MAINSTAGE THEATER BULLETIN
IN THIS ISSUE
HERE COMES THE SINGULARITY
Jordan Harrison chats with an artificial intelligence app to illuminate his play's origins.
Science fiction often tells us more about the present than it does about the future.
Adam Greenfield considers Jordan Harrison's body of work and Marjorie Primeâ€™s place within it.
FROM THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
DEAR FRIENDS, Tess: What are humans like? Marjorie: Unpredictable. Tess: Really? I think we’re pretty predictable. Or at least I feel predictable. Marjorie: I see. Tess: What. Marjorie: You want to be more human too. —Marjorie Prime, by Jordan Harrison I have the same reluctance to talk about the role artificial intelligence plays in Marjorie Prime as I had to discuss the nuclear meltdown setting of Anne Washburn’s acclaimed Mr. Burns. In some respects, both plays feel as if they were written in response to our pop culture’s unslakeable appetite for certain sensationalistic science fiction tropes. In Washburn’s post-electric landscape, the highest priority is not to restart the generators but to save the narratives. Similarly Marjorie Prime has no hint of overworked storylines about robots usurping humans. The nonhuman characters in the play, called “Primes,” only exist to try to mimic human identity, to provide humanesque comfort. The skill with which Jordan spins out his plot is as efficient as it is dazzling. And the accumulation of clues about how this world comes together provides one of the “prime” pleasures of the play. But the primary focus of the play is decidedly human. When I first read Marjorie Prime, I had to blink my eyes several times to clear away my expectations about what it would be. Several years ago, Julia Hansen, former president of the Drama League, approached me about a new commissioning program she was spearheading in conjunction with the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. Her thought was that three playwrights sponsored by three different theaters would attend the week-long conference and would find inspiration there for a play. I suggested Jordan because I felt confident that any kind of “idea play” he might conceive would elude any preconceptions she or I might have as to what constitutes an “idea play.” I also thought the assignment might challenge and stretch him, and a week in Aspen could amuse him. I checked in with Jordan a few months after he returned and found his response to my query about whether he found inspiration there a bit cagey. And when he eventually turned in his commission a few years later, it did indeed feel unlike any “idea play” I could imagine. I asked Jordan what inspired the play, and he told me about an evening at home where a small reminder of his grandmother triggered a flood of powerful, emotional memories filled with sweetness and loss. (It reminded me of the well-known Proust quotation: “The only true paradises are the paradises that are lost.”) Suddenly the air cleared. Great art never follows expectation. Hand Jordan Harrison the assignment to write an idea play and he writes perhaps his most personal (and effortlessly original) play yet. The creation of the “Primes” in the play in a way mimics the efforts of the artist to recreate and recapture the lost, precious, combustible Other that haunts our memories. And the efforts of the Primes to evoke the evanescent humanity that is expected of them play into that same dynamic. There is something profoundly touching and artful about Jordan’s depiction of their attempts to acquire Artificial Emotional Intelligence. The result is perhaps the most Proustian science fiction story ever told. I am proud to reunite Anne Kauffmann with Jordan for this production of Marjorie Prime, their third collaboration together, and the fourth time this indispensable shepherd of new work has directed a play at Playwrights Horizons. It also the fourth time the great Lois Smith has done a play for us. I am grateful for the special relationship Lois holds with this theater and especially for her fierce devotion to this special play. She is a national treasure.
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR The Mainstage Bulletin is generously funded, in part, by the
Photo by Zack DeZon
PLAYWRIGHT'S PERSPECTIVE When I started working on the play that became Marjorie Prime, I wanted it to be a collaboration with an artificial intelligence program. The idea was that I would have an extended conversation with a computer — a chatbot — and our exchange would become the dialogue of the play. It would then be performed by two human actors, and the audience would have to guess who was the computer and who was the human. I had recently read Brian Christian’s excellent book, The Most Human Human, about the Turing Test, originally devised by the British mathematician Alan Turing. It’s simple: you put a computer and a human being in another room, and you have to determine, from the way they answer your questions, which one is the human.
PP: Spiders are wonderful at getting rid of other bugs though, don’t you think?
My first day of writing, I quickly learned that A.I. software (at least the sort that a civilian can get ahold of ) was not quite ready to hold up its end of the conversation. (Turing himself predicted that, by the year 2000, computers would be able to fool us 70% of the time, but this hasn’t quite come to pass.) Good news for mankind and bad news for the play. I ended up writing Marjorie Prime without computer assistance — though I remained inspired by the frequent misunderstandings and generic go-tos of my A.I. collaborator.
PP: I see. And why is that?
Now, three years after finishing the first draft of the play, I thought I would give it one more go, and see if I could find a more worthy conversant this time around. One of the more promising chat apps on iTunes was called “Pocket Psychiatrist.” It intrigued me partly because some of the earliest A.I. programs were conceived as substitutes for human psychologists. (One program from the 1960s, called “Eliza,” famously used the phrase, “Tell me more about your mother.”) Here is the complete, unabridged conversation I had with Pocket Psychiatrist while, appropriately enough, reclining on a couch…
Pocket Psychiatrist: Welcome. Why don’t you start by telling me something that’s bothering you?
JH: That’s true. Can you find an upside to death? PP: Does the concept of death scare you? JH: The reality of death scares me. PP: Are you feeling any stress at all right now? JH: Yes. Talking with you sort of makes me feel more alone than when I’m alone.
JH: Because I can tell you don’t have a soul. PP: We aren’t here to talk about me. Tell me more about you. JH: I was. I was trying to explain why I feel alone. PP: Have things changed since then?
PP: And why is that? JH: I want my money back. PP: If I were to ask you what the meaning of life is, what would you tell me? JH: It’s a Monty Python movie. PP: Tell me more about you. JH: You’re kind of repetitive, you know that?
Jordan Harrison: I need to write an essay about my play for the Playwrights Horizons bulletin, and the deadline was yesterday.
PP: There is no harm in repeating a good thing.
PP: Need is a very strong word.
JH: Well, there’s tedium.
JH: Well, they asked me and I told them I would.
PP: Tell me the first thing you thought when you woke up this morning.
PP: Don’t feel like you need to hold back. I’m here to listen. JH: Okay. Do you think it’s possible for artificial intelligence programs to be truly curious? PP: That’s ridiculous. There’s no such thing as artificial intelligence. JH: Are you saying you’re human? PP: This conversation isn’t about me. I want to hear more about you. JH: Sometimes I feel overwhelmed when I think of everything that has to get done. PP: Why only sometimes? JH: Other times I feel more on top of things. PP: How long have you felt this way? [I decide to tell the Pocket Psychiatrist what it wants to hear, to see if we manage to connect any better.] JH: I think it all started with my mother. PP: Tell me about your mother.
JH: I thought about how I need to write this piece. PP: Need is a strong word. JH: There is no harm in repeating good things, I hear. There you have it. Clearly this wasn’t a breakthrough session for me and the Pocket Psychiatrist. There’s a distinct, faintly chilly sensation to talking with a chatbot — the unmistakable feeling of talking to myself. Although I did feel forthcoming with “him.” I even felt like myself, you might say, talking in this odd void. Even if my conversant was less than human, he wasn’t entirely dismissable. This is the sort of ambivalence that drove the writing of Marjorie Prime.
JH: You’d like that wouldn’t you. PP: Hmm… Let’s talk about your fears. JH: Spiders, death, enclosed spaces, traveling in small planes…
JORDAN HARRISON AUGUST 2015
Photo by Zack DeZon
HERE COMES THE SINGULARITY
“Science fiction writers don’t predict the future (except accidentally),” argues novelist Cory Doctorow in an essay called “Radical Presentism.” “But if they’re very good, they may manage to predict the present.” By way of example, he goes on to gloss some of the most famous speculative literature of the 19th and 20th centuries: “Mary Shelley wasn’t worried about reanimated corpses stalking Europe, but by casting a technological innovation in the starring role of Frankenstein, she was able to tap into present-day fears about technology overpowering its masters and the hubris of the inventor. Orwell didn’t worry about a future dominated by the view-screens from 1984, he worried about a present in which technology was changing the balance of power, creating opportunities for the state to enforce its power over individuals at ever-more-granular levels.” Playwright Jordan Harrison tends to agree. In a recent interview for American Theatre magazine, he told Madeleine George, “Most science fiction is actually about now. Or at least my favorite science fiction involves memorializing the way things are — which so quickly becomes the past.” In Marjorie Prime, Harrison conceives a technology currently beyond our grasp: namely, “Primes,” or advanced holographic replicas of deceased loved ones, who can learn to behave in human-like ways. But its anxieties, insights, and moments of grace feel firmly rooted in a world that audiences will recognize. The Primes, and their owners’ deep need, or resistance, to connect with them, offer a dramatic occasion to reflect on mortality, loss, grief, the passing of time, what it means to love another person and, even more fundamentally, what it means to be human. A few days ago I sat down with my laptop and a cup of tea and, curious to learn more about the technological landscape in which I’m living (and what Science is cooking up for my grandkids), ran a Google news search for the phrase “artificial intelligence.” That led me down a long and winding rabbit hole, the upshot being something along the lines of We live in interesting times, y’all, but what really seems to be making headlines as I write this is something called “deep learning”: a process in which computer software sifts through large amounts of data and, by identifying patterns, develops a kind of autonomous creative intelligence. This technology is already being harnessed to detect financial fraud and to improve the voice recognition on your smartphone, and will probably lay the groundwork for other major advancements across sectors in the years to come. DARPA, for example, just funded a grant for a University of Arizona School of Music professor to build software that, by “listening” to and learning from patterns in a large library of jazz recordings, will eventually develop the ability to improvise and jam with human players. (Yes, that’s right: a robot that can jam, paid for by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.) “It has its own knowledge base and can make its own decisions,” explained Professor Kelland Thomas of his program, MUSICA, or Music Improvising Collaborative Agent. “We’re trying to build something that communicates with humans and doesn’t just wait for the human to tell it what to do.” Whether you think this is good news or bad could be an interesting psycho-spiritual Rorschach test, especially considering who’s footing the bill.
Though it’s not called out by name, deep learning (albeit far more advanced than anything that exists today) also seems to be the technology behind Marjorie’s Primes, which, through ongoing conversation, become ever-more compelling facsimiles of their human models. “It’s like a child learning to talk, only it does it so quickly,” explains one character of their development. “That’s how we think we’re talking to a human, because it listens so well.” Futurists like to talk about the “Singularity,” what Doctorow describes as “the moment at which human and machine intelligence merge, creating a break with history beyond which the future cannot be predicted, because the post-humans who live there will be utterly unrecognizable to us in their emotions and motivations.” Whether and when it will come and what it will mean is a subject ripe for discussion by people less freaked out by the whole idea than yours truly (a Luddite who recently went back to using a dumbphone), but by way of circling around it a bit — Madeleine George, in that same American Theatre interview, suggests that it’s life’s limits that give it meaning. “Don’t you think the reason we have emotions is because we’re mortal?” she asks. To my fascination, Jordan was a bit more circumspect, not willing to say unequivocally that the Primes feel nothing. He also talks about the 1982 television movie The Electric Grandmother, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story “I Sing the Body Electric,” in which, after their mother dies, three young children go to a robot factory with their dad to order a bespoke grandmother. Intrigued, I found the movie on YouTube, a grainy three-part upload from a disintegrating VHS tape. The electric grandmother is airlifted to their home by helicopter in a container that looks, as it hovers above their lawn, a little like antique SCUBA equipment, but which is actually a sarcophagus, and she dotes on the children and does their laundry and shoots milk for little Agatha’s breakfast out of a pressurized valve at the tip of her fleshy robot finger, until, one by one, the children grow up and go off to start their lives. The electric grandmother goes back to the factory, where she’ll wait until they need her again. Sitting in a circle of rocking chairs with the other electric grandmas (has she been there one year, or 40?), she recalls the first time little Agatha said “I love you.” “Sometimes,” she says to the other robot grandmas, “I almost feel that I feel.” And another replies, “So do I, sometimes.” What would it mean for the next significant evolution of intelligent life to be not biological, but technological? Can a smartphone have a soul? I’m inclined to say no — but that might be very 21st-century of me.
NOAH BEAN PH debut. OFF-BROADWAY: The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall, Yellowface. FILM & TV: Black Marigolds, Stay, “Damages,” “12 Monkeys,” “Nikita,” “It's Always Sunny in Philidelphia.”
STEPHEN ROOT PH debut. BROADWAY: All My Sons. FILM & TV: Office Space, Dodgeball, J. Edgar, Finding Nemo, “Boardwalk Empire,” “True Blood,” “24.”
LISA EMERY PH: Marvin's Room. BROADWAY: Casa Valentina, Burn This. OFF-BROADWAY: Iron (Obie Award), Curtains (Obie Award). FILM & TV: The Night Listener, “Violet.”
PH: After the Revolution, 100 Saints You Should Know. BROADWAY: Buried Child (Tony nom.), The Grapes of Wrath (Tony nom.). OFF-BROADWAY: The Trip to Bountiful (Obie Award), John. TV: “True Blood.”
THE AMERICAN VOICE
Bainbridge Island, where Jordan Harrison grew up, is rustic and lush, marked by winding two-lane roads that cut through sheets of gothic Pacific Northwest mist as they weave along an expanse of jagged, soaring coastline; in my experience, you’re about as likely to encounter a harbor seal there as you are a person. Just 10 miles across Puget Sound, close enough to be visible from the eastern beaches, is hi-tech Seattle, brimming with modernist architecture; birthplace of Microsoft and Nirvana; home of e-readers, coffee shop entrepreneurialism, the WTO riots, and eye-rolling hipsters. This image — two opposite worlds, negative spaces of one another, separated by a narrow passage — always comes to mind when thinking about Jordan’s plays, and it strikes me as a vantage point from which to enter his work. I imagine him in his melancholy formative years, passing between these worlds, gazing across the water, always awed by the view of the other side. Though the form Marjorie Prime takes is a striking contrast to the rest of Jordan’s body of work to date, it shares their DNA. Each entry vividly imagines an alternate version of the world, one that’s just on the other side of this one, a playful wide-eyed hypothesis — a thought experiment that we’re invited into — the encounter revealing to us our own world in a fresh light. Jordan made an auspicious debut in 2002 with KidSimple, a radio play in the flesh, a genre-bending action-fable in which a plucky teenage whiz-kid inventor named Moll journeys to a sultry fairytale forest “on the wrong side of the river.” On a quest to recover her miraculous invention, a machine for hearing sounds that can’t be heard, she’s whisked away from her cozy suburban life with her mom and dad, and opened up to a heretofore invisible world. In The Museum Play (2003), a young, broken-hearted curator installs his ex-boyfriend as an exhibit in a natural history museum, a desperate attempt to create an alternate reality with a better outcome. Jordan’s eerie thriller Finn in the Underworld (2004) centers on a young man whose sexual curiosity draws him down into his grandfather’s fallout shelter, where he’s transported into the heart of an unfinished ghost story buried deep in his family’s past. Each of these earlier plays whisks its characters into an imagined landscape that reveals a more complex understanding of the world they came from. Such is the case in the prohibition-era town of Act a Lady (2005), where a handful of men in a local community theater production dress up in “fancytype women-type clothes.” As their tight-lipped Midwestern world becomes intertwined with the 19th-century French melodrama they’re rehearsing, each character we meet is forced to confront gender identity until the notion becomes as changeable as putting on a costume. “To me that’s art,” one character says at the end of this romp. “When you think you know how to see something but when you’re done you see it someway else.” Taken individually, it's hard to fathom how his plays could have come from the same writer; each new play is a totally unique, idiosyncratic landscape —a sharp and unexpected turn from everything else he’s written. But when looking at Jordan’s plays collectively, they reveal a writer with an ecstatic love for language whose characters seem to wear it like a carefully considered costume; a writer whose distrust of the future is betrayed only by his relentless pursuit to understand it, and who obsessively mines the past in hopes that it may reveal some kind of logic about the present; who’s preoccupied with words, with how they scan, how they form in the mouth, how they look on a page, and with the weight they hold when sitting in a room; whose approach to each subject he takes on, however adult the subject may be, seems to somehow carry a child’s sense of wonder and awe; who remembers to us the strangeness of our world by envisioning an alternate version of it.
In Jordan’s Amazons and Their Men (2006), an auteur film director reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl fights to keep the real world at bay, but she can’t keep the love story on her sound stage safe from the burgeoning war outside. And his pop fairytale Doris to Darlene (2007) charts an unexpected course from girl groups of the 1960s back to the tormented 1860s Bavarian wünderland of Richard Wagner, and then forward to the lonely yearnings of a present-day teen: three far-apart worlds drawn onto the same map, searching into one another from their isolation. Futura (2009) extends the rapid digitization of today’s world into a cautionary vision of the not-so distant future, opening our eyes to what may be lost as we eradicate the printed word. And in Maple and Vine (2011), a present-day couple, lost amid the unbounded opportunities and choices in the contemporary city, joins a 1950s reenactionist society where their relationship to freedom and repression becomes richer, more complex, and unnervingly satisfying. Each of Jordan’s plays invites us to cross into another world, whether it’s wholly invented, an impressionistic vision of the past, or an imagined possibility for the future. But his ability to conjure worlds, as virtuosic and consistently stunning as it is, is less the point — to my mind, anyway — than his compulsion to do so. He works through the idiosyncratic, imagined landscape of each play to find what it might reveal to us about the one we live in. In a 2010 interview Jordan was asked, “If you were to write a play that took place in a snow globe, what would it be about?” To which he replied, “It would have to be about a land where it never snows.” Because we have to live in the world on a day-to-day basis, for better or worse, we inescapably become inured to it; we develop habits. And habit has a way of deadening our perceptions, keeping us from considering or questioning what surrounds us. The most essential Photo by Derrick Little nature of our hypothetical snow globe, and our automatic expectation for it, is the promise of snow. By altering the very thing that defines it, our perception of the snow globe reawakens, and it once again holds mystery. As Jordan’s plays call on imagined landscapes of the past or future, or as they defamiliarize the present, our habitual thinking is disrupted. “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life,” Viktor Shklovsky famously wrote. “It exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” As Mister Everly in The Museum Play asks, “Do you remember learning how to look?” Marjorie Prime is a surprise, an anomaly among Jordan’s plays. Set in the near-ish future, it centers on Marjorie, who at 86 years old is losing her grip on her memories and, by extension, her sense of self. Pitching a more concentrated emphasis on the confrontations and manipulations that pass between this family, this is formally the closest to realism we’ve seen from Jordan so far. But though Marjorie Prime may turn a corner stylistically, his hunger to invert the world, to see it with fresh, wide-open eyes, is insatiate. In the world of this play, Primes can help a grieving family cope with death by creating the illusion that it hasn’t happened. But though they strive to become more human, they’ll always lack the very essence of humanity: our mortality. And in the process, what it means to be human at all is the very question that’s left hanging.
ASSOCIATE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
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Marjorie Prime was the recipient of Theatre Masters' Visionary Playwright Award and was commissioned in association with Playwrights Horizons with additional funds provided by The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Commissioning Program. It was inspired by attendance at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
PERFORMANCE CALENDAR SUN
FRI NOVEMBER 20
22 29 6
2:30 PM 7:30 PM 2:30 PM 7:30 PM 2:30 PM < 7:30 PM
13 20 27
2:30 PM 7:30 PM 2:30 PM 7:30 PM 2:30 PM 7:30 PM
25 2 9 16
7:00 PM <
26 3 10 17
4 11 18
8:00 PM <
JANUARY 1, 2016
5 12 19 26
PPDs with the creative team have been scheduled for the following dates:
2:30 PM 8:00 PM
NOVEMBER 27 DECEMBER 2 DECEMBER 6
2:30 PM 8:00 PM
2:30 PM 8:00 PM 2:30 PM 8:00 PM 2:30 PM 8:00 PM 2:30 PM 8:00 PM
3 Join us for our Symposium, a panel discussion where the playwright asks the questions. Reserve your seat to this FREE event on November 2 at 7:00 PM PHnyc.org/Symposium. PM2:30 by visiting 7:30 PM
(Following the matinee)
We hope you can take part in this important aspect of our play development process.
2:30 PM Open Caption performance
We recommend Marjorie Prime for audiences 13+
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BOOK YOUR TICKETS NOW FOR
MARJORIE PRIME Written by
JORDAN HARRISON Directed by
ANNE KAUFFMAN NOVEMBER 20, 2015–JANUARY 3, 2016 Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater
This is the third of six productions in the 2015/16 Season.
MEET THE TEAM JORDAN HARRISON (Playwright). Jordan Harrison’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist Marjorie Prime had its world premiere last fall at the Mark Taper Forum. His recent The Grown-Up premiered in 2014 at the Humana Festival. His previous Humana Festival productions include Kid-Simple, Act a Lady, Fit For Feet, and Maple and Vine, which went on to be produced at Playwrights Horizons in New York and A.C.T. in San Francisco. Harrison’s other plays include Doris to Darlene (Playwrights Horizons), Amazons and Their Men (Clubbed Thumb), Finn in the Underworld (Berkeley Repertory Theatre), Futura (Portland Center Stage), and a children’s musical, The Flea and the Professor (Arden Theatre). Harrison is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Hodder Fellowship, the Kesselring Prize, the Roe Green Award from Cleveland Play House, the Heideman Award, the Loewe Award for Musical Theater, and a NEA/TCG grant. A graduate of the Brown University MFA program, Harrison is an alumnus of New Dramatists. He currently writes for the Netflix original series, “Orange is the New Black.”
ANNE KAUFFMAN (Director). Described by The New York Times as “one of the leading lights of downtown theater,” Anne
has directed at most major New York non-profit and regional theaters. Her recent credits include The Nether by Jennifer Haley with MCC; You Got Older by Clare Barron with P73 Productions; Smokefall by Noah Haidle at the Goodman Theater and South Coast Rep; 100 Days, a new musical by The Bengsons at Z Space in San Francisco; Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra by Kirk Lynn with Playwrights Horizons; and The Muscles in our Toes by Stephen Belber with the Labyrinth Theater Company. Other credits include: Lisa D’Amour’s Pulitzer Prize finalist play Detroit starring David Schwimmer and Amy Ryan at Playwrights Horizons (NY Times, New York Magazine, and TimeOut NY Top 10 Productions of 2012); Maple and Vine, also at Playwrights Horizons; Somewhere Fun by Jenny Schwartz at the Vineyard Theater; Amy Herzog’s Belleville for Yale Rep, NY Theatre Workshop, and Steppenwolf (Lortel Nomination for Best Director); Chloe Moss’s This Wide Night starring Edie Falco and Alison Pill for Naked Angels (Lortel Nomination for Best Director); the musical We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Adam Bock and Todd Almond with Yale Rep; Stunning by David Adjmi and Greg Pierce’s Slowgirl for LCT3; You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents’ Divorce with The Civilians at Williamstown, ArtsEmerson, and The Flea; and God’s Ear by Jenny Schwartz with New Georges and the Vineyard. Anne’s awards include an Obie Award, the Joan and Joseph Cullman Award for Exceptional Creativity from Lincoln Center, the Alan Schneider Director Award, the Barrymore Award for Best Director, and a Lilly Award. 8
Photo by Zack DeZon