By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Technology is a part of everyday life like no other time in history.
We can find nearly any piece of information we want, connect with almost everyone we know in an instant, and share content on a massive scale; all from tiny pocket-sized supercomputers. With all of the information we put out in the digital sphere, there are a plethora of people and companies who want to collect that information, to learn more about you and those around you. But is volunteering all of this data in our best interest? Who really benefits from the ways we use technology?
These questions, among many others, are pondered in Project Amelia, the latest show from downtown-based theater company Bricolage, who specialize in productions that put audience members at the center of the action.
“Project Amelia is an immersive theatrical experience based around the future of technology, our relationship with it, our relationship with permission and privacy, and machine learning technology,” says Tami Dixon, producing artistic director of Bricolage. “It’s a narrative-based experiential storytelling that the audience participates in and contributes to as a kind of character in this story.”
Bricolage is no stranger to non-traditional theater experiences, with popular productions such as their “Midnight Radio” series, in which stories are acted out in the style of 1920s radio broadcasts, encouraging audiences to create their own visuals. This concept was taken to the next level with their 2015 production, Ojo: The Next Generation of Travel, in which audience members were physically blindfolded and led around an urban environment.
“Project Amelia” is the result of Bricolage’s first collaboration with Probable Models, founded by computer engineers Michael Skirpan and Micha Gorelick. Audience members will interact with several different types of technology, developed by Probable Models, and through that technology, interact with the cast of actors, as well as fellow audience members.
“Things from ticketing all the way down to how audience members walk around the space has been worked on, developed, and done closely in partnership with Bricolage,” says Gorelick.
“You will perhaps have conversations with people, be asked to do things by people,” Dixon says. “You will also engage with technologies that allow you to share data about yourself. The more data you share, the more deeply you’ll be involved in the story.”
Guests will visit the world of “Project Amelia” at an undisclosed location in the Southside, rather than Bricolage’s downtown homebase.
“The conceit of the show is that you are arriving at the secret lab of a large technology company called Aura, and you’re here to experience a product launch,” says Dixon.
Once there, guests will be able to experience all of the groundbreaking new technologies that Aura has to offer, through a series of demonstrations developed by Probable Models.
“Because the show is talking about technology companies in a way that is trying to challenge these ethical assumptions,…we’ve decided the way to talk about this is to build a variety of demonstrations and fake products for people to interact with,” says Michael Skirpan.
Audience members will be able to interact with these demonstrations, with results both abstract and highly tangible.
“Some of those might do things like use computer vision to learn things about you through your face. We have things that look at the future of music and how music is being made by artificial intelligence,” says Skirpan. “We have social media-style experiences where you would have political discussions with other people. We even have things that make you drinks on the spot based on aspects of your data.”
For Bricolage, “Project Amelia” is a significant departure in style, as their productions are typically rooted in mainstay stage techniques.
“Our technologies are the traditional theater technologies: lights, sound, projection, costumes,” Dixon says. “We were looking to up our game a little in order to bring deeper connectivity to our audience, and create systems of communication that aren’t necessarily person-to-person.”
“Project Amelia” is also a dramatically different type of storytelling for Bricolage, who usually prefer storytelling intended for several small groups in rapid succession.
“Our other immersive experiences are either made for one, six or ten people at a time,” Dixon says. “This one is very different because we’re taking 60 people at a time, and doing one narrative over the evening for all 60 people.”
Project Amelia began as part of Skirpan’s doctoral thesis at the University of Colorado, focused on computer ethics. As part of that program, he had formative experiences where he discovered major corporations, who drive much of the technological progress that impacts our lives, weren’t acting in the best interest of the public.
“I realized the technology companies themselves were not interested in people really understanding or having opinions about these things,” Skirpan says. “That really bothered me, so I wanted to find ways to teach people about these things.”
As a writer, Skirpan gravitated toward storytelling as a way of educating the public about ethical issues of technology, but found a traditional written story would not be the most effective method. This brought about the concept of using a theatrical experience as the vehicle for Skirpan’s goals.
With the concept in mind, Skirpan and Gorelick teamed up to find a theater company in Pittsburgh that would be willing to tackle such a project. When they found Bricolage, they found very eager partners capable of bringing this highly unorthodox experience to life, and willing to put a considerable amount of time into it.
“We’ve been meeting…for over a year and a half, weekly, to really dig into the narrative, figure out deeper levels of engagement for the audience, and build this piece,” says Dixon.
The scale of “Project Amelia” has necessitated a crew far larger than Bricolage traditionally uses, nearly 100 strong.
“There’s just so many people involved in making something like this happen, a village of people, and we could not do it without them,” Dixon says.
The unorthodox nature of this show also required a cast to be assembled early, nearly six months before opening, to allow adequate preparation.
“We got an amazing group of actors that are really game for this challenge,” says Jeff Carpenter, founder of Bricolage. “It’s really about preparing them as much as we can for something that, ultimately, they can’t control.”
This intense preparation is all in the service of creating the most immersive experience possible for the audience, allowing them to fully enter and explore this new, and yet all too familiar, world, and hopefully leave with new thoughts for the real world.
“A lot of the conversation about technology is very sterile, and I am excited to have an environment for audience members to have a more emotional conversation about the role of technology in their lives, and to do that in a space where they have agency,” says Gorelick.
“What I want people to come away with is this understanding that your data is largely how these companies see you,” says Carpenter.
“Are the technologies we’re receiving actually creating the futures we’ve been promised? What should the government’s role be in protecting us? Who should be protecting us? When should I give people my information and when should I not?” says Skirpan. “The show challenges you not only to think about where the currents are taking us now, but also whether you are ready to pivot that direction in your life.”