Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Technology Comes Alive in "Eternal Thou"

At the heart of Matthew McCray’s Eternal Thou is the notion that we can give “life” to something; more specifically, McCray uses the production to dig into how humans relate to technology—in essence, giving it life—and, in particular, how people relate to the Internet. McCray is the founding artistic director for the Son of Semele Ensemble and is directing Eternal Thou as part of the Studio SCR series, June 6-9. He recently talked about how he developed the work.

A vision of HAL from Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind when I think about technology that’s “alive.” What’s at the core of Eternal Thou?
HAL is a great reference! Or "Johnny 5," from the movie Short Circuit, or even R2D2 from Star Wars. We've been giving robots life for a long time. The notion that man can bring something alive is at the heart of my play. The genesis for the Eternal Thoucame from my own interest in exploring my relationship with the Internet, and how technology has reframed our discussion about enlightenment. The Internet has woven its way so deeply into my daily life that it's difficult to imagine a day without it. In these little cables—originally phone lines—all over the world, our various interactions and relationships live. That was the original idea for the play: looking at the evolution of telecommunication over the decades.

What are some of the issues that you address in this work?
At a certain point in the creative process, it became clear to me that I needed to entirely redo the framework of the play and set it "inside" the Internet itself. The play originally took place in the world with people tapping into the web in a realistic way, just like how you and I access it. But I wondered what would happen if I flipped the reality on its head and put the play inside the Internet and had "beings" tapping into the outside world instead. So the concept is that technology is a living, breathing force and that, in a way, we are its puppets. The idea is that technology has taken the reins and we are now passengers on its journey, rather than the reverse.

What has been your creative process with this work? Eternal Thou began through devising workshops with friends and associates, but due to a lack of funding I was unable to pay people adequately to get them to dive in. S at a certain point, I took what we had developed collectively, which was essentially a few scenes, and I began to write the play. Almost none of what we had originally was used, but of course we had the beginnings of an idea that is somewhere deep in the play's identity. But things like the words and situations are all mine. During the two years of writing, I presented a few little scenes here and there in Los Angeles and I also held a few informal readings so that I could get feedback. Then in 2012, I produced the play independently.

How has this work evolved—from your original concept to what we’ll see at SCR?
There are two pieces of information that were essential for me to discover. I accidentally tripped upon them while writing Eternal Thou and they became central to the play. The first is the philosopher Martin Buber and his book I and Thou. The central conceit of I and Thou—and I'm really reducing here, so don't hate me if you are a fan of Buber!—is that God can be found only through relationships with beings and things here on Earth. Since the play is about connections in the modern age, Buber’s philosophy became an important part of the play's core. The second piece of information that was essential to the play was the concept of "The Singularity," which is about the future of technology's advancement and humanity's place once we become obsolete. These two ideas land very centrally in the play and impacted nearly all the rewriting over the past year.

What makes the cast you’ve assembled the perfect choices to bring your vision to life?
I love my cast! Almost all of them were referred to audition for me, so I had not worked with any of them prior to the world premiere in Los Angeles in 2012.  For Studio SCR, we have four of the original five actors returning. The newest actor to join the cast is equally as incredible! Look, with sci-fi, you must have fearless actors. And for Eternal Thou, I needed incredible performers. As playwright and director, I have to be able to say to someone, "Look, it's simple: move that desk over there to create a portal into the virtual world. Then tap into the system with your hand, hone in on the signal you are about to enter, and slowly step into the transmission, which should begin to alter your body and voice. As you are taken over by the corruption, your entire code has been rewritten and you've become a virtual-persona, while still aware of your original identity." It sounds crazy, but literally these are the kinds of conversations we have had when working on the play! Think of any sci-fi movie you've seen, and you know that the actors do insane things and the special effects make those things feel justified; but on the set, I'm sure it must have seemed over the top. The same is true here: the Eternal Thou actors are going above and beyond with their extremity of choices and the show's tech will justify those bold choices.

What do you want people to come away with having experienced it
I'd love for the audience to think about their own relationship to technology and specifically the Internet. Many people have never heard of 'net-neutrality' and the idea that this play is helping to get the word out about the importance of preserving network neutrality is very satisfying for me. In that way, the play becomes somewhat political. But, more often, the play is a media-saturated thrill-ride. One audience member wrote me something interesting after seeing Eternal Thou, saying it’s a "fever dream about communications/relationships in the Internet age and it is honest-to-god one of the most thrilling theater experiences I've had as an audience member." That’s one person’s experience and I really enjoy hearing from people after they see the show. I'm very excited to hear what the SCR audiences take away from the play!

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