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Creating a Genre with “The Technology Plays”
by Greta Petry (December 12, 2003)

The production team for William Kennedy’s short play, “In the System,” had worked through the night. They were running on adrenaline, having gone without sleep for about 30 hours. At 3:30 a.m. the night before “The Technology Plays” were to debut at the University at Albany’s New Library, the final cut of the film was loaded onto the computer in one of six small booths set up for this purpose. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and founder of the New York State Writers Institute walked into the booth and viewed the final product. The production team waited outside. Finally, Kennedy opened the door, walked out, and smiled. He said, “It’s really good.”

“Nothing could make me happier,” said director Jeff Clinkenbeard. “We all breathed a sigh of relief.” Clinkenbeard was joined by Kyaw Tha Hla of Burma, the producer of “In the System”; Martin Goeller, editor and director of photography for Kennedy’s 12-minute play; and many others.

This small window into the work that went into “The Technology Plays,” a collaboration among the University; Capital Repertory Theatre; and Apple Computer, Inc., demonstrates the kind of creative process, leap of faith, and imagination it took to produce a new kind of theatre that mingles our fascination with technology with a certain unease about the effects of computers on our lives. The project was developed by UAlbany’s HumaniTech* and Capital Repertory Theatre in the fall of 2002. Mary Valentis, Ph.D., of the Department of English, is the director of HumaniTech* and producer of “The Technology Plays.”

Valentis said, “HumaniTech*’s first major project was an experiment in collaborative partnerships that brought together a preeminent regional theater company, a corporation that emphasizes education, and a bold University initiative. Creative artists, sound and technology experts, students, administrators, and academics worked in teams to produce this new kind of cutting-edge cyber theater.”

The completed plays mark the culmination of a year’s work that began when Valentis and Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, producing artistic director of Capital Repertory Theatre, agreed to bring the resources of both institutions to the project.

As Kennedy said at the media preview of the plays, “We are inventing this genre as we go along.” Kennedy, at 73, says it took him six years to learn to use a computer. Once committed, he threw himself into the project. “I read some books, and did some synthesis of what I had learned. I did research as I would for any work. I talked to computer-savvy people. It was great fun. I had no idea of what I was getting into,” he said.

The idea for his play came from a news story in which two young men became millionaires by hacking into the online racing system to fix bets. It focuses on humans using computers to scam others.

Playwright Richard Dresser expressed similar feelings about plunging into the unknown on this project. When initially approached, Dresser said, “I had a vague sense of what was going on.” He joked that “I agree on the spot to anything that is happening six months in the future.” Later on, he sensed excitement about the project in phone calls he was receiving from Albany. “And I asked, ‘What is it I accepted?’ And then I was told the restrictions. There can’t be any actors.”

The result was “Greetings from the Home Office,” which makes the viewer
a newly hired executive in a cutthroat corporate world in which he has untenable decisions to make his first day on the job. Dresser’s play “Rounding Third” recently opened off-Broadway and is scheduled to run in the spring at Capital Repertory Theatre.

At the heart of “The Technology Plays” is the premise that a play doesn’t have to be something one witnesses onstage in a theatre. One can imagine these plays at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, in booths set up along the sidewalk.

Dresser noted that the nature of technology is transforming the most personal relationships. “And here theatre needs to be inside this. It should really creep into every corner of our lives. It should be powerful, it should be bold. Theatre needs to adapt in order to survive the age of technology,” Dresser said.

Mancinelli-Cahill said, “At its best, theatre possesses the power to ignite the imagination and engage our hearts and souls in questions about our lives, our dreams, and aspirations. ‘The Technology Plays’ taught us that theatre doesn’t have to be in an auditorium, on a raised stage with painted scenery. Theatre can be a part of the world and reach far beyond the footlights!”

Discussing the plays, she continued,
“I was struck by how many of the scripts dealt with the foibles of multi-tasking behavior that is so familiar in our daily lives. These plays put an audience member right in a situation – sometimes as voyeur, sometimes as conspirator, sometimes as victim of technological mishap – but in all of them, once the technological ball is rolling, the die is cast and so is the audience member! Hopefully, these seven-minute excursions into the imagination can give us a means to examine the very nature of our own lives in fun and often provocative ways.”

The playwrights had to adjust to creating a story that would be “acted out” on a computer screen in a little booth. Patrick O’Rourke, 27, was the “techno czar” who inherited the project from a student at Rensselaer and wrote the software programs that would make the plays come to life on the Apple-donated computers.

O’Rourke redid the entire project in two months. The recent New York University graduate [master’s in digital imaging] said, “I designed the images and created the animations. Some use interactive DVDs and others are actual computer programs. We used Max/MSP/Jitter – that is the language I used to write the project. Students were very curious about the technology we used. Everyone wondered what all these booths were.”

The plays, sponsored by Apple, were also funded in part by The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation; at UAlbany by the offices of the President, the Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Vice President for Research, and University Auxiliary Services; by The Beatrice and Robert Herman Foundation; and by Coca-Cola, Time-Warner Cable, and Charter One Bank. Coca-Cola sponsored a student test drive event, while Charter One Bank and Time-Warner provided an ATM and technical support.

While humans seemingly had the upper hand over computers in Kennedy’s play, at least until they were caught, in Dresser’s the new employee is trapped by the situation that technology brings to him. The other four plays were selected through a contest of Capital Region writers. They included “Beyond the Firewall,” by student winner Daniel Whalen ’02, a clever look at the Big Brother possibilities of e-mail and heightened terrorist alerts, and Daniel Ho’s “1+1=0.” Ho, who earned a master’s in theatre from UAlbany, juxtaposes a couple meeting over coffee to talk about how their spouses are cheating on them with each other at the same time the spouses are IM’ing each other. Stacy (Anastasia) Orsini wrote “parse.aPERSON,” the out-of-control on-line job interview; and Malcolm Messersmith wrote “Chip,” the ATM station of the future.

The installations will stay at UAlbany until the end of December, when they will move to Capital Rep until Spring 2004, and then be placed at locations that may include Crossgates Mall, the Rensselaer Amtrak station, and the Albany Interna-tional Airport Gallery in Colonie.

*HumaniTech is used with the permission of Barbara L. Cohen and the Regents of the University of California.


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