I’ve always been afraid of living in places where I can’t communicate with the locals. As a result, I didn’t pursue opportunities with MISTI in locations without English or Chinese speakers. However, this summer, I studied abroad at Bard College Berlin’s theater intensive, which finally took me away from the United States for the first time and for the better.
My Passion and Career—On Shaky Ground
I knew deep down that I wanted to pursue acting as a career this past semester when, by some weird twist in fate, I found myself in one of the smallest departments at MIT as a theater arts major. I don’t know if I would be where I am today if Life on Stage Theater didn’t cast me during their pandemic production. Still, I have to give myself a pat on the back for continuing to audition despite my many, past rejections. It’s hard to believe that receiving my first, lead role, happened only two years ago when so much of my identity is now formed around my desire to pursue the performing arts as a career.
Having that conversation with myself was not easy. Even now, there are days when I doubt my choices. For most of my MIT career, I wanted to be a software engineer. I considered myself a woman of STEM, and I still do. I care about women’s representation in a field that is so dominated by men. I dislike whenever my STEM instructors and mentors coddle me or give more attention to my peers who identify as men. I’m very interested in robotics, and for the longest time, that’s where I thought my career lies.
What also complicates my decision to pursue the performing arts is that I’m a first-generation, low-income (FGLI) student. I grew up with food insecurity and I shudder at the thought of letting go of a stable income as a software engineer. However, my summer trip to Berlin helped solidify my decision to give acting a try.
My experience in Berlin can be described as one big reality check. It’s a reminder that there’s so much to the world out there that I simply haven’t experienced yet. This trip uprooted what I thought I knew about theater and turned it upside down. In this same way, this experience also uprooted what I thought I knew about myself.
Redefining the Meaning of Contemporary Theater
Without fully realizing myself, I had a preconceived notion of what theater is: traditional narrative arcs and naturalistic acting. The focus of my program is what many American theater students would consider experimental theater. However, in Berlin, theater makers are constantly searching for new forms of storytelling and redefining contemporary theater. Berlin theater makers use screens, prerecorded videos, and even VR to tell their stories.
My first show—Rene Pollesch’s “Are you Ok?”—surprised me with a completely bare stage. Since the Volksbühne theater looks fancy, I assumed the show would be well funded and the set would be elaborate. I assumed the show will be well funded. Some German shows have surtitles in English; this was not one of them. While I desperately tried to stay awake, fighting jetlag and the sound of an unfamiliar language, a rocket landed on stage. Yes, a ROCKET. A HUGE rocket around four to five stories tall. Since that show, I have seen cars hanging from the ceiling, motorcycles jumping over hurdles, a revolving inn, and more on stage.
My program’s dramaturgy instructor stated that German theater is always contemporary. I can’t help but marvel at how theater makers in Germany are so unafraid of using time and money to make an artistic statement. A great example is “4:48 Psychosis” directed by Ulrich Rasche. During the 3-hour show, the actors mainly performed two activities: walking on a long treadmill and speaking their lines with great intensity and effort. Through using the actors’ and the audience’s exhaustion, the director attempts to illustrate the numbness that may come with recurring self-harming thoughts. Even I was tempted to follow the numerous viewers who walked out.
My favorite show in Berlin was “Berlau” directed by Raum + Zeit. I loved this performance because it highlighted the essence of theater as an individual experience, quite literally. In this show, the audience is either looking through VR glasses or alone in a room with an actor. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to get the privilege of being the only one the actor is performing for. I left that performance wanting to create a theater piece as intimate as that. That being said, it’s not a performance we would see in the US because it isn’t considered profitable.
Speaking of money, one of the biggest cultural shocks I had in Germany is learning about their social welfare system. Theater can be so experimental and contemporary because the state supports the arts. The government supports most of the cost of production in Berlin. Watching a performance like “Berlau” for under 30 euros was a steal. Most student tickets go for eight to 12 euros—that’s less than the cost of a movie ticket in America. Although theaters are still struggling to recover after the pandemic, theatergoing is very much alive and normal for people of all ages in Berlin. In America, the theater seems to be a dying art because it’s so underfunded, and the cheapest tickets for popular shows are often still beyond the reach of young people and students.
I am extremely fortunate that I got a chance to experience German theater. I would recommend any young theater maker to do the same because as an American theater student, the education and theater experience that we’re used to is more traditional. The Bard Berlin Summer Theater Intensive program opened my eyes to what artist statements can look like in contemporary theater. I am huge on theater as a medium for education. Oftentimes, it’s easy to get swept up in theater as entertainment that one forgets to challenge the audience and take risks (something Berlin’s theater is very good at).
Affirmation: It’s normal to pursue the arts
Through this program, I left the MIT bubble. At MIT, it feels like everyone is going into the tech or the science industries. I realized I’m not insane for considering the performing arts as a career after interacting with people whose career aspirations are outside of the STEM fields. My instructor Judith Sanchez is living her dream. She travels all over the world to teach improv movement. I admire Judith for spreading her love for dancing and I can feel her passion exuding when I took her class. Interacting with inspiring people like her also motivates me to pave my own way, using my unique interests and talents to reach new heights.
We often look at people who pursue the arts and those who pursue STEM as separate entities. Oftentimes, people with primarily creative interests tell me that they can’t do math and vice versa. I’ve always been insecure about my creative skills especially when others categorize me as a STEM person. Before I started this program, I often thought, “I am just never going to be good enough.”
It shouldn’t take this program to build my confidence, but I realized I fit right in. I was praised for my acting and directing decisions in classes and for the final project. Now I view my creative skills very differently. I no longer think that there is a standard to meet. Rather, I’ll be focusing more on improving and learning. Once I let my curiosity run free in my devising, playwriting, and movement classes, my fears can’t hold me back.
Still, I can’t ignore my calling and interest in computer science. Despite my desire to only immerse in theater arts during the program, my final project with my team was the most technically advanced the program has ever seen. I programmed a website for the audience to interact with our digital character—and this is on top of taking classes and going to shows. I often wondered why I was trying so hard and putting in so much more time than expected for a 30-minute show. Perhaps deep down, I was desperately trying to keep programming in my life. After all, as a young theater maker, how can I ignore a huge part of my experience as a woman in STEM if the theater is truly a reflection of life? Theater-making is also about drawing from my experiences. Perhaps I was desperate to prove to myself that I can be both someone who is interested in STEM and the arts. I still haven’t figured out why I tried so hard.
More of a Chameleon than Expected
I realized that I do pretty well in unfamiliar environments; they actually excite me. I loved the practices of four different recycling bins and quiet hours on Sundays. The public transportation is prompt and while I struggled with being on time in the beginning, being 5 minutes early to meetings became a habit by the end of the program. Everything felt so new that I didn’t have time to miss America.
Some things were too good to be true like how there’s a vegan restaurant on every block. Recently, I adopted a plant-based diet, and it was a walk in the park looking for a meal in Berlin. The supermarkets also had easy-to-read tags—using icons—one leaf to indicate a vegetarian option and two leaves to indicate a vegan option. My new environment brought so many positives to my life. Are there sometimes huge cockroaches that crawl along the sidewalk? Yes. Did that prevent me from enjoying every moment I am abroad? No!
I stayed in the suburbs of Berlin and didn’t see many people with similar skin tones to mine. Occasionally, I do spot East Asians on the tram or walking along the street. I didn’t have the courage to approach them because I wasn’t sure if they spoke English. I did have one or two people asking me where I’m from, to which I responded, “America”. However, I didn’t feel that out of place in Berlin. I ignored the occasional looks I get for obviously being a clueless foreigner at the supermarket checkout line. I was comfortable and I felt like I can blend right in with the locals.
Berlin is such a bilingual city and I didn’t have a difficult time ordering food or purchasing items. This experience made me feel more confident tackling communication in languages I’m not familiar with. Now, I’m interested in a fully immersive experience in the future.
This trip was a formative experience for me as a young adult. I realized that traveling abroad isn’t as scary as I made it out to be. Rather, I can thrive in new environments and experiences. I didn’t have much opportunity to travel coming from a low-income family, so I am very fortunate to be able to go on this trip with MISTI’s support. It’s not always pleasant to challenge my established worldview, but it’s so important to be open to the possibilities of life outside of what I know in the US. I appreciate this one big reality check.
Tian Lin is majoring in both Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (6-2) and Theater Arts (21M-2). She recently went to Berlin for a one-month program, over the summer, studying experimental theater with Bard College Berlin.