For the past decade, Obie Award-winning director and writer Annie Dorsen has brought together algorithms and live performance to examine how we interact with and draw meaning from technology. In addition to working across disciplines such as theater, film and dance, Dorsen is a pioneer of algorithmic theater, in which computer programming is a mode of expression and used to devise the script and experience of live theatrical events. She describes the internet as “a new Romantic landscape where we can go exploring, as explorers did in the nineteenth century.” In this spirit, her recent work “The Great Outdoors” embarks on an expedition from inner space to cyberspace to outer space.
Before the performance, each audience member individually slipped through a slight opening of an inflatable dome on the MCA’s Edlis Neeson Theater stage to an intermediate dark chamber before entering a planetarium-like space illuminated by a projection of the wide-open sky. The audience was encouraged to lie back and relax on pillows placed in cozy concentric circles emanating from a central projector. A single performer, Kaija Matiss, lit solely from the glow of her laptop screen along the outermost ring, sporadically recited simple phrases and words that evolved into more densely spaced, longer comments. According to the show’s program, the script was “culled from Internet comments and fed through an algorithm” that sorts by density and assembles messages into a collective voice that Dorsen calls the “Internet’s id—a projection of ourselves unrestrained by ego and protected by anonymity.” The effect gave “voice and body to the thoughts of countless individuals all tapping away at their keyboards in isolation” and created a fragmented narrative from online chatter.
The script unfolded in tandem with a mesmerizing star show, designed by Ryan Holsopple in collaboration with Dorsen, projected on the dome overhead and set to a live electronic score performed by musician Sébastien Roux. The immersive images invited the audience to inhabit a plane of consciousness in which physical distance and proximity bear no hindrance on connection—be it human, digital or cosmic. By pairing the text with celestial imagery, Dorsen’s expansive display links ideas of the infiniteness of our physical universe with that of our increasingly hyper-networked digital universe. By encouraging the audience to reflect on the Internet as an inner and outer space, she offers a “digital reflection of personal life and a connection to the world beyond the body and its physical location.”
At the conclusion of the performance, no clearly defined messages were conveyed or stories told. Rather, Dorsen and her collaborators chartered an exploration into the digital wilderness. “The Great Outdoors,” and other theater of its ilk, sparks a line of ontological inquiry about the nature of how our digital and corporeal existences dovetail and merge, in which any proposed answers only beget more and more questions. (Alyssa Motter)
At the MCA Stage, 220 East Chicago Avenue, (312)397-4010. Friday and Saturday, March 22 and 23 at 7:30pm and Sunday, March 24 at 2pm. Tickets are sold out. A cash-only wait list will be opened one hour prior to each show at the MCA box office.