Immersive Theater Work Explores The Pleasures And Pitfalls Of Digital Living

Sep 19, 2019

In 2012, Bricolage Production Company redrew the local theater map with “STRATA.”

The show, which took over most of a Downtown building and made audiences part of the action, was likely Pittsburgh’s first original, large-scale work of immersive theater. Bricolage went on to specialize in immersives, including 2015’s magical-realist “The Saints Tour: Braddock” and “DODO” (2017), which took audiences on behind-the-scenes, after-hours tour of the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History.
 

Bricolage Production Company presents "Project Amelia": Fri., Sept. 20-Nov. 3. South Side

Next for Bricolage is what, on several levels, is its most ambitious immersive yet. “Project Amelia,” which opens Friday, tackles our culture of digital living not only with participatory theater, but a high-tech approach that incorporates original artificial-intelligence products created just for the show.

“Project Amelia” is the brainchild of Michael Skirpan. In 2016, as a doctoral student in computer science at the University of Colorado – Boulder, Skirpan wrote and staged “The Quantified Self.” It was an immersive he described as “an art project with civic responsibilities.”
 

Jeffrey Carpenter is founder and artistic director of Bricolage.

“Amelia” is a reworked version of “Quantified Self.” Skirpan, who grew up in Belle Vernon, is now a computer scientist and educator, and a consultant on computer ethics. After earning his doctorate, he returned to Pittsburgh and sought out Bricolage for help developing his show further.

Anybody who follows the news is at least a little worried about Artificial Intelligence, or AI. Companies like Facebook and Google mine our digital activities for information that’s going to benefit someone, whether to sell pants or sway elections. Skirpan said that most people are overly focused on privacy – “is somebody snooping through my stuff? Is somebody seeing a picture of me or learning about me in a way I don’t like?” – and too little concerned about impersonal data mining.

“For me, it was becoming more about, ‘No, your data is being used to create machine learning or AI systems that are actually going to come around and as products have impacts on your lives,’” said Skirpan, who is also a special faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University.
 

"We need to create the future that we want, not just let it all be in the hands of someone else"

The premise of “Project Amelia” is that audience members have bought tickets not to the theater, but rather to the secret launch of a spectacular AI product by a company called Aura. (The show’s own venue, a South Side warehouse space, will itself be revealed only to ticket-buyers.)

Everyone will experience the show’s main storyline, which includes certain central experiences.

“There’s a keynote address [that’s] very much a Steve Jobs, Apple-style product launch, where the product is unveiled,” said Jeffrey Carpenter, Bricolage’s founder and artistic director. “The whole structure of the evening is almost a mini-conference on the subject.”
 

Eunsu Kang curated interactive media for "Project Amelia."
Credit Courtesy of Bricolage Production Company

Bricolage isn’t releasing too many details, but ticket-holders will be able to adopt personas within the play, and interact with performers in exchanges that are partly scripted, partly improvised. The ensemble cast of nine assumes roles like Aura’s CEO, its head of security, and the glad-handing vice president of corporate communications, Bo Brunfeld.

Bricolage’s backstage team, meanwhile, is even bigger than for most works of theater, and not just because the space is about 20,000 square feet and has been remade into a warren of offices, conference rooms, and product-testing areas.

A dozen or more crew members – including engineering director Micha Gorelick, and head researcher Maggie Oates – created new technology for the show. This includes an app that will help guide audience members through the evening. The app is loaded on the phone each ticket-buyer will be loaned on checking in – and after turning in his or her personal smartphone for safekeeping. (Yes, Bricolage will ask audiences to share data during the show. But Carpenter says any such data will be encrypted, and then destroyed at evening’s end.)

Audiences will also get to play with the new software Bricolage has devised for the show. One AI station, for instance, assists users in composing music.
 

"What does it mean for humans as they create things that make us obsolete?"

“So there will be a little touchpad with keyboard, and you play a little melody or tone, whatever you want to try, and the AI system behind it will improve it, turn it into a little harmonized song, a very short one though, and play it,” says Eunsu Kang, the Carnegie Mellon University visiting professor who is interactive media curator for “Project Amelia.”

The show accommodates 60 guests a night, and the experience lasts about two hours.

In Bricolage’s “STRATA,” ticket-holders assumed the roles of participants in a self-actualization course, and the show interrogated, even satirized, empowerment culture. The creators of “Project Amelia” said they hope the “Project Amelia” does something similar.

Sam Lothard (right) is part of the ensemble cast of "Amelia."
Credit Jeff Swensen / Courtesy of Bricolage Production Company

“The show addresses in a fundamental way of what actually is true about AI versus what we’re being told is true with AI," Skirpan said.

He cites media claims from the 1950s that “walking, talking, self-aware robots” – still a distant dream today – were right around the corner. And he notes that the advent of completely autonomous vehicles, media and marketing hype notwithstanding, keeps getting pushed back.

The idea is to avoid viewing AI as either inherently good or bad. “We need to create the future that we want, not just let it all be in the hands of someone else,” said Skirpan.

The show will also encourage participants to consider what the tech giants who profit from our data might owe back to the community, he said: "Who's holding our hands as we walk into the future, and do we feel they’re benevolent, do we feel they have our best intentions, or do we need to change something?"

Other, perhaps more existential questions are also at play.

“There’s a natural tension in here between the future of our dreams where, you know, technology does everything for us, and … what does that mean when we have technology doing everything for us, what do we do?” said Carpenter. “What does it mean for humans as they create things that make us obsolete?”

Heavy stuff, but perhaps theater can generate discussion about such issues in new ways.

As Kang, the show’s interactive media curator, observes, actors are, after all, in the business of connecting people.

“This is just a great example of how our society should go in the era of AI -- being together, and having communication, and trying to solve problems together, and knowing each other better and connecting to each other,” she said.

For ticket information, visit the Bricolage web site.