Annie Dorsen: Theater and politics are similar – if you can pay, your voice will be heard
”Howard Barker was one of my first big influences. It’s funny that you’ve mentioned him.”, Annie says while dishes keep on clinking in the foyer of Hotel Laguna.
Barker is so often described as chilly. Yet there’s something curiosly poetic and warm about him. Both of us would agree on that, I believe. And at first glance, Annie Dorsen‘s work shares that chillines. It draws attention beacuse it gives a fresh approach to the traditional, inherently philosophical, but also theatrical mind-body problem. Performers are rarely on the stage. Often algorithms. Call this a theater? Yes! An extraordinary one situated in a double layer of time and space.
You started big! For most authors and creators, having your work staged on Broadway (Belasco Theater) would be a pinnacle of success. Your sort of pinnacle happened with the musical Passing Strange (2008). Spike Lee captured this theater piece in the superb documentary film. What was that experience like?
The Broadway thing was a bit of an accident. I started Passing Strange with Stew and Heidi Rodewald in March 2004 and at that time we thought we were making an experimental music-theater performance. We had no expectation it would have any kind of commercial future. Over the four years we worked on the piece, bit by bit it became a musical, which surprised the three of us. It was a once in a lifetime experience.
Broadway commercial dream come true, but with experimental non-profit theater in mind and heart.
Right, I never had the thought: I want to work on Broadway. We did the first performances in 2006 in a non-profit theater in California, and the following year we performed in New York at the Public Theater, also a non-profit. In 2008 we opened on Broadway. It’s not uncommon in the US for a piece to start in the non-profit theater and then transfer to a commercial production. But in 2004, at the same time I started working on Passing Strange, I also started developing a piece called Democracy in America.
[Laughs] That would’ve been my next question!
Yes, the chronology is a bit funny. It wasn’t two consecutive phases, because I was developing Passing Strange and Democracy in America at the same time. Both were long term projects which culminated in 2008.
So, you’ve worked on the commercial and non-profit performances at the same time. Croatian theater is facing a trend of political theater at the moment. Discussing and staging politics has become part of our daily lives. What thoughts led you while you were working on Democracy in America?
It was 2004. George Bush had just been reelected. Which probably shouldn’t have surprise me, but it did. Badly. I thought I wanted to try to understand how we got to this point in our political culture. So, I reread Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, to see if I could learn something. I was struck by what I consider to be Tocqueville’s central question, which is: what kind of nation is produced by the autonomous, self-interested actions of individuals? Which is to say, when the politics are created not through a common idea, but through the aggregation of individual ideas. What kind of whole, what kind of totality gets created in this way? So I started thinking about making a collage piece in which individuals would contribute text, or ideas, or a staging concept, design concept, or a piece of music, something they wanted to see, without having any idea what other materials might be included in the piece alongside theirs. And it became kind of like political vaudeville, a cacophony of ideas and opinions, vignettes and so on, like channel flipping on TV, an endlessly shifting collage.
The structure of the piece was unusual in terms of dramaturgy – an endlessly shifting collage like you said. What was it like for the participants, or for the audience?
Well, first of all everyone had to pay to include their voice in the piece. The more money they gave, the more influence they could have. The idea was to put the American political structure into the structure of the piece, and the content would emerge from what everyone decided they wanted to express. It created a jumble of ideas and contradictions and tastes and judgments, which is pretty close to the way I felt during the Bush years.
Although the piece is in a way political, structure (aesthetics) remains the main field of experiment in Democracy in America. What did it feel like, being “political,’’ for you and the audience?
I didn’t experience political push back because I didn’t make any political statement people could respond to. People were maybe more intrigued by the concept than they were necessarily provoked by the content. That relation between aesthetics and politics, there were a lot of discussions throughout the process. I think some people felt that I should have transformed the material more to make my own statement, which was absolutely the opposite of my intention with the piece. I was very clear that I was not interested in issuing a statement about politics, about particular issues or policies. I was rather trying to make a model of this heavily commercialized, privatised and individualistic structure of political discourse.
To move forward a bit from your simultaneous work on commercial and experimental pieces to 2010, when popped out your idea of a linguistic and algorithmic theater of the future, with chatbots performing instead of humans. Hello Hi There shows an intriguing, thought-provoking narrative without actors, set and costumes. How did you get into this?
It grew out of Democracy in America quite naturally. I started working with the 1972 debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky. In that debate they discuss, among other things, the relationship between language and consciousness. Chomsky is advocating a kind of neo-Platonic idea of language as a pure translation of thought, you know, I have a thought, which springs from my rational mind. I say X, you hear X, and you understand my thought. A smooth process. Foucault of course represents the more structuralist or post-structuralist notion that we are largely programmed by language. That we are rather re-producing language than producing it, if you see what I mean. That in some way we are controlled by the discourse that surrounds us and by power structures in our society that we may not always recognize.
In this debate we are facing a certain split between language and thought. Could it get even more radical? What does this have to do with theater?
I thought it could be interesting to add in a way a third voice to this discussion, that of Alan Turing, who proposed in 1950 that through technology we could make a total split between language and consciousness. In his essay “On Computing Machinery and Intelligence” he writes that what we think of as intelligence is entirely mysterious to us, that we really have no understanding of our own intelligence, of how it works. Therefore it’s kind of a pointless job to try to create a machine that “genuinely” has that intelligence property when we don’t know what that property is exactly. Turing suggested that if you could programme a computer to trick a human into believing that the computer is thinking then you have succeeded in creating artificial intelligence. And the way to trick the human is with language. I thought this whole notion was inherently theatrical – it’s about manipulating the listener, or the audience if you will. From there it was pretty quick, I start looking at online chatbots and talking with them a lot, trying to see if I could get them to talk with me about same questions Chomsky and Foucault talked about in their debate. They couldn’t do it very well, so I decided to make my own chatbots that would talk to each other about philosophy.
Seems you’ve became language programming researcher while working on that piece. Ideas were all around. But how do algorithms matter in theater more than action?
Well, I spent many months programming my chatbots with a help of a specialist. And I made this performance in which two computers “improvise,” in a way. It’s not a playback machine, it is a live experience. And I started to see that the piece could bring a new perspective to certain traditional questions about theater: What does it mean to perform? What is liveness when there is no live performer? What is presence without a body? And I started to see that it wasn’t so much artificial intelligence per se that I was working with, it was really algorithms – which are the bits of code that allow computers to act, to make decisions, to produce. I begin thinking of algorithms as performers, directors, designers, as creative artists. And I started wondering if there is something like an inherent dramaturgy to algorithms – individual algorithms structure information, they structure time, in particular ways. That’s when I came to think, oh it would be nice to take a classic text about the human condition and have a new adaptation created live at every performance by an algorithm rewriting the play.
In the terms of dramaturgy you’ve created with your Hamlet computer adaptation. A Piece of Work (https://vimeo.com/85806381) uses five different algorithmic models, analogous to Shakespeare’s five acts.
Yes, each scene uses a different computational process. The piece that was very much about the language itself, and whether the language itself can create theatrical representation. Shakespeare’s text is so glorious and limitless, but the algorithms we developed to rewrite the text, and the computer voices which spoke the text, are so limited, even stupid. I thought it was beautiful to encounter the clash between the limits of the expression and the limitlessness of the language. Could I make something that is really emotional from it, I thought? Is there a way to use computer algorithms to make something really warm? I thought there could be beautiful tension between algorithm and expressivity.
It requires great discipline from the performers and the audience to be a part of these performances. But we don’t leave the area of algorithms, philosophy and language yet… Yesterday Tomorrow (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_NaoVoxplY) is a conceptually interesting and in a way metaphysical musical. Croatian audiences were able to see it at Scena Travno (Festival of American Theatre in Zagreb, CNT).
In the case of Yesterday Tomorrow I was learning about evolutionary or genetic computation. All these pieces are inspired both by a certain kind of computational process and an emotional question. For example, when I made Hello Hi There, I was thinking about the futility of communication. What do we want to accomplish with all this talk? In Hamlet, I was thinking about absence and loss. My mother had just died, and I responded to the aspect of Hamlet which is very simply about a child grieving for a parent, about the kind of absence that can toss the world into chaos.
But Yesterday Tomorrow is a way more optimistic.
[Laughs] Someone who saw it in Oslo said, but this is so dark! I’m glad you think it is not.
Would you call yourself a careful optimist then?
Yes. You need to keep recommitting yourself to the possibilities of the future.
Our conversation begins to look like a compendium of your experimental work. Maybe now is the time for the big finish. What in your opinion encompasses the current terms, the current idea of theater and performance?
[Laughs] Are you seriously asking me that? I thought this would be nice and easy.
[Laughs] It was my devious attempt at the maieutic method rather than the expository one.
I don’t know about theater today in general. For me, what I’m thinking a lot about is always putting the ideas in the structure of the piece, so that what you watch as the protagonist of the piece is not a character, but an idea. You track the changes of that idea and different consequences of it, and the variations possible within it. When I started with Hello Hi There, I thought that algorithmic theater poses a challenge to some aspects of the theater that we all assume to be true, like you need a body on a stage to attach to. That the theatrical event is ephemeral and contingent, that language in theater should reveal inner thoughts, desires and so on. Working with algorithms doesn’t necessary demolish those ideas, but it does make you think a bit differently about liveness, presence, bodies, language. I have found myself enjoying again that metaphoric aspect of theater, that there is always a double situation – what’s onstage right in front of you and what is being referenced, what is being represented that is happening somewhere or sometime else. This double layer of two times and two places, and the tension between them.
Yesterday Tomorrow is the closest I’ve come to creating a work which is really operating on both time scales. Very strongly, parallel, simultaneous. Both the structuralist mathematical side and the metaphoric emotional side. That’s what I’m thinking about when reflecting on the theater. Is that the kind of thing you meant when asking?
*The author would like to express her deepest gratitude to Kristina Bangoura and Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb for making this interview possible in time and space.