Plays explore relationship between man, machine

— The latest story from William Kennedy has no back-room pols, no natty gangsters, not even a trolley.

The short play "In the System" is very different from Kennedy's novels that draw on Albany's rakish past. In fact, it's a bit of a stretch from the traditional concept of a staged dramatic play. This story revolves around high-tech fraud and will play on streaming video and projection screens. Performance venues might include airport lobbies and shopping malls.

Kennedy is one of seven writers contributing to a quirky experiment called The Technology Play Project. Hatched by the University at Albany and Capital Repertory Theater, the project updates an ancient dramatic form by staging plays through contemporary devices such as computers.

It works like this: Organizers rounded up some writers -- some known, others not -- and had them produce technology-related plays clocking in at five to ten minutes. This spring, the plays will be shown in gadget-crammed kiosks to one person at a time. The idea is to entertain, of course, but also to explore the relationship between man and high-tech machine.

"That's what appealed to me in doing this, trying to bring a literary dimension -- an absurd literary dimension -- to this technological element and still telling a story about human behavior," Kennedy says.

Taking technology further

The seven technology plays have beginnings, middles and ends. But resemblance to traditional plays pretty much end there. Actors will be represented on tape, video or, in one case, an instant messaging system.

"Greetings From the Home Office," by playwright Richard Dresser, requires the audience member to sit at a workstation and listen to competing requests from a fictional company's vice president and regional manager. The viewer must make a choice at play's end.

Kennedy's play is a bit loopier -- a naked woman, a dog, a deer and two main characters named Ace and Deuce figure into it. Ace and Deuce speak like characters from a Kennedy novel about old Albany, but the play's departure point is a ripped-from-the-headlines scheme to hack into a computer system to create fraudulent winning horse racing bets.

Writing the play was a change-up for Kennedy, but he says it was a fun one. He notes that it's not a total departure for him, writing about gambling and characters trying to shorten the odds.


AP Photo

Mary Valentis, a University at Albany English professor, left, and Capital Repertory Theater artistic director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill pose at the theater in Albany, N.Y. The two are working on The Technology Play Project, which updates an ancient dramatic form by staging plays through contemporary devices like computers.

Mary Valentis, a professor of English at Albany calls the Kennedy play "Kubrick meets 'Guys and Dolls."'

Valentis and the repertory theater's artistic director, Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, thought up the idea for technology plays after being introduced by a local arts patron. The two women were partly inspired by so-called phone plays, in which a person picks up a receiver and "eavesdrops" on a conservation. The two women decided to take the technology-enhanced play idea a bit further.

Out of 'book culture'

That's Valentis' specialty -- combining old-school humanities such as literature with new technology. She is a co-director of the university's HumaniTech Initiative, which aims to cross-pollinate the sciences and humanities. The goal of HumaniTech is to pull humanities out of the musty old literary realm and into the 21st Century. (Another highlight is a lecture from a guy who took his genetic self-portrait, a merger of art and biology).

"The humanities were all tied to print, the so-called book culture," Valentis says.

While Kennedy and Dresser have thrived in the "so-called book culture," some of the other plays were written by relative unknowns. Three of the writers won a contest -- two are local residents, and another is a student. One of the winners was a first-time playwright.

A $10,000 grant from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation helped support the project.

The plays will premiere at the university May 5 and will play at the Capital Repertory Theater in the fall. After that, these contemporary plays could head to more contemporary spaces. Valentis says a local mall expressed interest in hosting a kiosk, and they're talking to an airport.


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