Profile: Janet Sonenberg
Professor of Theater Arts
“I’m teaching the smartest kids in the world. These are young Renaissance masters. I hope every one of them becomes Leonardo.”
The magic of truth
A vocational counselor was not needed. “There was never a moment that I didn’t know I would be in theater,” says Professor Janet Sonenberg. “By the time I was five years old and had seen Peter Pan, I was being every character all over the house.”
She recalls a New York childhood with arts loving parents, weekends of movies and matinées, the endless fascination of the Museum of Natural History. The bookmobile, which traveled the neighborhoods of NYC, also figured prominently; Sonenberg and her father would enter the mobile library and emerge with a dozen books, ranging from Eloise to astronomy.
Even in this culturally rich childhood, it was what Sonenberg was not supposed to know—including family secrets, and adult commentary on human behavior—that put her on the path to theater.
“My family was living a fantastical existence,” says Sonenberg of her upbeat, culture-maven parents. “I didn’t hear the truth very much. But when I did, I would have goose bumps. I thought the truth was magic. I wanted to spend my life observing truth and replicating it on stage. It was a fundamental impulse—uncovering truth so the audience will have that experience.”
She studied theater at Tufts in the 1970s and in her early twenties was stage managing and directing American musicals translated into Spanish, and performed across South America. After several years of this apprenticeship, Sonenberg returned to the US and earned her MFA in Directing from NYU’s School of the Arts.
In 1979, she began to teach at Hampshire College, where, she says, her experiences with students taught her to teach. She recalls especially working with a learning-disabled young woman for whom she needed to find multiple ways of presenting information.
The pure pursuit of theater at MIT
In 1992, she was invited to MIT, where she has found her academic home in a setting that encourages a pure pursuit of theater.
New ways of knowing
“MIT students have freer imaginations than many other students, but often less life experience. Their parents didn’t take them to the theater,” she laughs. “They were busy with math club, science projects, and playing the piano or the violin. They have fewer preconceptions. Here, I am teaching the whole person, offering them ways of knowing.”
One part of this “way of knowing” is discovering one’s own voice and creative focus, says Sonenberg. “In art, you can succeed in doing things in an authentic voice at a young age. In science, students won’t make their authentic contribution until they’re older; but through theater they’re already learning what is authentic and why it’s rewarding. When you learn to work authentically, you develop the courage to not know — which is what doing science is about.”
Truths in science, life, and art
The born and bred New Yorker now lives just outside Boston, on land graced by old trees, and in the thick of things at the School, helping to find new methods for getting at what is true—in science, life, and art, which she approaches as one complex quest.
“I’m teaching the smartest kids in the world,” she says. These are young Renaissance masters,” she says. “I hope every one of them becomes Leonardo.”
Story by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Writer: Lynda Morgenroth
Photograph: Richard Howard