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Bots and Broadway: Technology and theater go hand-in-hand for UCSC professor Marianne Weems

Using AI-generated text to produce dialogue during a live performance may seem like a wild idea to some, but not to performance and new media professor Marianne Weems. Weems, co-founder and artistic director of New York-based multi-dimensional theater company The Builders Association, is used to pushing the envelope with her ground-breaking work at the intersection of technology, media, and theater arts. 

Weems, known for her innovative and award-winning cross-media performances and as a faculty member in UC Santa Cruz’s Digital Arts and New Media (DANM) and Performance, Play & Design (PPD), is currently working on a new bi-coastal production titled Atlas Drugged, based on the ideologies of Russian American writer Ayn Rand. Rand, author of the 1943 book, “The Fountainhead,” was widely criticized for her polarizing ethical and political views after her death.

Weems is developing an AI-language generator with her collaborators that will be trained on Rand’s oeuvre and will produce dialogue in relation to Fox News headlines. The performance will connect and deconstruct the way Fox News discusses contemporary subjects, such as free market capitalism and the role of government, leading up to the 2024 presidential election.

“We like to find new technology and incorporate it in ways that deeply engage the audience in the telling of our stories using current political and social flashpoints,” she said. “Utilizing new and old theater tools allows us to flex boundaries.”

Weems’ most recent show, I Agree to the Terms, involved actual microworkers employed by Amazon through Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk). The crowdsourcing website allows businesses to engage gig workers to complete microtasks for pay. The performance engaged audience members by allowing them to work alongside MTurk workers using their cell phones to train the algorithm that shapes their online experiences. 

Before joining the UCSC in 2017, Weems was head of the graduate directing program for the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University and then part of their arts and technology initiative called IDEATE. But Weems was attracted to the interdisciplinary nature of Santa Cruz.

“UC Santa Cruz has a reputation for being innovative and cross-disciplinary, and the university allowed me to make a lab space to continue my work and engage with students,” Weems said. “My goal is to be a pipeline to New York for those interested in this unique style of theater production.”

One of those students was Carl Erez, a second-year MFA student in Weems’ Future Stages experimental theater lab, who went with her last month to a workshop in New York City at the famed Juilliard School. 

At Julliard, Weems and her students explored how to “stage” virtual reality in a live performance. They experimented with how live performers could interact with those in virtual reality vs. those who weren’t using virtual reality.

“The workshop was about finding ways for the audience to work directly with performers, and technology is a great way to do that,” said Erez, whose academic focus is audience participation in live performances.

Erez said he and his Future Stages colleagues have also recently conducted experiments in Meta’s new Horizon Worlds, such as enacting some Fluxist performances and stretching their avatars beyond their routine use. 

As for what’s next, Weems and her students will spend April-June 2023 conducting workshops and showings in Santa Cruz and New York City of the Rand performance and doing fundraising for the production. The show will then go into a series of rehearsals with the expectation of opening in Fall 2024. To learn more, visit The Builders Association website.