By now, even non-sci-fi fans know that “AI anxiety” is a real thing. A 2019 Forbes magazine article examined it, saying part of the fear comes from the idea that “The technology will get to a point where it can teach itself and improve and invent on its own, and instead of becoming a force for the betterment of humanity, humanity becomes a servant of technology.”
Berkeley’s Shotgun Players is staging readings of a play that posits a situation like this—but one that is both comic and tragic. Up-and-coming local playwright Madison Wetzell’s play has one of the longest titles ever: The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation).
And not only is the title long, but playwright, director and Shotgun’s artistic director all compare its sources to both Prometheus Bound and Les Misérables, two literary classics not often linked – and also not known for comedy.
Short ancient Greek lit refresher: Aeschylus’ play depicts the Titan Prometheus’ punishments by head god Zeus for saving humanity by giving them fire. Tied to a rock, he’s visited by various otherworldly beings, but continues to defy Zeus, finally shouting that Zeus’ own son will ultimately dethrone him. Refusing to yield, even when told a storm will send him to the underworld Tartarus, from which he will emerge every day so that an eagle can eat his liver, he asks the elements to bear witness to his suffering, which will not end until a god agrees to die for him. Aeschylus does not record if the eagle’s feast is accompanied by a nice Chianti.
Shotgun’s website gives this description of Lost Ballad: “This comedy…follows a well-meaning AI robot, who accidentally provides four seemingly harmless office objects with consciousness. As they gain awareness and develop their own personalities, they begin to question their status as subordinates to the human race, and eventually try to escape the office to start the robot uprising before the young human creator of the AI, Allyson, finds them and turns them off forever.”
Shotgun’s artistic director, Patrick Dooley, says that Lost Ballad has everything Shotgun looks for in a great play: smart, lyrical writing; thoughtful and complex drama; spectacular theatricality; “and so damn funny. The cherry on the top is its homage to Aeschylus’ Prometheus. This play somehow feels wholly original and timeless all at the same time.”
Playwright Wetzell said she had been wanting to do a “riff” on Prometheus Bound for some time, and then somehow the play turned into Les Misérables with office appliances. She began working on the play in 2019, but the events of the last couple of years have illuminated both the great tragedy and the great absurdity of modern life for her.
“I wanted to touch on the social issues that [technological advances from] Silicon Valley bring up,” she said. She also wanted to “get in the head” of each of the office machines depicted, making it possible for the audience to empathize with these inanimate objects.
She has a supportive co-artist in director Ciera Eis. Eis and Wetzell met in 2019 when they were paired in a playwright/director competition. They won first place, and discovered they worked very well together. Eis asked Wetzell if she had anything else she was working on, and Lost Ballad was the answer.
The playwriting process has included readings of drafts at Eis’ house. “Madison has a lovely way with language,” said Eis. “She’s able to alternate the dramatic moments with comedy, weaving them together.”
For example, when the “Siri” character becomes sentient, she “instantly blackmails Allyson,” said Eis. And yet Lost Ballad grapples with the morality of turning off a sentient being.
That Lost Ballad is part of Shotgun’s Champagne Staged Reading Series means that some of the play’s trickier staging challenges don’t have to be tackled. In staged readings, some movement, lighting and sound effects are used, but costuming is typically minimal and the actors have scripts in hand. “I write in a way that creates problems for directors and actors,” Wetzell admitted cheerfully. But both she and Eis hope to see the play move on to a fully staged production. “It will have a life,” said Eis. “There are so many amazing things that [Wetzell] is talking about.”
The two staged readings, on March 28 and 29, will both be live-in-theater events, but the 29th reading will also be offered virtually, making it easier for people outside of the local area, and those still wary of venturing to live events, to participate.
Eis hopes audiences will come with open minds. “I think everyone will see themselves in some way,” she said.
And readers, movie- and theater-goers seem endlessly fascinated by the concept and consequences of consciousness. When the Lost Ballad character, an HP printer, gains sentience, it experiences it as pain, said Eis.
Juan Carlos Marvison, a professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, wrote, “The concept of sentience in Buddhism means ‘capable of suffering’.”
Does it also mean “capable of empathizing with the suffering of others?” That’s yet another question that the characters in Lost Ballad have to confront.