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MacArthur fellowship recipient: A.I. 'helped me see theater in a different way'

Annie Dorsen, director of "Passing Strange," at the Cast Rehearsal and Meet and Greet held at the New 42nd Street Studios on January 7, 2007 in New York City.
Jemal Countess | WireImage | Getty Images

Annie Dorsen, a Brooklyn-based director and writer, has been named a recipient of the 2019 MacArthur Fellowship. Her work features a blend of theatrical drama and artificial intelligence — and they involve singing laptops, chatbots and an "algorithmic" take on Shakespeare.

The fellowship, often referred to as the "genius" grant, awards $625,000 to "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits," according to the MacArthur Foundation, which announced its new recipients Sept. 25.

Theater and A.I. might not seem like a natural pairing, but Dorsen recently told the Los Angeles Times that "the double nature of theater seems very similar to computer-generated language."

She first got the idea to combine tech and theater after reading the essay, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," which was written in 1950 by Alan Turing. In it, he posits that humans can artificially produce the effect of thinking.

"The relationship between computer science, machine learning and theater is a strong one, and a fertile ground for exploration," Dorsen told the Los Angeles Times. "Both have to do with the uncertainty between truth and illusion — what you can trust, how you know what you know, and do your eyes deceive you."

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In Dorsen's most recent work, called "Infinite Sun," laptops line up on stage and run an algorithm that plays songs on a loop.

A 2010 project, called "Hello Hi There," also stars computers that rework a 1971 debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky through chatbots.

Exploring A.I. has "helped me see theater in a different way," Dorsen told the Los Angeles Times. "By stripping away almost everything, you can actually start to bring it back in new ways."

Dorsen has also used A.I. to tackle Shakespearean classics. In her 2013 project, "A Piece of Work," an algorithm digests and reconstructs "Hamlet," and an actor reads the new script live.

Before experimenting with A.I., Dorsen directed and co-created the 2008 musical, "Passing Strange," which won a Tony Award for Best Book.

"I want to see theater that deals with the world, not just representations of it," Dorsen told The New York Times in 2013. "Algorithms are in a way rewriting the world. They're written by humans, but they're in the wild."

Dorsen plans to use some of her grant money to write a book about her methods, which she calls "algorithmic theater," and start creating new works.

Learn more about this year's MacArthur Fellows here.

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