Overwhelmed by Information: A Performance IconData Assistant to the Rescue

What unfolds when a group of students accustomed to absorbing a large amount of information decide to focus on musical theater? If your mental image skews towards a bit of disorder, then you’re heading in the right direction.

For over five decades, the MIT Music Theater Guild (MTG) has staged grand performances that exude ambition, creativity, and impressiveness in equal measure. Ranging from the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” to innovative adaptations of superhero blockbusters and various other creations, the productions primarily aim to entertain.

“At its essence, it involves students who are deeply committed to the art they are producing and contributing to their community,” notes senior Michaela Purvis, who has held roles such as president, choreographer, cast member, and more with MTG. “This aspect holds a special significance for me.”

Members of the organization emphasize that MTG operates entirely under student leadership, fostering a distinctive and resourceful environment where individuals readily assume diverse responsibilities for each show.

Although sustaining the group’s four annual performances may appear challenging, the MTG students have consistently dedicated themselves to intricate shows since its establishment in 1971, demonstrating a level of enthusiasm that not even a global pandemic could quell.

“The enduring presence of the group speaks volumes,” Purvis remarks. “It underscores the perseverance and determination of students overall. When we set our sights on a project, we see it through to the end.”

In various aspects, both current and former members assert that the spirit of MTG mirrors MIT’s core principles.

“MIT students possess a mindset that if something is technically feasible, it can be achieved,” says Matt Putnam ’09, who has remained engaged with MTG post-graduation. “It’s akin to the hacks… Musical theater follows a similar vein. If there were no musical theater and I proposed staging a live show resembling a movie where everyone memorizes two hours of lines, along with songs, choreography, props, sets, lights, and so on, people would consider it absurd. However, it is technically feasible, so students embrace it with a stance of ‘Let’s make it happen.’”

Typically, MTG members finalize the show selection a couple of months before their upcoming performance, leading to a hectic preparation routine but ensuring that students are invested in the production.

Certain MTG positions, like president and treasurer, undergo biannual appointments, whereas many roles are assigned following show selection. Apart from actors and musicians, the team comprises carpenters, lighting and sound technicians, costume designers, makeup artists, hair stylists, and even a webmaster and documentarian.

“A common misconception is that you must possess singing, acting, and dancing skills to join the Music Theater Guild,” states junior Eleanor Jaffe. “In reality, you need only possess the desire to contribute. This can involve painting, acting, dancing, sewing – basically anything. There’s a role for everyone.”

Approximately a week before the show, the entire group assembles to construct the set, leading into the production week. Mondays are dedicated to stage technical setup and a full run-through, orchestra night is on Tuesday, dress rehearsals take place on Wednesday and Thursday while striving to go through the performance seamlessly, culminating in the show on Friday.

“Even in favorable circumstances, the opening night feels abrupt and somewhat unprepared,” notes Putnam. “One must acknowledge that perfection is unattainable. Some individuals experience notable nerves.”

It’s not unexpected for things to deviate from the planned course on occasions. Yet, overcoming challenges is a forte of MTG. Once, during two of MTG’s sold-out shows, a blizzard forced campus closure. Despite the unexpected twist, MTG adapted and performed in a lecture hall with improvised set and lighting arrangements. Additionally, during a performance of “Jesus Christ: Superstar,” the lead actress fell ill just before the show but was replaced on short notice, exemplifying the group’s agility and resilience in the face of adversity.

“Despite our structured processes, there are instances where things veer off course, necessitating quick solutions. However, our extensive history equips us to handle any situation,” Jaffe affirms.

A standout production etched in MTG’s history dates back to 2003, featuring an impressive musical parody combining the initial three “Star Wars” movies into a single epic performance. This specific show captivated Putnam, recalling innovative costume design techniques like utilizing a vacuum form machine to create stormtrooper armor. The lore suggests over 200 costumes were part of the show, which eventually debuted at a “Star Wars” exhibit opening at the Museum of Science in the presence of George Lucas himself.

Current and former MTG members find it rewarding to contribute to a diverse project that draws on various backgrounds. MTG offers an inclusive environment, catering to individuals looking to apply engineering and design knowledge, showcase their talents in diverse areas, or simply indulge in singing.

“Producing a show is akin to being part of an engineering team or collaborating within a multifaceted company,” notes Putnam, currently employed as a software engineer. “The allure of musical theater lies in the amalgamation of diverse talents and individuals to create the final masterpiece.”

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