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As an undergraduate at MIT, Michelle Starz successfully combined interests in science and culture--a major in biology with a minor in theater arts. Since her graduation in 1994, she has continued this double life at MIT: while working as a technical assistant at the Center for Cancer Research, she's directing the MIT Community Players' (MITCP) production of Tony Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day, which runs Thursday through Sunday, May 23-26, at 8pm in the Little Theater.
"Doing theater at MIT kept me sane," Ms. Starz said. "It demanded that you connect honestly and completely with other actors," contrasting the focus students put on research with the human interactions found in theater work. Her portrayal of Hermione in Dramashop's 1995 production of The Winter's Tale "truly stole the show," according to The Tech's review, and she won an Edward S. Darna Award, honoring substantial contributions to the life of the theater at MIT.
Mr. Kushner, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and two Tony Awards for his two-part Angels in America, set A Bright Room Called Day in Berlin in 1932-33, during the final months of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of the Third Reich (interspersed with a series of "interruptions" set in 1990 Berlin). The 1991 play, first performed in workshop in 1985, focuses on the relationships among a group of artists and political activists-many of them Jewish-and on their compromises and acts of defiance in a period of turbulent and ominous political upheaval.
"What keeps people alive when they are, as they say in the play, `perched on the brink of a great historic crime?'" asked Ms. Starz, who enlisted help from faculty members in history, literature, film and political science to provide background and insight to the era. "What are their responsibilities to the world, to each other, and to themselves when the world is falling apart?"
To help the cast understand the sociopolitical and artistic climate of the time, Ms. Starz scheduled a lecture/discussion delivered by Amy Bany '94, an MIT classmate who had taken many history classes as an undergraduate and who now also works at the Center for Cancer Research. Based on suggestions from Brad Marshall, temporary lecturer in foreign languages and literature, Ms. Starz also held a German film night featuring clips from German expressionistic films of the late 1920s and 1930s. "This information not only influenced our decisions about the production, but also helped the actors-many of whom play German film actors in the play-see what the films of the time were like and again see how the outside world affected what was going on in the film studios," she said.
Charles Armesto, playing the part of Baz, a homosexual anarchist who works at the Berlin Institute for Human Sexuality, acknowledged the challenge of portraying a historic time. "The actors know what happens after the play ends, but the characters have no idea of the evil things Hitler will do," noted Mr. Armesto, a senior with a double major in chemical engineering and theater arts.
The MITCP developed originally from the Faculty Drama Club, formed in 1933. During the 1957-58 season, the group's name was changed to better describe the makeup of the organization, which draws membership from MIT students, alumni, staff members and some who are unaffiliated with the Institute. MITCP secretary James Carroll, who produced A Bright Room Called Day and portrays blond Aryan Gottfried Swetts, noted that the play has "the greatest degree of MIT involvement of any of our recent productions." In addition to Ms. Starz, the technical director, set designers and three-quarters of the cast are also MIT affiliates.
A Bright Room Called Day has been partially funded by a grant from the Council for the Arts at MIT. Tickets are $10, $7 for MIT community/students/seniors, and $5 for MIT students. For information or reservations, call x3-2530.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 22, 1996.