads us to something that is bigger than us. Somehow in any artistic practice, the catastrophe is everything. In the Grail mythologies, it’s the innocent fool, the moron, the lone dumbass who will finally heal the wound—because only a true dipshit would just spontaneously pose the right question. Because I am working on Parsifal I am thinking about this a lot. It is simultaneously the way into and the way out of the wasteland. In the case of the Grail knights, everyone had been so busy falling over themselves to serve the Grail that no one had ever thought to ask “…whom does the Grail serve?”
The crisis of imagination finds its analogue in a crisis of leadership. I’ll keep advocating for more collaboration beyond our siloed disciplines. We need to be asking better questions. I would love to destabilize the discourse enough that some holy moron might accidentally ask the right question— between catastrophe and solidarity is luck. My position is to prepare, as best one maybe, the conditions for getting lucky.
JB – What is your utopia now?
JS – Conversations like this one are for me pretty much the only utopia.