Have any questions?
Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager
Jul 06, 2022
If theater is a reflection of life, then director Annie Dorsen may be creating a more authentic form of theater than anyone currently working in the medium.
Algorithms, the mathematical equations that direct computers to perform a task or solve a problem, are ever more omnipresent in the developed world. This often imperceptible coding is not only used to determine what we see in our respective social feeds, Google searches, dating app results, and Netflix recommendations; it’s playing a substantial role in stock market trading and being used to guide disease diagnosis, as well as criminal sentencing.
Such equations are central to Dorsen’s practice. Her current work, created in collaboration with computer programmers, uses algorithms to drive what transpires on stage. Instead of a script, there is data, and since the algorithms Dorsen develops are constantly learning and updating, each machine-tooled performance is unique. By elevating the work of algorithms closer to the surface of our perceptions, the artist creates an inescapable awareness of how these mathematical tools can shape our experiences.
Dorsen has termed the approach “algorithmic theater.” Her first outing with this experiment, Hello Hi There in 2010, offered a conversation between two chatbots fueled by the language of a 1971 debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky. In A Piece of Work from 2013, computers resequenced the text of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Dorsen’s pioneering work has been recognized by a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2018 and a 2019 MacArthur Fellowship.
For Yesterday Tomorrow, which the Wex will present July 16 at the Riffe Center’s Davidson Theatre, Dorsen says that she instructed an algorithm “to transform the song ‘Yesterday’ into the song ‘Tomorrow’ by migrating the pitches of the notes, the durations of the notes and the syllables of the lyrics.”
Yesterday Tomorrow, photo: Alexandre Schlub
As she explains, “I had been talking to Dylan Fried, the programmer on A Piece of Work, and I basically asked him, ‘Teach me what you know about how evolutionary algorithms (which solve problems in ways that mimic human evolution) work.’
“As I started to understand, I just blurted it out really: ‘Oh, you mean you can use them to turn one thing into another, like you could take the song ‘Yesterday’ and turn it into ‘Tomorrow,’” Dorsen says. “I used it as an example, and I thought it was sort of a dumb idea—until the next day, when I thought, actually that could really be beautiful. I thought there was something interesting there, different kinds of metaphors about time and the passage of time embedded within that concept.”
Composer Joanna Bailie signed on as a creative partner and the algorithm ultimately developed for the work was massaged to produce a more satisfying piece of music. Dorsen recalls, “The computer program was advocating to give us an elegant algorithm and I, of course, was advocating for emotional, narrative coherence—the conceptual coherence of the whole piece. So there was a lot of constructive push and pull.”
The music generated by the algorithm is projected in real time on three large screens, from which a trio of exceptionally nimble musicians sight-sing for the audience. "It’s a very advanced and specific set of skills required, to not only be able to keep up with the information that’s coming at them but to make interpretive choices that make some sense of the music,” Dorsen explains. “As the piece progresses, we start with a very familiar song, but the notes start to change and we end up in kind of a musical no man’s land in the middle of the piece, where you don’t have a musical relationship anymore to the song ‘Yesterday’ and you don’t yet have any relationship to the song ‘Tomorrow,’ and it’s like a chance piece by John Cage.”
The Columbus engagement of Yesterday Tomorrow was originally scheduled for spring 2020 but was postponed due to COVID-19. In the interim, Dorsen took some time to audit the first year of law school from her home in New York, “kind of for fun,” she notes with a laugh. “I’m such a nerd that that’s what I find fun. But it has been incredibly illuminating, sort of intellectually refreshing, and I feel like I’m learning on a different level something about the structures that make our world go ‘Brrr.’”
She’s also been reflecting on where to take her algorithmic-focused practice next. “I haven’t yet done a project that really digs into contemporary machine learning techniques,” Dorsen notes. “I’m trying to understand what’s happening in the world and how these new tools and toys and gizmos are changing the way we communicate and the way we live together and changing our expectations of the future, changing our relationships on many levels.”
“How can theater, which is a space for making the invisible visible, make some of these things visible in a way that gives us humans some time to reflect, understand, digest, consider. That’s one big question I have.”
Top of page: Annie Dorsen, image courtesy of the artist