Campus & Community

Calla Videt explores ‘the space between’

5 min read

During a recent visit to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, film director Mike Nichols told students that professional training begins in youth when a person does what he or she loves 10,000 times before even thinking about the arc of a career.

Katherine Callahan Videt is a case in point.

When Videt (pronounced vee-DETTE) was a teen, and her family (who lived in Tokyo) would stop in London to break up trips between Asia and the United States, the young theatergoer would see as many shows as she could in three days. Then, on the other side of the ocean, she would watch more plays in Manhattan.

At 23, Videt, who goes by the name Calla, can now put a Harvard degree on the list of 10,000 influential moments of her youth — as well as the 2009 Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts, issued by the Office for the Arts (OfA) in recognition of outstanding talent and achievement.

Despite being a serious dancer, singer, director, and writer when she arrived at college, Videt’s goal was to graduate a physicist. After a transformative classroom encounter her second year with the works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, the pull toward art was powerful. Videt became a “special concentrator” with advisers in both the Physics and English departments.

With a long list of theater credits at Harvard, Videt is leaving school on the tail of a blazing star called “The Space Between,” a multimedia piece she wrote, designed, and directed. The production, which ran for two weekends in April at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), integrated drama, science, math, dance, acrobatics, video, visual art, and improvisation to tell a poignant story about physicist Richard Feynman.

The narrative spilled into meditations on the atomic bomb, mythology, literature, history, time, and love. The full-scale production was the first original student work to be mounted at the Loeb Mainstage in 15 years, and Videt was quickly compared with two earlier Harvard directing luminaries: Diane Paulus ’88 and Peter Sellars ’81.

“I thought it was an extraordinary accomplishment for a student to have that vision, write that piece, direct it, and be in control of all the elements,” said Paulus, now artistic director of A.R.T. and Tony Award nominee this year for direction of the Broadway revival of “Hair.”

“It’s so easy when you’re a young director to impose your vision on actors. But it was clear from the performance she was getting out of the cast that she had communicated to them. They were living it very deeply. She had a breadth of vision matched with execution.”

Robert Scanlan, professor of the practice of theatre, put it another way.

“She has an esemplastic imagination: the ability to make a whole out of all the parts that assail you,” said Scanlan, who taught the Beckett course that inspired sophomore Videt. “I’ve never seen it more powerfully active than in Calla. All of our students are ambitious, but she can pull a number of things into a unitary whole, which is the real work of the poet in the deepest sense.”

Videt was born in New York City, and moved with her parents to Japan within a year. She spent the first 18 years of her life traveling between Asia, where her Thai father, Pote Videt, has roots, and New Jersey, where her Irish-American mother, Mary Callahan, has family. Although they admit their daughter’s stage work can be intellectually challenging, even for them, they more seriously worry that a life in the arts is a difficult one. And yet, they are actively supportive. Both were in the audience for several performances of “The Space Between.”

Now Videt is heading into her own “space between” — that is, between college and the next step. She may travel, stay in Cambridge to work on theater projects, or pursue a profession outside of theater. Two years ago, she suffered with chronic pain, which forced her to take time off and to focus her work. The experience gave her perspective on her life and put medicine into the mix of potential careers.

“I don’t think it matters ultimately where you are because you can and should be in charge of who you are,” she said. “The great thing at Harvard was that I was able to find a venue for spearheading and self-motivating my own line of study. That’s been the beauty of the arts here. I’ve been able to lead both lives — academic and artistic — and I’ve been able to be with a collection of immensely talented and intelligent people who contribute to the vibrancy of the arts because they are interested in everything. But pressure? I don’t really let myself feel pressure. I want to be happy.”

“Calla is not just finding her own individual voice,” said Jack Megan, OfA director and a mentor to Videt. “She’s trying to develop modes of telling stories. She comes from the remix generation, which means she’s claiming a theatrical vocabulary that’s new and inventive and technically complicated — and forms a fantastic mosaic. Someday she’ll arrive, and we’ll say, ‘Wow, we knew her back when.’”