Annie Dorsen’s Algorithmic Theater — A Decade Collaborating with Computers

December 13, 2017

Director and writer Annie Dorsen has been collaborating with computers for nearly a decade. Computer algorithms—in rough terms, sets of instructions that allow computers to turn data into decisions—fuel her theatre work: not by creating visual effects or playing preprogrammed material, but by writing performance text, prompting onstage action, and shifting the meaning of a performance as it unfolds. Dorsen’s algorithmic pieces include Hello Hi There (2010), which uses a conversation between chatbots to riff on the famous 1973 televised Chomsky-Foucault debate about human nature and consciousness; A Piece of Work (2013), which employs Hamlet as source material; and Yesterday Tomorrow (2015), which stages a musical progression from the Beatles’ “Yesterday” to “Tomorrow,” from the musical Annie. Dorsen’s most recent piece, The Great Outdoors (2017), set in an inflatable planetarium, fashions a script from harvested Reddit comments, inviting spectators to contemplate the nature of human expression and communication. These works have challenged fundamental principles of dramaturgy in radical ways (Dorsen describes some of these in a 2012 essay, “On Algorithmic Theatre”). They’ve also demanded the creation of an entirely new way of working: a mode of theatermaking that reimagines the relationship between humans and machines.

Over the decade of Dorsen’s work with them, “algorithm” has become a household word, signifying increasingly powerful forces that shape our consumption habits and perceptions of the world. But initially, Dorsen recalls, the concept was unfamiliar, its significance for our current social and political landscape unclear. “People would ask, ‘how’s it going with your robot play?’” she says. “The multimedia performance that they were used to was along the lines of the Wooster Group and their progeny, working with video and other digital effects.” Algorithms—which, as computer processes, are neither humanoid like a robot nor image-based like video—began to register more widely in public consciousness in the wake of Edward Snowden’s 2013 disclosures about mass data collection. “Among other things, he did this great service, educating people about algorithms and metadata,” Dorsen says. “About what kind of information travels through the internet as co-passengers with the thing you think you’re sending and what kinds of things can be done with it. So he gets some credit for that, but people generally started being more aware of the power of algorithms around that time because of the increasing power of the three big companies, Facebook, Google, and Amazon.” The power dynamic between algorithms and humans emerges in microcosm in Dorsen’s pieces, where computers often provide text, in real time, to be voiced by human actors. This is a relationship that has evolved over time. While creating Hello Hi There, Dorsen experimented with planting a performer in the audience to ask seemingly spontaneous questions of the chatbots. “It was incredibly ineffective,” she recalls. “This thing that was supposed to bring more spontaneity to the piece killed every piece of spontaneity.” That piece ultimately abandoned human performers altogether. Now, she says, performers are not the algorithms’ interlocutors, but “the ones who have to deal with them.” Earpieces channel computer-generated material to performers, who turn the algorithms’ decisions into vocal and emotional choices onstage. As Dorsen says, “You get what you get from the world and you make a lot of micro-decisions about what to do with it. There is room to maneuver, but it may be more constrained than you usually realize.” In Yesterday Tomorrow, computers guide a trio of singers, incrementally, from a full-throated “Yesterday” to a showstopping “Tomorrow.” The Great Outdoors featured a single performer, and its text spanned a spectrum of expression from the banal to the idiosyncratic and deeply personal.

While she was developing Hello Hi There, Dorsen envisioned making an entire series of pieces that didn’t include human performers at all—and yet, every piece she’s made since then has included human actors. Her newest works employ algorithms, but are shifting in emphasis. Dorsen’s next piece will examine the multiple dimensions of desire through an exploration of online sex-chat rooms. “Rather than simply the conceptual rigor of an algorithm that generates everything on its own,” she points out, “the new pieces are tending to be about what kind of human relationships the internet produces, what kind of humans live online.” Regardless of which virtual spaces we frequent, these humans now include pretty much all of us. Dorsen points to a recent Medium post by the artist James Bridle, which meditates on the disturbing ways algorithmically generated content is permeating our culture. He cites the seemingly innocuous YouTube Kids channel, where algorithms—combining and recombining images—have created a nightmare space of unintentionally gory and pornographic videos. “Combinatorial logic without human oversight is a risk to the integrity of our consciousnesses,” Dorsen says. “It overwhelms us.” As a result, she explains, “there’s a new kind of reading we have to develop.” Her newest work addresses this challenge, exploring the relationships between humans and virtual spaces. “What happens if that virtual space becomes the embodied space of the theater?” she asks, adding, “It’s still algorithmic theater, but the emphasis is more about the strange place between human-created and machine-created content, at dizzying scale.”

Annie Dorsen is a director and writer whose works explore the intersection of algorithms and live performance. She has received the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts for theater, a NYSCA Individual Artist grant for work in new technology, an Artist Award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and an Obie Award for her work on the Broadway musical Passing Strange, which she co-created and directed. Since 2017, she is a Visiting Artist Professor at University of Chicago.

Miriam Felton-Dansky is an assistant professor of theater & performance at Bard College and a theater critic for the Village Voice. Her book Viral Performance is due out from Northwestern University Press in May 2018.