MARJORIE PRIME, March 7 – April 1, 2018. A captivating sci-fi drama! Tickets at americanstage.org/MARJORIE | #asMARJORIE #ascsMARJORIE
BEHIND THE SCENES: Prime Sound Design; 03/23/18:
By Kody Hopkins
After a show, you’ll often hear people remark how well the cast did, or perhaps how beautiful the lights were. Others may walk away stunned at how well designed the set was yet again (as many do when taking their seats… thanks, Jerid Fox!). It isn’t very often that people discuss the element that sound played in a show, and to be fair, I know I hadn’t much either — until I came to American Stage. Some of my favorite moments this season are such because of sound design — the top of shows such as THE ROYALE and RAISIN spring to mind, as well as the clever tricks with sourced audio in MUCH ADO. This apprentice got to put on yet another hat during the tech week for MARJORIE PRIME: sound designer. Or, engineer/assistant to the sound designer, at the very least (our fantastic Stephanie Gularte is the true designer in the show!). I had to learn the ropes in Q Lab (our sound program) fairly quickly and was constantly tuning for just the right fade or searching for the best transition music (don’t even ask how long I took selecting the pre-show music…). And while MARJORIE isn’t an intensely sound reliant show, it still proved to be not only a great learning experience, but an eye opener.
My love for theatre comes from telling a story in the best way possible, and sound can play a critical element in that. It can be used for suggesting tone or importance of a moment, alluding to a larger world, or even telling a story in of itself. In MARJORIE, we primarily use it for tone and storytelling. The most difficult sound cue was what we called the “Memory Collage”, which I worked for several days on (and we’re talking ten hour days!), trying to get just the right story. It’s meant to be a celebration of Marjorie’s most cherished memories, but also an example of how the technology in the show, can affect them. It begins with Vivaldi — a prominent composer in the soundscape of our show — and transitions into sounds of the ocean, children playing, and a dog barking: all critical components to the story of Marjorie’s life and the themes of the play. Then, it introduces a scene from My Best Friend’s Wedding, a movie with particular significance for Marjorie, but one she’d rather have replaced with the classic film, Casablanca. And so, midway through some dialogue, Dermot Mulroney’s voice suddenly becomes Humphrey Bogart’s, and we witness (through sound!) the “rewriting” of Marjorie’s memories. Interspersed in all of this are more dogs barking and children playing to give the idea that it’s a mix of memories at once, and repeatedly a crash of a wave will wash the memory away into the next segment. In this moment, we’ve broadened the play’s storytelling, through sound alone, while giving the actors and crew time to make a large transition!
Another section I poured WAY more time into than I expected was the preshow music. It was a bit of a conundrum to figure out exactly what to use: if we relied primarily on contemporary music, which Marjorie would have grown up with, it would feel like we’re about to watch a show about the present. Get too ambient and “spacey”, however, and you risk putting your audience to sleep. So, I tried to strike a balance: before I deliver my prologue, the songs are contemporary, and largely from bands mentioned in the script (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ZZ Top) that also speak to the story itself (1979 from Smashing Pumpkins, for instance, drips with feelings of nostalgia and longing for youth). Then, after my prologue, it transitions into largely ambient music, that begins to give a calming sense of travel and weightlessness. I also set up the order of the songs — from beginning to end — to have a sort of mellowing effect, a sense of slipping further and further into a haze, or a dream like state. How many people will actually feel this way is likely small, but I thought of it as a way to communicate the slipping of time and of memory, as the soundscape transitions from specific rhythms and note patterns to a more flowing, loose ambience tinged with a sensation of otherness. Again, storytelling, just through sound!
Below, you can find the Spotify playlist for some of the music used in the show! If you haven’t joined us for MARJORIE PRIME yet, you still have until April 1st to do so. You can get your tickets by visiting http://americanstage.org/MARJORIE/. Don’t forget, anyone under the age of 20 can come and see it for free. More on that at americanstage.org/YA.
Here’s some more BEHIND THE SCENES insight – Video by Filipe Bergson & Elio August.
Get your tickets to MARJORIE PRIME by visiting americanstage.org/MARJORIE.
The above quote can be found as a stage direction in Act 1 Scene 1 of Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer Prize nominated play Marjorie Prime. The first time I read it, it stopped me in my tracks as one of those understood human feelings that we have yet to develop a name for. It also embodies so much of how I feel about the play MARJORIE PRIME.
How do we deal with the past in our future? What are the things we forget? What are the things we remember? What is the role of artificial intelligence in the future? Why would artificial intelligence units sound human? How do we connect? All of this and more is brought to the forefront in Marjorie Prime.
One uncomfortable truth that Marjorie Prime discusses at length is the deterioration of memory. So many of us, young and old, know this circumstance all too well. It is estimated that in 2017 5.5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s. It is everywhere. In the Dinner Conversations video below, we hear our Board of Trustee’s Chair, Mike Alford, discuss his disbelief at watching his aunt’s mind begin to trick and rob her. We hear about the anger City of St. Petersburg’s Marketing Outreach Specialist, Rosie Stovall’s, grandmother dealt with as her memory began to be stripped away. When watching this play, I think of my own grandparents. At the end of his life, my grandfather suffered severely from memory loss. I remember the confusion building as I sat with him at the breakfast table in high school, reminding him of the same things over and over. On the other hand, my grandmother is still with it, as sharp as a tack. Yet people talk to her as if she has lost memory merely because she is elderly. Marjorie states, “I’d like to feel in control,” which is an exact encapsulation of how it must feel to lose your memory; your loss of control on your body and life. We see this decay happen to our loved ones, and wonder what will it be like when I forget? Will my mind begin to rob me? Has it already started?
In the future depicted in Harrison’s play, where artificial intelligence units are so well maintained, so life-like, so advanced, I find it sad that it appears no significant advancements have been made to end Alzheimer’s. Perhaps this is another comment on the mind’s ability by Harrison. Our human mind has the ability to problem solve and create such incredible things. Yet, at the same time, it can so easily deceive and cheat you.
In Marjorie Prime, we see the effects that loss of memory has not merely on the victim but on the family. The familial unit is at the heart of this play, the relationship between parent and child; how the relationship challenges us, changes us, and binds us; how we fear letting our family down; how we try to hold on to our family. The family is left with so many uncomfortable truths, so many questions. The bond family creates is one of the most striking elements of humanity in this play.
The subject of memory takes on many forms in this play, for not merely are we presented with what happens when we begin to lose our memory through no fault of our own, but also what happens with the things we chose to forget. Sometimes, we must choose to forget so that we can move on. In our Dinner Conversations video, Stephanie Gularte, Producing Artistic Director, discusses the fear of forgetting a loved one’s laugh. Cranston Cumberbatch, an actor and filmmaker most recently seen in A RAISIN IN THE SUN, discusses his father’s own death, the desire to dwell on the sense of who his father was, and yet his knowledge that one cannot stay lost in memory. There is a balance between the things you must let go so that you can move forward and the things you hold onto so that you can cherish the past.
Yet another “uncomfortable truth” being pondered by so many leaving the theatre is, “what is human vs. what is machine?” In his writings on the primes, Jordan Harrison cleverly describes them as “Artificial Intelligence Programs- descendants of the current chatbots.” Descendants, is a very carefully chosen word. It would appear the primes have a family of their own. Does that make them human?
Artificial Intelligence is another uncomfortable truth delved deeply into throughout the course of Marjorie Prime. The uncomfortable truth of it being; we have the means within the near future to make massive developments in this area but the benefits for good or bad are still very unclear to us. As the character Tess says, “Science Fiction is here Jon. Every day is science fiction.” We are living in the sci-fi future dreamed of in the past. Advancements in this field are fast and furious. In the Dinner Conversations video, Cranston even cleverly points out the recent addition of Facebook Reminders, in which Facebook will remind you what happened on this day in your life, 1 year, 2 years, 8 years ago, etc. A simple tool helping us to remember.
Harrison himself states that he does not think of this work as science fiction. In September of 2017, VNTANA developed an AI hologram that is meant to work as a hotel concierge. These technological advances seem to enhance our lives. Yet, what this future of AI could mean for humanity leaves some worried.
In this Dinner Conversations episode, Stephanie Gularte brings up the great question, “When creating an AI why make it look and sound human? “ A very thoughtful response by Mike Alford suggests that perhaps the human race is still trying to understand itself, through this new technological form. How do we connect? What is it to be human? Perhaps we are trying to create humans, so we can understand what it is to be human. Upon hearing this musing, all I could think was what a perfect question for a play to be built around. This is a topic upon which theatre and science can meet, for isn’t theatre’s purpose to probe and question our own humanity?
Memory, the future, our past, family, the difference between human vs. machine, artificial intelligence, all of this is stuffed into the depths of Marjorie Prime. Each of these topics hold uncomfortable truths, and uncomfortable questions. Yet through all this, one key element emerges from Marjorie Prime that binds us all and allows us to work past this discomfort: the power of human connection.
Take a look at the dinner conversations video below, and hey! Like our videos? Subscribe to our Youtube channel to be the first to see all our content. Tickets and info for MARJORIE PRIME at americanstage.org/MARJORIE.
As an American Stage apprentice, you get to do all sorts of things: build sets, hang and focus lights, act in plays, assist in marketing and outreach. Sometimes, you even get to help design the sound of a show, and learn how to engineer it in a weekend (but that’s a whole other blog post). One of my favorite roles is one we’ve talked about before on the blog: the Directing Apprentice. Your duties can vary from director to director, but you are almost always in the rehearsal room and gain a special relationship with the overarching life of the production. An aspect of the role we haven’t discussed much on the blog is the writing of the “Prologue” — the ten minute-ish speech given before the show to those guests who show up nice and early. The Prologue is a combination of things: research, rehearsal insights, script analysis, etc. Ultimately, it is meant to shine a light on all the things that give weight and context to a play.
So for the past three weeks, I’ve been reading a lot about Artificial Intelligence and its relationship to humans, as well as about Jordan Harrison himself (he likes narwhals, did you know?). I get my information from a variety of sources, ranging from some new fangled technology called the “library” to the classic World Wide Web. I compile a document of notes (currently 17 pages long!) and then start to pick the pieces out that I think will fit best into the puzzle of making a compelling and illuminating speech. The last week (when I’m not in tech rehearsals), I’ve been crafting the Prologue I’ll deliver before the majority of performances, and I thought it would be neat to share some of it with you all. Now it is still a bit of a rough edit, but I think all the pieces are there. Read below to see some of my favorite snippets from the Prologue, and gain a little more insight into Marjorie Prime!
Marjorie Prime started with a commission from Playwrights Horizons in 2008 that saw Harrison attend the Aspen Ideas festival, in which he was exposed to numerous panels and roundtables for inspiration. He knew he wanted to do a play about Artificial Intelligence but didn’t know how to articulate this until reading Brian Christian’s book, The Most Human Human. The central question of that book is: if AI keeps getting better at imitating things that humans do, what are the things that we do that A.I. can’t do yet?
Harrison took numerous influences from his personal life. A turning point in the development of the play was a reminder of his grandmother one evening that triggered a flood of powerful memories colored with sweetness and loss. In fact, his grandmother and her many slideshows that Harrison enjoyed have been the seed for several of his plays. He also found inspiration from items such as his parents’ caretaking journal during the time that his grandmother suffered from dementia. Some of the stories of his parents’ relationship with his grandmother during that time even made it into the play, such as his father’s embellished stories of a young boxer enamored with his grandmother, meant to give the sense of a glamorous life to contrast with the grayness of assisted living.
Similar to how the neurons in the brain strengthen the more times they fire together, neural networks get better by modifying their code to find the link between input and output. The process of deep learning allows them to do this with nearly no human led training — just the access to input, which has been greatly boosted by the creation and expansion of the Internet. You can now see computer programs that recognize faces better than humans do, or robotics that can learn to cook simply from being fed YouTube videos. It is this kind of AI that seems to influence the programs you will see in Marjorie Prime.
An early observation from Brian Christian in his book (The Most Human Human) was about one of the first Most Human Humans, Charles Platt. “How’d he do it? ‘By being moody, irritable, and obnoxious,’ he says — which strikes me as not only hilarious and bleak, but also, in some deeper sense, a call to arms: How, in fact, do we be the most human humans we can be — not only under the constraints of the test, but in life?”
Through our relationship with technology, we can rediscover ourselves, what it means to be human, and the uniqueness of a life lived. Once again, as Brian Christian aptly says in his book: “Fertilization to fertilizer. Ashes to Ashes. And we spark across the gap.” Marjorie Prime is a play about finding that spark, and holding it dear.
You can get your tickets for Marjorie Prime (which opens TONIGHT) and learn more about the play by going to americanstage.org/MARJORIE! And don’t forget: if you’re under 20, you can get in for free. More on that at americanstage.org/YA.