A.I.-Scripted Stories, and a Counterpoint, Take the Stage Off Broadway
This post was originally published on NY Times - Theater
Written by: Laura Collins-Hughes
“Prometheus Firebringer” and “Bioadapted” test the waters, while the abstract “Psychic Self Defense” is a warm and pulsing counterpoint.
Seated behind a plain wooden table, the theater maker Annie Dorsen is not costumed to catch our gaze, or lit dramatically. In the performance-lecture that is her A.I.-focused show “Prometheus Firebringer,” at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, you might assume she’d be the boring part.
Off to her right are her co-stars: a giant 3-D-printed mask of a human head with video screens for eyes, and a flock of smaller masks — faces that seem straight out of a horror film, with gaping black mouths and creepy blank eyes that are milky white windows to nonexistent souls.
“It’s all made with A.I.,” Dorsen tells us. “Not what I’m saying. But the other stuff.” Jerking a casual thumb in their direction, she adds: “The masks. Their voices. What they say.”
The flashy element of this production, presented by Theater for a New Audience, is a speculative version of a lost part of Aeschylus’ ancient Prometheus trilogy, created using artificial intelligence: GPT-3.5. Algorithms have been a tool in Dorsen’s work for more than a decade, but her latest piece coincides with an accelerating worry about the power of A.I. — even by some who have helped to build it — and a number of current and upcoming shows both use and scrutinize it. (Next month brings “Artificial Flavors” from the Civilians at 59E59 Theaters and “dSimon” by Simon Senn and Tammara Leites at the Crossing the Line Festival.)
As the audience settles in at “Prometheus Firebringer,” A.I.-scripted stories — or rather, variations on the same brief story — unfurl on a large electronic screen above the stage. Generated before each performance, the text at the show I saw told of “the god Zeus and the Titan Prometheus,” as one version phrased it, and a “chorus of human orphan children.”
Mainly what you need to know for this show is the familiar beginning of the tale: Prometheus, a tricksy demigod, stole fire from Zeus and gave it to the grateful human race. How humans harness the technology at their disposal is the true subject of “Prometheus Firebringer,” in which Dorsen becomes her own Greek chorus, warning of, commenting on and lamenting a 21st-century tragedy that we are allowing to befall us.
The 45-minute show, intercutting her brightly lighted talk with the moodily lit, robotic-sounding, speculative fragment of the trilogy, is less than riveting as a practical demonstration of A.I. The GPT-3.5 text at the performance I saw was blandly unremarkable, a technological party trick with ventriloquized masks. The playlet sans humans is remote and inert, inherently a simulacrum of drama.
There’s a clumsiness to it, and a lack of clarity. I wondered at one point if the voice coming from the large mask had spoken the name Prometheus in error, like an amateur who says the character name before reading a line of dialogue.
But Dorsen’s lecture is forcefully beneficial as an examination of our obeisance to technology: the cultural tendency to genuflect and acquiesce to it, reflecting a faith that it is not only superior to humans but also inevitably dominant over us. As if the tech lords were in charge of what we all become, no matter how the rest of us feel about it or what we lose.
“One lesson of tragedy, then, is that we conspire with our fate,” Dorsen says.
True though those words are, they are not hers. In a monologue sewn together entirely from borrowed scraps of other thinkers’ thoughts, the sentence is from the philosopher Simon Critchley’s 2019 book, “Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us.” It’s one of a legion of sources cited during the show, the author names and titles projected behind Dorsen as she speaks.
This is form as provocation, courting the objection that she might as well be crawling the internet, gobbling up whatever is there and regurgitating it, dumbed down and plagiarized. But Dorsen is doing, however extremely, what artists have always done: gathering, sampling, synthesizing to create something wholly new.
Susan Sontag, in “Regarding the Pain of Others” (2003), is Dorsen’s source when she says that “even in the era of cybermodels, what the mind feels like is still as the ancients imagined it, an inner space — like a theater — in which we picture, and it is these pictures which allow us to remember.”
Currently embodying that notion at Here, in Manhattan, is a show that feels like a warm and pulsing counterpoint to all things A.I.: Normandy Sherwood’s vividly trippy, richly theatrical “Psychic Self Defense.” Promotional materials describe it as part “live action screen saver,” but it is so much more a reverie.
Nearly wordless, this is a primal dreamscape of a show, set within a proscenium where one curtain opens to reveal another and another and another, a lush symphony of textures, patterns, colors. Giant tassels with actors inside them have a dance, as if they have just wandered in from the castle in “Beauty and the Beast.” Miniatures of the proscenium set appear, and comic puppetry erupts inside them.
Playful, silly, teasing, bizarre, this is a work so thrillingly human-made, from so deep in the infinite strangeness of the human mind, that its maverick creativity seems out of reach of the artificial. I hope it is, anyway.
The depth of that reach is the concern of “Bioadapted,” Tjasa Ferme’s sleekly designed, thoughtfully assembled but ultimately overstuffed show at Culture Lab LIC in Long Island City, Queens.
Like Dorsen, Ferme incorporates A.I. into the performance in ways that, deliberately or not, demonstrate its incompetence; a country song, generated with a few prompts from the audience, was easily the most nails-on-a-chalkboard country song I’ve ever heard. But “Bioadapted,” constructed from documentary and dramatic text, may get you thinking concretely about the ways A.I. can warp our perception of reality, surveil our very interiors, take what belongs to us.
Both “Bioadapted” and “Prometheus Firebringer” ask audiences to consider what Dorsen — taking a line from the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler’s “The Age of Disruption: Technology and Madness in Computational Capitalism” (2019) — calls “the fundamental ethical question, the question of knowing whether this is the world we want.”
Dorsen and Ferme are nudging us to abandon our passivity, curb the excesses of A.I. and create the society we want rather than submitting to some grim techno future that we assume is inevitable.
“As long as there is time, there is time for care,” Dorsen says.
She plucked that line from the Swedish writer Axel Andersson. And he’s right.
Through Oct. 1 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn; tfana.org. Running time: 45 minutes.
Psychic Self Defense
Through Sept. 30 at Here, Manhattan; here.org. Running time: 1 hour.
Through Sept. 24 at Culture Lab LIC, Queens; transformatheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.