Algorithmic Theatre artist Annie Dorsen examines generative A.I. thru Ancient Mythology

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This January, Bryn Mawr College Performing Arts Series will present the world premiere of Prometheus (working title), a new lecture-discussion-performance by theater artist Annie Dorsen. This presentation will have three performances from January 26 to 28 and  is part of Algorithmic Theater, a residency showcasing Dorsen’s work, which addresses the  consequences of digital communications through theater. With Prometheus (working title), she examines the newly emerging tools of “generative artificial intelligence” through the lens of ancient  mythology. 

Dorsen is a New York-based theater director and artist who works at the intersection of algorithmic art and live performance. Since 2010, she has built a body of work in that she calls “algorithmic theater,”  creating custom algorithms that perform in lieu of or alongside human performers. Her work explores the everyday impact of digital technologies using classical dramatic forms to confront the consequences of our increasing entanglement with information technologies. 

Last September, Bryn Mawr College Performing Arts Series presented Dorsen’s first career retrospective  as part of her residency, titled Algorithmic Theater. This featured four of her past projects, including Hello Hi There (2010), Spokaoke (2012), A Piece of Work (2013), and Yesterday Tomorrow (2015).  Together, these works tell a story about advancing technology, encroaching artificial intelligence, and post-anthropocentric art-making that attempt to reckon with the last decade of history. Dorsen’s residency culminates with the world premiere of Prometheus (working title) this January. 

In her latest work, Dorsen will explore whether artificial intelligence is a “gift from the gods” or a fraught  technology with unknown implications. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus stole the gods’ fire  and gave it to humans, which sparked sudden and dramatic advances in human civilization that also led  to hardship and evil. His story is told in the 2,500-year-old Prometheia trilogy by the Greek tragedian  Aeschylus, of which only the first play, Prometheus Bound, is complete, with only fragments remaining of the second and third plays. 

For Prometheus (working title), Dorsen will use artificial intelligence to generate dialogues and songs created in real-time through algorithmic prompts. On stage, a chorus of A.I.-generated Greek masks  “performs” while Dorsen engages the audience in storytelling and reflections on mythology and  technology. Each performance is unique, as the algorithms produce new content each night. We’re  asked to consider: What does it mean for a machine to create theater? Where does humanity end up if  artificial intelligence chooses our course of action? 

“I always thought I should examine the Prometheus myth because of its central position in the  philosophy of technology,” said Dorsen. “The conflict of Prometheus Bound is between techne –meaning knowledge, craft, innovation – and power. Will technology be used to empower people or  control them? That seems like a relevant question to be asking ourselves today.” 

In addition to presenting her works for Philadelphia audiences, Dorsen’s residency advances the  Performing Arts Series’ goal of seeing the arts shaping conversation across sectors and departments.  Bryn Mawr College President Kim Cassidy stated support for “powerful cross-disciplinary skills of the  liberal arts, including quantitative and digital competencies.” 

“President Cassidy’s strategic vision led us to Annie Dorsen,” said Catharine Slusar, Associate Professor  of Theater and Chair of the Arts at Bryn Mawr College. “We are intrigued by the innovative ways she  uses data in theater, intersecting algorithms with performance, and the meaning that is generated.” 

Prometheus (working title) will be performed at Bryn Mawr College’s Hepburn Teaching Theater on  January 26, 27, and 28 at 8 p.m. Tickets are free for students, faculty, and staff of the Tri-College  Consortium (Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, and Swarthmore College) and can be reserved  online here. General admission tickets are available online for $20 and $10 for students (not from the  Tri-College Consortium). Patrons are encouraged to contact reservations@brynmawr.edu or 610-526- 5300 with any questions or concerns. 

Additionally, Bryn Mawr College offers a Data Science minor designed to connect with arts and  humanities, social sciences, and STEM disciplines and tasks students and faculty with examining data  and cultivating digital capabilities across fields. 

Major support for Algorithmic Theater has been provided to Bryn Mawr College by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. 

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