Somewhere there are rules for what theatre is supposed to do: it should entertain, it should instruct, it should provoke. To say that Annie Dorsen’s Prometheus Firebringer checks all the boxes is an understatement of what she has done here. It is a brilliant reactionary, and yes, even cautionary, piece that takes a 2,500-year- old play that doesn’t really exist anymore (what is left of it is the title and a fragment or two – the rest has been lost over time) and thrusts it into an exercise for the unwitting specter of Artificial Intelligence. The results are fascinating, yet unremarkable; provocative, yet giddy.
On one side of the stage are five gruesome looking masks meant to be the Greek chorus of orphan children. Their eyes are completely hollowed out, replaced by ominous pale blue light. In the center of the stage there is a much larger mask, though propped up on a mount gives the illusion of bursting through the wall. The eyes of this creature are also hollowed out revealing a continuously changing artistic digitization of all it has seen (and conquered.) This mask is meant to be Prometheus himself. On the other side of the stage sits Annie Dorsen, our writer/director/performer (after Aeschylus), reading/lecturing from behind a teacher’s desk. And, as in any other classroom, we had better pay attention.
Prometheus Firebringer is an example of what Dorsen refers to as “algorithmic theater” where she asks an audience to focus on language and what power we hand over to Artificial Intelligence when we, the humans, don’t do the work ourselves. Between segments of reading the “play,” actually referred to by Theatre for a New Audience as an “Event: Hybrid Performance/Lecture,” Dorsen turns the duties over to the AI behind the hollowed-out eyes we see onstage in the form of a precursor to ChatGPT, GPT-3, to generate/perform what Aeschylus may or may not have written 2,500 years ago. The kicker here is that AI isn’t accountable to any director or stage manager, or playwright for that matter – you get different text at every performance, and all in a mere 45 minutes! We should have surmised as much from the pre-show. There is a screen hanging above the five orphan masks that displays a continuous typing and wiping itself out of a selection of AI-proposed synopses of the play that all start “The play begins with…”
Dorsen’s script is very telling in that none of it is original. Hanging just behind the seated Dorsen is a screen that flashes the source’s footnote at the end of every sentence, or paragraph, she utters. We are treated to the likes of Steven J. Venturino, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. (United Kingdom: DK Publishing, 2013); Canadian Geographic, Vol 125 (Canada: Royal Canadian Geographical Society, 2005), 49; The Twilight Zone, Episode 145; Barbara Bourland, I’ll Eat When I’m Dead (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2017); and New Zealand Planning Council, 1988. Pakeha Perspectives on the Treaty: Proceedings from a Planning Council Seminar, 23 & 24 September 1988 Quality Inn, Wellington, 79. All text is quoted verbatim from her sources as noted.
She confesses, “You will see that I am using other people’s words. It all comes from somewhere else. Ah, but I’m not stealing anything. I’m just borrowing this stuff, just like when you borrow a book from the library. Going to the library isn’t a crime, is it?” (Even this confession has its footnotes, three of them to be exact.). So when one gets to the core of Artificial Intelligence, where we understand all of this text from anywhere and everywhere, in print or on the internet, gets thrown into one big digital pot to then be repurposed as “original” we realize that Annie Dorsen, in this Event: Hybrid Performance/Lecture, has imitated the imitator…As they say, “Right back at you!”
Dorsen does sit back and is an audience member like we are when the masks attempt to recreate what Aeschylus once wrote. When there is an obvious pause, Dorsen begins to read from her own script again. And this is where we indirectly, but oh so clearly, learn what differentiates Artificial Intelligence from humans. As spoken by the chorus, the impromptu text is completely devoid of nuance, context, and get this, emotion. This is so artfully punctuated by Dorsen, the actress, when she needs to read her carefully crafted text complete with pauses for effect, an occasional smirk, and a subtle change in critical tone. The only thing we are unsure of is whether it is the work of the director Annie Dorsen, or the actress Annie Dorsen, but it really doesn’t matter. By then the audience has willingly accepted, if not totally embraced, the clever tongue-in-cheek conceit of the play, er, Event: Hybrid Performance/Lecture.
As in most performances, the design plays an important role. The omnipresent video and systems design by Ryan Holsopple, the moodful lighting design by Ruth Waldeyer, the pervasive sound design by Ian Douglas Moore, and the subtle software design and programming by Sukanya Aneja collectively create the palette for an engaging discourse about the use of AI. The 3D Artist Harry Kleeman .is credited with the actual modeling of the stunning masks from the original AI designs.
The general consensus from true creatives is that there is a danger in letting AI assume control. AI’s ability to truly discern what is good, or even appropriate, borders on the non-existent. One sentence and its citation truly sum up what we who know better have already figured out – “Contrary to popular decree, there is such a thing as a ‘bad choice,’ ” from Chris Ceraso and Michael Bernard, The Teen Acting Ensemble: A Practical Guide to Doing Theater with Teenagers (United States: Dramatists Play Service, Incorporated, (n.d.)), 44.
Just today, in an online article from todayinbooks.substack.com, it was reported that Project Gutenberg has released more than 5,000 free audiobooks of public domain titles produced using synthetic speech generated through AI. It is not the first use of AI to narrate audiobooks. It was more newsworthy when Apple did it, but it does rob serious actors of putting their stamp on a timeless piece of literature. Ensuing media outlets tell us not to get too upset as many public domain titles have been unavailable due to their age not making the cost of production worth the expense, and we should see the AI narrations as better than nothing…hmmm, most people would rather read the book or listen to an expressive dulcet voice. James Earl Jones comes to mind immediately. You’re welcome!
Prometheus Firebringer (through October 1, 2023)
Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, in Brooklyn
For tickets, visit http://www.tfana.org
Running time: 45 minutes without an intermission