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RINDE ECKERT Acclaimed alumnus adds to artistic accomplishments with theatrical production that goes inside the world of blindness.

Critics have difficulty labeling what University of Iowa School of Music alumnus Rinde Eckert does, but they almost all agree that he does it very well. A Village Voice critic called him “one of our theater’s most commanding presences.” Others have deployed superlatives including “riveting,” “brilliant,” “astonishing,” “stunning,” and “magnetic.”

An Obie Award winner, a 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist in drama for Orpheus X, and the winner of a 2009 Alpert Award recognizing his career contributions, Eckert is a writer, composer, singer, instrumentalist, actor, director, recording artist, and even sometimes a dancer, renowned for his compelling and charismatic performances.

The son of longtime UI voice teacher Robert Eckert, Rinde (pronounced RIN-dee) grew up in an artistic family and in the midst of the cultural riches of Iowa City. And he has returned repeatedly to further enrich the artistic life of the University with new productions commissioned by Hancher Auditorium and the Department of Theatre Arts.

His newest creation, Eye Piece, which runs Feb. 5–14 in Mabie Theatre of the Theatre Building, combines the resources of Hancher, the theatre department, the UI Carver Family Center for Macular Degeneration, and the UI Carver College of Medicine Writing Program, with contributions by the Department of Dance and the School of Music.

Eckert calls the work “a theatrical meditation on blindness, disease, touch, and healing, performed by 15 fine actors, a few fine musicians, and me. Once again we enter the wilderness not knowing, with only our faith and cunning, some words, and music.” (Learn more about Eye Piece.)

After attending the Yale School of Music, Eckert’s career began as a writer/performer in the 1980s, writing librettos for the Paul Dresher Ensemble (Pioneer, Power Failure, Slow Fire, and Ravenshead, each of which was performed in Hancher). He began composing and performing his own music/theatre pieces with The Gardening of Thomas D, which had its world premiere in Hancher. His most recent Hancher performance, Horizon, attracted Drama Desk Nominations for Best Play and Best Director, and the Lucille Lortel Award for “Unique Theatrical Experience.”

Along the way, Eckert has recorded three eclectic solo CDs—Do the Day Over, Finding My Way Home, and Story In, Story Out—and has been featured on several more. He is now a member of BIG FARM, a prog-rock quartet that will release a CD next fall.

Eckert’s unique artistry has taken him throughout the country and around the world, but he describes his experience at The University of Iowa as its source. “It was at The University of Iowa as a singer with the Center for New Music that I began my adventures in new and novel performance,” he says. “It was thrilling, the unique. It still is.

“When I got to the University, there was an influx of money that Rockefeller had put into the Iowa Center for the New Performing Arts,” he explains. “All of a sudden, there was an efflorescence of new art at the UI. I got a taste of the new at that moment, and I kept on coming back to that original feeling. Subsequent to that, every time I was invited to be part of something new, I took it. And I ended up building a life on the new.”

Eckert is sometimes labeled as “avant-garde,” a slippery term that comes with baggage about obscurity and difficulty. Eckert certainly has no intention of sending his audiences out of the theater shaking their heads in dismay or puzzlement. “Audiences are surprisingly the same in what they like,” he says. “They’re remarkably kind, actually. If you explain to them what’s required of them they’ll go there.

“I’ve been learning over the course of my career the necessity for a certain kind of mystery and the necessity for a certain kind of disclosure,” he continues. “You want to disclose enough but not too much. You want to guide them but not spoon-feed them. So it’s a very fine line. You’re trying to alert them to the complexities so they can get into it with you. But at the same time you don’t want to make it so easy that that art gets lost and all the mystery is drained out of the situation.”

Eckert’s analogy for this: he’s trying to encourage them to step off the main road with him into the forest and get a little bit lost—but not so lost that they panic. “That’s a tricky thing to do,” he says. “You have to take them and hope that they’ll trust you, that you have their best interest in mind. You’re not trying to hoodwink them or alarm them.

“You really want to communicate something but this is the only way it can happen. I know that this is difficult terrain, but on the other side of this you get the view of the lake. And hopefully they do make that journey with you.”

Story by Winston Barclay


February 1, 2010