Prometheus Firebringer Review. Artificial Intelligence on Stage

Half of what happens in “Prometheus Firebringer” is extraordinary, unprecedented. But you wouldn’t know that just by watching what’s on stage, which is mostly a series of monologues recited by six carved heads dramatically illuminated against a black-as-night background like a diorama at a local natural history museum.  To appreciate what’s so intriguing about this show, you need the other half of it, writer and performer Annie Dorsen sitting at a desk on the other side of the stage, reading aloud an essay that explains that everything Stage Right – the script, the heads, the voices — is generated by Artificial Intelligence.

That is not all that Dorsen does in her essay, which is itself not just explanatory, but intellectually stimulating, and terrifically clever. Maybe too clever.  

At a total running time of just forty-five minutes, both halves of “Prometheus Firebringer” felt too quick to grasp such novelty with total comprehension (although any longer might have felt too overwhelming.)   Reading the Theater for a New Audience program and an article by Dorsen in American Theatre Magazineboth helped explain it further. So did my cornering Dorsen after the show (along with several other intrigued or bewildered theatergoers) and shooting her full of questions – to which she seemed very open. 

In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods on Olympus on behalf of all mankind, for which Zeus punished him by tying him to a rock and having an eagle eat his liver day after day. The Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus is believed to have written a trilogy 2,500 years ago based on this story, of which only “Prometheus Bound” survives. “Prometheus Firebringer” is the title of one of the other plays. Dorsen uses Artificial Intelligence to imagine the play Aeschylus wrote — a brilliant choice of play for AI generation, given the neat and scary analogies  between AI and the Prometheus myth. 

The AI generation is not simple. Like that eagle eating Prometheus’s liver anew each day, Dorsen uses GPT-3.5 (the same model that runs ChatGPT) to generate a new and different script at each performance.

The audience sees this variable regeneration most obviously as we enter the theater, when we see the play summarized in different ways, in variations great and small, one after the other in (AI-generated) words projected on a large screen on the stage, eg. “The play opens with a reconciliation between Prometheus and Zeus after his long imprisonment…” and then “The play opens with Prometheus, the Titan who was punished for giving man the power of fire, reconciling with Zeus, the king of the Gods. Despite their newfound peace, Zeus still maintains his authority over Prometheus and all mankind….” but then “Zeus arrives with power and lightening and an overwhelming sense of power and dread” Etc.

The masks/heads – puppets, really – were designed by AI, and built by a 3D printer. The voices were also generated by AI, although they originated with two actors (Okwui Okpokwasili and Livia Reiner) who were recorded speaking twenty sentences, thus creating the “voiceprints.” Before each performance, sounds are taken from that voiceprint and rearranged to voice the words in the new script. (The words are not necessarily the same as in the original sentences.)

With the addition of some stagecraft – a flash of lightning, a rumble of thunder – the AI-generated production seems just as dramatic, and just as inert, as the several translated productions of Ancient Greek tragedies I’ve attended that have attempted (in the name of authenticity) to reproduce the series of monologues unaltered by modern dramaturgy.

Dorsen alternates her lecture with the performance – fifteen minutes in which she talks about AI and tragedy and memory; and then ten minutes of the novel performance by the large mask of Prometheus and the smaller masks representing the orphan children; then ten minutes more of the repercussions of AI; then back to the performances.  An especially memorable story Dorsen tells during the lecture part is about “a guy, Matt Loughrey, who used AI models at the start of 2021 to recolor B&W photos of the victims of the Khmer Rouge. The colouring was pretty good….But [he] changed the photos so the victims are smiling. If these photos are part of current AI models that’ll represent a total rewrite of history, in an absolutely frightening way.”

But here is the catch and the cleverness. Every word that Dorsen utters is verbatim from something somebody else has written – each source appearing like a footnote on the screen behind her as she says it.  Those sentences about the coloring of the Khmer Rouge victims, for example, comes directly from a post by somebody else on the social media site Mastodon

The message in her doing this seems to be: Just as AI promises to string together words from a myriad of sources to create something evidently cogent, so too has the human Annie Dorsen. 

But what, ultimately, is her point? That’s less clear in her sifted and cited monologue on stage than it is in the magazine article she wrote presumably in her own unplagiarized words. She began experimenting with what she calls “algorithmic theater” in 2010 as a way to demystify the emerging technology. “As the downsides to our increasingly mediated world become more apparent, working with AI no longer seems quite as defensible as it once did. From privacy concerns to workplace surveillance to facial recognition techniques to the proliferation of synthetic media, including deepfakes and misinformation-spewing Twitter bots, the harms keep piling up. And I’ve become more and more concerned about the role artists are playing in popularizing these technologies…. I’m ambivalent about having used these tools, even to criticize them. I doubt I’ll do it again.”

Below you’ll see the credits for “Prometheus Firebringer,” similar to those I put at the end of every review.  It’s worth noting how many humans it took to create this AI-generated play.  This helps explode what Dorsen, among others, considers the modern myth of AI – that it will someday take over from human beings, and make us extinct. It’s a myth Dorsen feels is propagated by those who stand most to profit from its use, in an effort to make it seem more potentially powerful than it can be in the future, and less damaging than it already is in the present.

Prometheus Firebringer
Polonsky Shakespeare Center through October 1
Running time: 45 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $50
Written, directed and performed by Annie Dorsen “after Aeschylus”
Video and systems design by Ryan Holsopple, lighting design by Ruth Waldeyer, sound design by Ian Douglas Moore, software design and programming by Sukanya Aneja, voiceprint by Okwui Okpokwasili and Livia Reiner, 3D artist Harry Kleeman, dramaturg Tom Sellar, producer
Natasha Katerinopoulos
Photos by Maria Baranova

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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