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Monday, February 25, 2013

Sound and Fury: The Controversy Over "A Piece of Work" at On the Boards

Posted by on Mon, Feb 25, 2013 at 1:59 PM

  • Jim Findlay

My, my. A Piece of Work, Annie Dorsen's experiment in an algorithmic Hamlet, kicked up a shitstorm this weekend at On the Boards.

Quick background: It featured actor Scott Shepherd (the narrator in Gatz, the hours-long and well-loved stage version of The Great Gatsby at OtB in 2007) and several computer voices, which chopped up and rearranged Hamlet with Markov chains and other manipulations. The lighting and sound design were also auto-generated, based on whatever words (each given an emotion score) popped up.

As Dorsen said in an interview in this week's paper: "We'll just push play, sit back, and watch. We're running the show with no human intervention." Even Shepherd only said or did what the computer told him.

I rather liked it, but some people haaaated it. One friend texted me after opening night: "Hamlet machine is a pain generator." Playwright and sometime Stranger theater critic Bret Fetzer railed against the show on Facebook:

I've seen some terrible, awful, idiotic theater, but never has my time been so wholly wasted by such a bloodless execution of a sliver of an idea — not even an idea, a deliberate lack of an idea, a mechanism to remove any thought or human response.

The show is different every night, of course, and I saw a version last night that was under an hour. (Bret saw a version that was well over an hour.) But I found its word salad moving and sometimes haunting—a further fracturing of Ophelia's pained speeches (at one point, she kept saying "I think nothing"), the repetition and wordplay of the despairing Hamlet pushed into more repetition and wordplay. It helped to be a Hamlet nerd, of course. The phrases of A Piece of Work were like little ghosts or shards of memory, traces of characters or scenes. If you weren't familiar with them already, the shards would be meaningless.

But Fetzer is certainly familiar with Hamlet—familiarity didn't guarantee that A Piece of Work would work.

I walked in fearing that it would make no sense at all. I haven't been able to get excerpts of the text from last night's performance (other than little notes like "young men, by cock, they are to blame" and "king's offenses gilded law"), but I worried it would look like this paragraph from my preview, ground by a short online Markov chain into total babble:

mistical mission of then of the Mart eververything with no accept everyin working trying thing differything the rical mistion to accept eventerything with a political missess. "Hamlet—strying witichly human as as a political mission text with a distre runnism, dripping wor Cage

But it was more like this (a slightly longer Markov chain from the same preview):

Apart from proto-Kantianism, consciousnesses trying different. For Cage, it was a distillation of the whole play, dripping with "Hamlet—strenuously working the richly human text when she began as a fairly simple game. Dorsen says. "We're running the show with no human intervention." The Markov chain was a political and spiritual mission to accept everything with a spiritual mission to accept everything with "Hamlet-ness."

That, like A Piece of Work, has shades of meaning, hints of ideas. And in one segment towards the beginning, Shepherd started speaking a long Markov chain—which was essentially whole lines taken from the play—that slowly devolved into total gibberish. Watching the dissolution was like watching an ice sculpture melt in fast motion.

Fetzer is correct in saying that A Piece of Work was mostly bloodless—programs, not people, were the stars of the show—but it wasn't meaningless. After last night's performance, Dorsen said they'd continue to tinker with their machine for upcoming dates in Norway, Paris, and New York. Maybe I caught a better night with the machine than others did, or maybe I was just more inclined to enjoy the experiment.

Whether people liked it or not, she got further than would-be provocateurs like Jan Fabre in his Orgy of Tolerance at OtB in 2009. (Somehow, Fabre managed to make onstage sodomy with a rifle barrel dull. Major performance fail.)

By playing with a text as familiar as Hamlet, Dorsen did provoke and polarize her audience. (I've felt far more aggrieved about my wasted time at conventional plays.) In that respect, she did what she set out to do.


Comments (12) RSS

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@9&10 - there's occasionally a delay in when a comment is submitted and when it is posted on our blog based on the commenting system we have, but yours went live on Friday morning. Sorry that there was a delay!
Posted by Jess@OtB on February 26, 2013 at 7:29 PM · Report this
@9 what are you talking about unpublished? I read your "review" on their blog alongside the others on Friday.
Posted by mge on February 26, 2013 at 1:59 PM · Report this
My unpublished (HUH!, I wonder why they didn't publish it on Thu or ever):

In twenty years of reasonably continuous support and attendance at the OTB, this is only the third time I walked out. What do I think about the piece of work? A cute three-minute youtube video resulting from a first-year CompSci homework assignment -- stretched mastrubatorily and without regard to Shakespeare, Markov, human decency or human bladder into eighty minutes of self-congratulatory reiterative absurdity. That about sums it up. Skip.

Posted by anon33 on February 26, 2013 at 1:55 PM · Report this
My unpublished (HUH!, I wonder why they didn't publish it on Thu or ever):

In twenty years of reasonably continuous support and attendance at the OTB, this is only the third time I walked out. What do I think about the piece of work? A cute three-minute youtube video resulting from a first-year CompSci homework assignment -- stretched mastrubatorily and without regard to Shakespeare, Markov, human decency or human bladder into eighty minutes of self-congratulatory reiterative absurdity. That about sums it up. Skip.

Posted by occasionallyactive on February 26, 2013 at 1:46 PM · Report this
I still talk about Orgy of Tolerance to this day. Not that I think it was a good show but that it sparked thought. That and the fact that we unwittingly brought my parents-in-law to see some "theater", not quite knowing what we were in for. That one was a bit uncomfortable!

And I don't think that "A Piece of Work" was a good show at all, but it was interesting. I even think that watching a piece fail horribly has artistic value. And good for them for trying. There are concepts to the algorithmic rendition that could work. Maybe just need better algorithms, or a bit more heuristic control. Surviving the failure with renewed energy to trying again is how we grow.
Posted by joeyseattle on February 26, 2013 at 12:01 PM · Report this
trstr 7
Sure, Markov chains are cheap old thrills - spammers have been using them to generate text that will pass through email filters for god knows how long - but when I think of how best to manipulate a text like Hamlet, well, a line like "Excellent, i' faith; of the chameleon's dish: I eat the air, promise-crammed: you cannot feed capons so." already looks like it's been run through one. Couple that with the themes of madness and the fading jumbled thoughts of the dying, and as cliched as the trick is, it simply fits.

Also, "randomly generated" doesn't really describe what's going on quite accurately. There were 15+ different sections, all with different originating texts and different algorithms to generate the output text. That's where the creativity lies - take a machine, match up input text to suit it, and make sure the output tends to be interesting. I thought the two most successful of these were Scott Shepherd's reading/melding of dialogue between Hamlet and Ophelia and the computerized rendition of Ophelia's last scene. Both were beautiful and heartbreaking. On the other hand, the ones consisting solely of stage directions were more trite and gimmicky - and 40ish minutes of solely computer-performed work was getting really close to sensory overload. I'm predisposed to like it, and it weighed down on me.
Posted by trstr on February 25, 2013 at 5:43 PM · Report this
Just to clarify, for anyone who doesn't click through to FB (which, I'm assuming, is most everyone): I didn't say 'A Piece of Work' was meaningless, I said it was flimsy -- a decades-old notion carried out with new technology but less invention or wit than when the Dadaists did it with a pair of scissors and a hat. I don't question than you can draw meaning, poignance, and humor from randomly generated text, but I don't see why you'd want to sit in a theater to do so. It would have made a fine interactive website.
Posted by Bret Fetzer on February 25, 2013 at 4:13 PM · Report this
Brendan, I thought Orgy of Tolerance was one of the most entertaining pieces of theater I've seen in the 20+ years I've been in Seattle. Satirical and hilarious in its themes of consumerism and War and Money as sexual gratification.

While I haven't seen A Piece of Work, it sounds like a show that would make some of our local programming talent cream their pants.
Posted by neo-realist on February 25, 2013 at 3:10 PM · Report this
I saw the show last Thursday and hated it. I've never seen so many people leave mid-show.

As a grad school thesis, it would have been successful. As a touring production in front of $25 seats, it was a failure. There was more potential locked up in the idea, and I wish a good editor or mentor had sent them back to the drawing board before sending this show on its way.
Posted by Big Adventure Steve on February 25, 2013 at 2:58 PM · Report this
Two things:
1. The art world's habit of lauding any art that is boundary-breaking or transgressive or controversial is how you end up with the Charles Krafft debacle, where the same critics who praised him for his edginess are furiously back-pedaling now that it's been revealed that Krafft's edginess may not have been so much a sly commentary on white nationalism as it was a trojan horse for white nationalism. Even now, though, there can be no question his work is edgy. The important question is "is edgy the same as good?"

This is what I think about when I see the headline about this "controversial" performance. Is the "controversy" here merely that some people thought it was crap? If so, generating "controversial" material sounds pretty easy.

2.The kind of meaning you are describing deriving from this is the kind of meaning you might derive from a Rorschach test. This is not to say that your experience wasn't valid, but it does raise the question of whether the artist deserves credit for anything you got out of it.
Posted by Implied Sentience on February 25, 2013 at 2:44 PM · Report this
This is only interesting to shallow novices who have never before been presented with the concept of auto-generated art.

It's mindblowing the first time, interesting the second, slightly annoying the third time, and after that you just want to strangle the lazy asswipe "artist" who abdicated his responsibility as a creator to a machine process.

"Oooh, the cut-up pieces formed a random pattern that I'll ascribe deep meaning to!"

This "art form" was thoroughly explored and abandoned 50 years ago. No respect for the "artist" here.
Posted by William S. Reich on February 25, 2013 at 2:11 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 1
So, basically, they pulled a Seth McFarlane?

How 90s of them.
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 25, 2013 at 2:05 PM · Report this

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