“I try to open the door and take my students into the world of the play.”
Music and Theater Arts Section
The play’s the thing for Michael Ouellette, an actor, director, and librettist who guides MIT theater arts students to find the real depths beneath the surface of plays. In moving from reading to performing a play, he says, “I try to open the door and take my students into the world of the play.”
Ouellette’s door into that world opened when, at the beginning of his teaching career, he played Feste, the clown, in a performance of “Twelfth Night.”
“I had carried Shakespeare’s words inside my head for years. Now I was inside the play—living the character, immersed in his life,” he says. “The experience went beyond the words. It was risky, engulfing, and intoxicating.”
Bringing Out The Best in Students
As senior lecturer in theater arts at MIT, Ouellette has directed 22 student plays, including 10 by Shakespeare and others by Richard Sheridan, Jean Anouilh and Aristophanes. The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper, consistently applauds Ouellette for bringing out the best in student actors and demonstrating new approaches to the classics.
Ouellette credits his students and changes in politics and technology for the vitality of his popular MIT productions. A tireless researcher, he studies each play’s historic and social context before he begins the process of bringing the text to life.
Creating Vital, Insightful Theater
Ouellette set Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” as a modern political campaign. He staged "The Birds," by Aristophanes, as a drama among homeless people, and in Sheridan’s “School for Scandal,” the action straddled the 18th and 20th centuries as Ouellette directed actors on stage and “plants” among the audience to talk constantly on cell phones. “It’s a play about gossip,” he says. “Timeless.”
Ouellette asked students to provide a film noir backdrop for Jean Anouilh’s “Medea,” and they filmed mock robberies on Boston’s dark streets to set an ominous atmosphere for the play.
“MIT students are extraordinary—bright, inventive. It’s a joy to work with them as they encounter new ways of turning the written word into a living world,” he says. “This is a great place to direct and to teach.”
Taking "Our Town" to India
Sometimes, the doors of theater open onto unimagined vistas. In January 2008, Ouellette directed Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” in southern India. The visit and collaboration was arranged by an alumna who entered MIT as a math major, then fell in love with theater arts.
Two MIT undergraduates, an actor and a stage manager, accompanied Ouellette on the trip; they lived and worked with Indians in an area where only Kannada is spoken. When the group put on “Our Town,” the MIT student performed in English and the Indian actress, playing opposite, performed in Kannada. Says Ouellette, “The play was so alive, you didn’t notice they were speaking different languages.”
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