Theatre artist Annie Dorsen discusses the use of artificial intelligence in her world premiere performance of “Prometheus (working title)”

-Brenda Hillegas
photo by Stephen Dodd

From January 26th to 28th, Bryn Mawr College Performing Arts Series will present the world premiere of Annie Dorsen’s Prometheus (working title). The lecture-performance piece is a part of Dorsen’s Algorithmic Theater residency showcasing the consequences of digital communications through theater.

The performance will explore how artificial intelligence and technology impacts our lives and the information we receive. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus stole the gods’ fire and gave it to humans. The sudden advances in human civilization as a result also led to hardship and evil. In Prometheus (working title), Dorsen uses artificial intelligence to generate dialogue in real-time through algorithmic prompts. This means each performance is unique with new content being produced by the algorithms each night. A chorus of A.I.-generated Greek masks perform the content while Dorsen speaks to audiences about mythology and technology.

Dorsen, a New York-based theater director and artist, took some this morning to talk to RowHome about her work with algorithmic theatre. Prometheus (working title) will be performed at Bryn Mawr College’s Hepburn Teaching Theater. Tickets are free for students, faculty, and staff of Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, and Swarthmore College and can be reserved  online. 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. Visit the website for tickets and more info.

Q: Tell us about your algorithmic theater work and why you wanted to present performances in this way.
A: It’s a kind of way I started working on about 13 years ago. I was thinking that in order to make work that really addressed the way it felt to be alive, that would necessarily involve computers. I notice how much language there was around me that was not written by anyone. Not just advertising, but all sorts of computer generated text and other text I experienced in the world that didn’t seem to have an author behind it. In theatre, traditionally, language is a product of a character. What they say on stage are clues to their life, desires, goals, for example. The notion of a language that didn’t have a character behind it seemed provocative. At the same time, I encountered chatbots. We know what they are now, but not back in 2009. The idea that you could make a rudimentary AI that would have a conversation with a person. When I started playing with it, I thought, that is theatre. It’s about an audience having a belief in this artificial text and the illusion created by language. A playwright creates all of this dialogue and finds someone to embody it. I started working with computer programmers to think through what could happen if an algorithm that runs software ended up being the protagonist of a theatre piece. We’re watching the outputs of the computer process and that’s what you track over the course of Prometheus (working title).

Q: Why did you choose to focus on Greek mythology and Prometheia?
A: I always thought, since I work with technology and art, that at some point I’d have to tackle the Prometheus myth because it’s so foundational to how we understand technology as kind of a liberation for humans. Prometheus stole fire, humans then were able to build tools and cook food. The whole history of technology springs from this gift of fire. I never really got into Greek tragedy before, but then I read a book by philosopher Simon Critchley where he proposes that the central question of Greek tragedy is what should I do? In almost every play, the central character is caught in a dilemma between taking different paths of action. They are either both just but mutually exclusive, or they are both bad. And so the character asks what to do. I thought that was a great summary of how it feels to be a person in 2022! This notion that being stuck not knowing what is the right action to take, how to live an honest life in the middle of everything we’re dealing with, is the choice you’re making helping or contributing to problem? How do you know where to put your energy and what do you decide to do? Critchley is making that connection between the question I’m asking about the world and Greek tragedy, so that was kind of my way in to thinking about digital technology. It’s so useful, but it has these problems that are probably harming the public discourse and civil society. We know all kinds of problems with algorithm bias, racial bias, gender biased. We know that time spent on social media isn’t really great for our brains. There’s a long litany of things we are aware of- environmental impact of AI, for example. We know all of this, but our whole society and culture is still dependent on them. So this is kind of where I was going- ambiguity, the paradox, the dilemma. What should I do? How should I live?

Q: What is the rehearsal process like for a show that features unique, on-the-spot content each night?
A: We used image generating AI to create images of ancient Greek theatre masks. We picked a few, out of hundreds of thousands of images, and had them 3D modeled and 3D printed. The text these masks are speaking is also created by generated AI. The way that ChatGPT works or any of the large language models is that you give them a certain prompt. The way that I structured the piece is by working on the prompts. We don’t know the specific words that the program will produce on any given night, but we can work on the larger structure that way. The other half of the piece is a talk I’m giving that’s entirely made up of quotations of other sources, down to the “ums” and “uhs”. Nothing I say is mine, so that becomes a kind of counterpoint to what the AI does each night.

Q: Can you talk about the A.I.-generated Greek masks that the audience will see on stage- where did the idea come from and how they were developed? 
A: We made them in New York where I’m based. I found a 3D modeler. I worked with a machine learning programmer named Sukanya Aneja who also helped me refine our search for the masks. We could not have done them without the support of Bryn Mawr College and The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

Q: How do you think the theatre community could benefit from the use of AI on stage or in other art forms?
A: This is the big question, the “what should I do?” question. One thing that’s been happening the last few years is that there has been a big conversation in the arts and theatre world about ethics of what we do in terms of representation, equity, the relationship with the audience, environmental impact and lowering the carbon footprint of productions. But one thing that hasn’t been talked about that much is “what are the ethics of technology?” and that’s a big issue for me. I don’t think there is an easy answer. When I’m making a piece, I try to think about what my work is doing in the world- is it encouraging people to just think in terms of spectacle, like “wow!” or “how did they do that?” or is it proposing that people can think a little more critically about how these tools can interact with our lives? I’m not a huge fan of the adoption of new technology just because it’s cool. I want to know how it works, what they mean, what they are doing in the world. How can we make smart decisions about the way we want to deploy them?

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