An Eye for the New - Performance engages partners across the campus

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Rinde Eckert developed a taste for the “new” as a student at The University of Iowa. The Iowa City native has parlayed that taste into a career that has taken him and his theater productions across the United States, Europe, and Asia.

Along the way, his idiosyncratic plays and performances have brought him critical acclaim, including an OBIE award, a nomination for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and the 2009 Alpert Award in the Arts, sponsored by the Herb Alpert Foundation, for his contributions to theatre.

Now Eckert has returned to his hometown and alma mater to create something new with the help of a long list of collaborators inside and outside of The University of Iowa. He’s working with Hancher Auditorium, the Carver Family Center for Macular Degeneration, the Carver College of Medicine Writing Program, and the Department of Theatre Arts to create Eye Piece, a play exploring the loss of vision. It debuted at the University earlier this month.

Hancher executive director Chuck Swanson and artistic director Judy Hurtig (now retired) got the ball rolling for Eye Piece in 2007, initiating what eventually was a successful application for a grant of $148,200 through the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Creative Campus Innovations Grant Program, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. It was one of eight projects funded out of hundreds of applicants.

The Creative Campus program encourages campuses and partners to “go beyond conventional practice and perspectives, featuring innovative or experimental approaches…and stimulating discussion and debate.” For Hurtig and Swanson, that description brought Eckert to mind, so they approached other UI departments to see if they’d be interested, noting that they had “just the guy” to lead the way.

“It was a good bet I’d be interested, because I’ve often been interested in the rapprochement between art and science and other intellectual pursuits,” Eckert says.

That’s putting it mildly. In his career, he has been a singer, instrumentalist, composer, actor, dancer, director, and designer. Some of that comes naturally—his father, Robert, was the head of voice faculty in the UI School of Music for many years, and Eckert remembers attending rehearsals of the UI Opera Theatre even before he started kindergarten.

But Eckert also credits his undergraduate experience at Iowa. At the time, he says, the School of Music was “the most lively center for new music in the country” and the University itself was “an incredibly lively place for the arts.” In addition to performing with Center for New Music ensemble, he was drawn to participate in new works in theater and dance.

“I got a taste for the ‘new’ at that moment, which I never lost,” he says. “The thrill of doing something really new was just…I couldn’t match it any other way. Every time I got invited to be a part of something new, I took it. And I ended up building a life on the new.”

Eckert also has built a reputation for his collaborations with other artists and artistic companies, including the Paul Dresher Ensemble, the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, and composer/guitarist Steve Mackey. And collaboration is at the heart of the creative process for Eye Piece, as Eckert joins forces with partners from across campus.

From physicians in the Center for Macular Degeneration, he learned the science behind the two “metaphorically interesting” diseases. Macular degeneration clouds the center of vision but can leave the periphery intact, whereas retinitis pigmentosa occludes the periphery but leaves the center intact, creating a kind of tunnel vision. “Naturally, these are very theatrical oppositions,” Eckert says.

Through conversations with patients and their families, Eckert has gathered hundreds of stories to spark his theatrical imagination.

“I was talking to a woman suffering from a particular eye disease,” he says. “And her husband was in the room, and suddenly I caught something in his eye. It had nothing to do with what she was saying, but I wrote a whole scene based on that moment. Now, he hadn’t said a word. It was his body language. He was angry with himself for feeling sorry for himself when it’s his wife who is suffering. He nevertheless is going through a kind of grief for the life that he had imagined, but now it wasn’t going to happen.

“It’s one of the most beautiful scenes in the whole piece,” he says.

Graduate students in the Department of Theatre Arts are guiding Eckert in winnowing what stories to tell and how to tell them.

“I see what the actors respond to, and then I see that I have specific actors and actresses that are very good at specific things, and then I start writing things for them,” he says. “The process of making theater is where the real discoveries are. We’re discovering the reason we’re in the room while we’re in the room. We’re discovering how the story wants to be told. It’s very exciting for the actors, and for me as well.”

Similarly, Eckert was quite taken by a proposed monologue written by a student in the Carver College of Medicine Writing Program.

“I may use that just as it is,” he says.

Finally, Eckert sees the audience members as collaborators, too. Despite his love of the new, he says that a play cannot work unless the audience buys in emotionally.

“I’ve been learning over the course of my career the necessity for a certain kind of mystery and a certain kind of disclosure,” he explains. “It’s a very fine line. You’re trying to alert them to the complexities so they can get into it with you. But at the same time you don’t want to make it so easy that the art gets lost and all the mystery is drained out of the situation.

“I’m trying to encourage them to step off the main road with me into the forest and to get a little bit lost,” he adds. “You want to tell them, ‘Trust me, if you stumble over these rocks for a few minutes, you’ll make it to the crest of this hill and see something that I promise you is worth seeing.’”

Steve Parrott
with photos by Kirk Murray

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© The University of Iowa 2009