Vaster Than Empires

  • Nov 12 – Nov 14, 2009 7:30 PM
  • McArdle Theatre

The TechTheatre Company presents something literally fantastic this week as Visual and Performing Arts stages “Vaster Than Empires,” four stories by Ursula Le Guin.

TechTheatre creates Le Guin’s fantasy worlds with technical wizardry and an acting company directed by Roger Held. It’s a high-wire act for everyone involved, from the actors to the sound and lighting technicians whose cues come thick and fast. “This is stylistically a different kind of theatre than folks are used to,” Held says. “It’s first of all a reading of short stories adapted for stage, but each story has a complete soundscape that provides not just sound effects but a whole experience for the audience, like a movie soundtrack.”

Plus the visuals. As in making movies, the actors appear in front of projected landscapes. In this case, many were painted for the show by Michigan Tech artists including Mary Ann Beckwith and Edith Wiard.

Kenny Stahl, a Michigan Tech junior in Audio Design, wrote original music that sets the stage for Le Guin's imaginative worlds and also demonstrates how the actors, designers and builders feel about the play. Stahl improvised the piece on a keyboard during a break from his duties as sound technician, trying to capture the mystery and excitement he’d watched the actors create. Held heard him improvising and said, “That’s it—that’s exactly what we want.” Stahl dedicated a few days to refining, then recorded and edited his music to be incorporated in the play’s soundscape. “It was an amazing experience,” he says. “It just happened.”

Generations of college students have become ardent Le Guin fans, partly because the stories deal with recognizable issues in real life while bringing fascinating scientific ideas and engaging characters into play. Le Guin’s fantasies comes in two varieties , those founded strictly on science, and those which take scientific ideas to a far-out conclusion, asking “what if,” both filtered through a unique poetic mind. Naturally she uses sci fi worlds to make trenchant observations about human behavior—what we do when we’re confronted with the unexpected, or with hard or impossible choices. It’s easy to show how people really deal with one another if she puts them in strange new worlds first. The four stories which compose “Vaster Than Empires” are among her best.

For Michigan Tech’s whiz kids in TechTheatre, the stories fascinate on many levels, and particularly as a chance to show off their own best stuff.