Theater in a digital age

By STEVE BARNES, Arts Editor
First published: Friday, November 7, 2003

William Kennedy's 'In the System' is one of six 'plays' debuting at the University at Albany

By STEVE BARNES, Arts editor
First published: Friday, November 7, 2003

William Kennedy freely admits that it took him five years to learn to use a computer. And so when Capital Repertory Theatre and the University at Albany invited him to write a short play about technology, everyone assumed that the novelist, who has spent a lifetime exploring the past in his fiction, would deliver a work in which the most sophisticated technology was the telephone.
Everyone, that is, except Kennedy.

Instead, the 73-year-old writer turned in a play so advanced that the technology to produce it as conceived literally does not exist. Even in its scaled-down version, the play, titled "In the System," incorporates a television, a PC and digital video streaming on multiple screens that coordinate from one computer monitor. And -- not to be left out -- telephones.

"In the System" is one of the six works that make up "The Technology Plays," a UAlbany-Capital Rep co-production having its world premiere Monday night in the atrium of the university's New Library at 1400 Washington Ave., where it will be on view during regular library hours for a month. More art installation than traditional theatrical event, "The Technology Plays" consists of six separate, portable rooms that viewers enter, one at a time, to watch each play and, in some cases, interact with technology to become part of the story. The plays each last seven minutes or less, except Kennedy's; it runs 12 minutes.

Four of the plays were chosen from work submitted after Capital Rep put out a call for entries last fall; the works by Kennedy and Richard Dresser, an established dramatist whose "Rounding Third" will be performed at Capital Rep in the spring, were commissioned for "The Technology Plays."

In "Chip," by Malcolm Michelle Messersmith, the viewer uses an actual ATM, borrowed from Charter One Bank and heavily modified. An attempt to withdraw cash goes haywire when the machine mistakes the viewer for a space alien, summons authorities and may (or may not) tell the viewer that his or her identity has been stolen.

Dresser's "Greetings from the Home Office" puts the viewer at an executive desk for the first day on the job. A series of contradictory phone calls come in from warring factions within the company, and the new executive must decide whether to delete an inflammatory e-mail or forward it to senior management.

In "parse.a.PERSON," playwright Stacy Orsini makes the viewer a job applicant. The interviewee responds to a standardized test on a computer and overhears two interviewers discussing the answers in increasingly bizarre terms.

And Kennedy's "In the System," based on last year's Breeders' Cup wagering scandal, lets the viewer watch as a pair of twentysomething hackers talk about how to alter electronic bets after horse-racing results are in. As thoroughbreds line up for a race, technological mayhem ensues: Computers snarl the betting scam, one of the hackers "visits" his girlfriend at a porn Web site, and a 911 call about a deer that's crashed through a car window gets crosswired into the discussion. While followers of Kennedy's work will recognize his snappy dialogue, affection for swindlers and love of a good con, what's utterly new is Kennedy's use of cutting-edge technology. Think of it as "Guys & Dolls" meets "The Matrix."

No easy description

"The Technology Plays" defies easy description, says Mary Valentis, a UAlbany English professor and director of HumaniTech, a university initiative designed to bring together science, technology and the humanities. Valentis co-produced "The Technology Plays" with Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, Capital Rep's producing artistic director.

This project, Valentis says, "is really three things: an art installation with streaming video, a drama and, very consciously, a sociological and cultural commentary about how humans are interacting with machines, and how that affects our lives."

"The Technology Plays" has grown far beyond the initial expectations of its co-producers. What started with a $10,000 gift from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation's "Imagining America" grants program is now a $70,000 multi- and interdisciplinary project that is likely to be seen by tens of thousands of people.

After its stay at UAlbany, the rooms will be installed on a rotating basis at Capital Rep -- there isn't space for all at once -- before moving on to other area venues. Locations being talked about include Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, the Rensselaer Amtrak station and the Albany International Airport Gallery in Colonie; organizers also would love to see the installation travel to museums in tech-savvy cities like Boston, San Francisco or Austin, Texas.

"It's a most amazing collaboration," says Valentis. "The university, a regional theater, corporations and the local community are all involved." Various UAlbany offices supplied additional grants, and Apple Computers delivered more than $30,000 worth of high-end Macintoshes and flat-screen monitors.

"The creativity and uniqueness of the project really fit well with Apple's goals," says Craig Devoe, the local Apple account executive who persuaded company honchos in California to provide the equipment. "It was a great chance to partner with a ... project that could gain both sides a lot of exposure."

A busy process

Mancinelli-Cahill decided to approach Apple after seeing a play in Manhattan that featured a multimedia presentation run entirely on Macs. The company came aboard in late summer, and area computer programmers toiled for weeks on the software needed to make the plays work. Meanwhile, as each play's video and audio tracks were recorded at Capital Rep, the rooms were built at Capital Rep's annex, the former Albany City Arts Building. And all happened this during the rehearsal and performance periods for Capital Rep's productions of "Doctor Faustus" and its new show, "Sweepers."

"It's fabulously exciting," says Mancinelli-Cahill, "but it's also been an incredible amount of work."

Ideally, viewers won't notice. They won't think about how the rooms had to be collapsible and transportable yet sturdy enough to withstand months of visitors. Or how each room required a ventilation system, electrical outlets, speakers and computer, audio and video jacks. Or the locks that keep the $5,000 Macs secure but can't be used by viewers to secure themselves inside for pursuits either mischievous or carnal.

"We had extended discussion about how to keep these from being flophouses," says Capital Rep's production manager, Robin MacDuffie, who with his team built the rooms.

What viewers will notice, says Mancinelli-Cahill, is something at once simple and headily complex: "It's a play on a computer, and you become one of the characters."

Inspired by scandal

"The whole thing was great fun," says Kennedy, who says he was as afraid of computers as he was of electric typewriters when they first came out.

The Breeders' Cup bet-fixing scandal inspired him. "I already knew a lot about horse-playing and the track and fixed races and that sort of thing," he says. The technology -- its possibilities, limitations and terminology -- required some homework. Kennedy, an old-time journalist who's still got newspaper ink in his veins, immersed himself in the subject.

"I talked to people who were adept at computer language and the language of hackers and so on, and I read these incomprehensible books on the inner workings of computer systems and this arcane language that goes with it, and it seemed very normal after a while," he says.

Although Mancinelli-Cahill knows Kennedy well -- indeed, she directed the world premiere of his play first, "Grand View," at Capital Rep in 1996 -- she was nonetheless astounded when "In the System" arrived.

She says, "We got the play and said, 'Well, I guess that's why he got the Pulitzer Prize.' "

Kennedy himself isn't quite sure what he's written.

"I could see what was supposed to happen (in the play) even though I had no way of making it happen myself," he says. "And I really don't know what it's going to be like when it's done. I haven't a clue."



What: Participatory art installation in which visitors enter small rooms to watch and participate in interactive, seven-minute plays about technology's effects on humanity.

Where: Atrium, New Library, University at Albany, 1400 Washington Ave., Albany

Opening reception: 5:30-7:30 p.m. Monday

Regular hours: 8 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday through Thursday; 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday; noon-1 a.m. Sunday. Limited hours or closed when university is not in session.

Admission: free

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The Technology Plays