Art to make sense of the world

BY ALEX RICH | FEBRUARY 05, 2010 7:30 AM

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“Like artists, we look hard at our subjects,” a doctor says in Rinde Eckert’s new play, Eye Piece. “And, like artists, we are trying to make sense of the world.”

A UI graduate and playwright, Eckert has been trying to make sense of the world through his art since the ’80s. From his first role as Peter Rabbit when he was 5 to his latest work, which opens this evening, he has pushed the boundaries of theater, always trying to create something new and entertaining for his audience.

“I call it interdisciplinary theater,” he said. “Admittedly a dry title for something as exciting as what this is. It’s the use of the theater in all its different conceits, some of them very close to straight theater, others closer to opera, others closer to dance.”

Eckert’s theatrical journey began at the UI School of Music, where he majored in vocal performance. From that foundation, he received a master’s degree from Yale University and then moved to the West Coast to start his theater career.

“I then began doing avant-garde theater in the ’80s in San Francisco,” he said. “That developed into a career as a composer, playwright, and as a performer that has spanned the last 25 years now, and it leads me here.”

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He began to work on his own pieces in 1985, while collaborating with famed composer Paul Dresher. The duo continued working together for 10 years when Eckert moved to New York City.

The inspiration for Eckert’s latest work Eye Piece stemmed from a challenge made by the Creative Campus Fund and the Doris Duke Charitable trust.

“They wanted to see an art piece that dealt with science in some way and they wanted to see some sort of rapprochement between the science end of the university and the art end,” he said.

Eye Piece follows the story of a painter who learns that he is going blind. The audience watches as the artist moves through life lessons and learns how cope with his loss of sight.

An artist going blind is of particular interest to Eckert, and the character represents many of the universal insecurities about sight.

“This is true with everyone who goes through a dramatic transformation like that from a seeing person to a non-seeing person,” he said. “It’s a huge shift. If your life is organized around sight, then it might be worse.”

He drew on many sources for inspiration on this piece, one of which was UI Professor Stephen Kuusisto. Kuusisto, who has a dual appointment in the UI Nonfiction Writing Program and ophthalmology and is also the author of Planet of the Blind, helped give Eckert insight into the life of the blind.

“A lot of my memoir contains stream of consciousness about the interior experience of vision loss and the way that imagination can turn that into the kind of thing that is art,” Kuusisto said. “That’s what Rinde’s play is attempting to show.”

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