The curtain goes up on the Central Square Theater

Unique home for science-theater interplay has its grand unveiling


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Patti Richards
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An unusual collaboration between theater and science will be celebrated with a fundraising gala on Tuesday, Dec. 9, that officially opens the Central Square Theater (CST) and culminates an 11-year effort by MIT to revitalize a parcel of property in the heart of Cambridge.

While performances began earlier this year in the newly built facility at 450 Massachusetts Ave., Tuesday's event brings together long-time supporters of the project with actors, directors, MIT professors and staff in a special night hosted by MIT President Susan Hockfield and Boston's favorite maestro, Keith Lockhart.

"The opening of the Central Square Theater represents Cambridge at its finest," Hockfield said. "All corners of our community came together to realize this unusual project. Thanks to this broad partnership, Central Square now boasts two dynamic theater companies with a state-of-the-art performance venue to call home."

The mixed-used development project provides a permanent home to the long-standing Underground Railway Theater (URT) and The Nora Theatre and brings new opportunities for arts and culture that will help the revitalization of Central Square.

"CST is a huge win for Cambridge, MIT, the local cultural sector and for audiences throughout the area that are interested in contemporary drama and educational theater that appeals to and provokes dialogue for all ages," said Jason Weeks, executive director of the Cambridge Arts Council. "What a tremendous partnership. Everybody wins."

The history of the $8 million CST project goes back to the late 1990s when MIT began to consider options for renovating deteriorating structures it owned on Massachusetts Avenue, including a café and convenience store. Working with the Cambridge Historical Commission and other city agencies as well as the Nora and URT -- both founded in Cambridge but which lacked physical homes -- the Institute developed a plan to replicate aspects of the original structure and develop a state-of-the-art black-box theater and retail and office space. The companies are paying below-market rent for the space.

Since opening in July, CST has featured five productions, nearly all of which sold out.

WHEN SCIENCE AND ART INTERSECT

The theater also provides a venue for the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, founded about three years ago by MIT and URT with the aim of, as Hockfield put it, "mining the deep vein of theatrical possibility at the intersection of science and the arts." The collaborative has held staged readings and two full productions, including a much-praised rendition of "Einstein's Dreams," a play based on the novel by Alan Lightman, adjunct professor of the humanities, which continues through Dec. 14 at CST.

"The work that has been accomplished (by CC@MIT) has been nothing short of amazing," Weeks said. The collaborative has brought together traditional theatergoers with the scientific community as well as MIT students and faculty, he said.

For example, the CC@MIT has held "talk backs" or post-show discussions by MIT professors and staff on science or technology topics at CST, a feature that has become as popular as the plays themselves.

"If 200 people show up for a play, 175 stay for the 'talk back,'" said Catherine Carr Kelly, CST executive director. "I think the clear message is people want to have this conversation (about science); they want to be entertained while having it."

Beginning in April, the URT will present a new translation of the Bertolt Brecht play "Galileo," and CC@MIT has been commissioned by the National Institutes of Health to write a play to mark the 150th anniversary of Darwin's "The Origin of Species." Melinda Lopez, a recognized playwright, is currently working on the script, Carr Kelly said. The result will probably be performed during the 2010 season.

Both MIT and theater staff praised the cross-fertilization among MIT students and faculty and actors, directors and playwrights through CC@MIT projects.

"The dialog between the artists and the scientists has been lively, has been exciting," said MIT Professor of Theater Arts Alan Brody, who directs the Catalyst Collaborative with Janet Sonenberg, professor of theater arts and section head of music and theater arts, and URT Artistic Director Debra Wise. "We're learning about each other -- how we think."

Projects such as the collaborative "helps demystify science and helps create a kind of science literacy," Brody said, adding, "It's very important to me as a playwright -- it's important for all of us -- to get the facts right, too."

CST also hosts a range of other plays: through Dec. 28, the URT is presenting "Alice's Adventures Underground"; in January, the Nora will present Anton Chekhov's classic work, "The Cherry Orchard." Other efforts, including special reduced-price nights for local residents, target ways to welcome the theater's Central Square neighbors.

Tuesday's gala will give patrons a taste of the range of energy and creativity of the two resident theater companies, with a red-carpet treatment, a glimpse into rehearsals for the youth theater group and a specially choreographed "Office Dance," as well as staged readings, a building tour and a live auction.

For more on Central Square Theater, please visit www.centralsquaretheater.com.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 10, 2008 (download PDF).


Topics: Arts, Cambridge, Boston and region

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