Skip to Content

Stage Scientist

Janet Sonenberg helps students enhance their theater performances

The first time that electrical-­engineering and computer science major Manish Goyal ’96, Mng ’98, auditioned for a play, he felt extra nervous. Sure, it was his first audition, but it was more the prospect of working with the play’s director, Janet Sonenberg, that filled him with anxiety. He had heard that she inspired strong emotions, ranging from love to fear, and as she coolly observed him from behind a pair of dark glasses, he didn’t know what to expect. While he didn’t get the part, in the nine years since that encounter, he has come to know Sonenberg well by taking her classes, participating in a workshop, and asking her for advice. “It’s amazing how quickly I grew to crave that cool, unnerving, piercing gaze that once made me feel so transparent,” he says.

It’s a sentiment other students have expressed and one of the reasons Sonenberg has become a successful teacher, artist, and researcher at MIT. Since joining the faculty in 1992, Sonenberg has directed five plays, served as director of theater arts, published two books, received a Baker undergraduate teaching award, and been named a MacVicar Faculty Fellow. Her most recent book, Dreamwork for Actors, describes a technique she developed that helps actors tap their imaginations. “I work with the assumption that all products of the imagination are valuable,” says Sonenberg.

The technique, which she devised with Jungian analyst Robert Bosnak, allows actors to use their dreams to enhance their performances on stage. After several rehearsals, the actor focuses on a compelling moment in the play and derives a visual image and a corresponding physical sensation that characterize it, creating what Sonenberg calls an “incubation image.” That night, before falling asleep, the actor concentrates on the incubation image for a minute and in the morning writes down any dreams that came in the night. Though the dreams, on their surface, may not involve the play, Sonenberg believes that they can connect the world of the character to experiences in the actor’s personal life. Next, the actor associates physical sensations with the dream images and recalls them just before a performance. “It sets up a network of imagination that starts firing,” says Sonenberg.

She has used the technique with success on previous plays and plans to use it in her current project, a play she is creating in collaboration with England’s Royal Shakespeare Company. The play will explore a period in English history between 1642 and 1660 when, despite the Puritan Parliament’s ban on theater, scientists such as chemist Robert Boyle began staging public experiments, helping speed the transition from theoretical to experimental science. “I’m interested in what theater has to say about science and what science has to say about theater,” says Sonenberg, who happens to be married to Rodney Brooks, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Her interest in science makes her well suited to teach at MIT, says Alan Brody, associate provost for the arts. “She’s able to understand where the engineer and the scientist [are] coming from and to speak to them in their own language,” he says. For Sonenberg, teaching theater to engineering majors has its own rewards. “They are uniquely imaginative,” she says. And if nothing else, she hopes they come away with a method for learning. “It’s about getting people to be true to themselves,” she says.