Bryn Mawr’s Algorithmic Theater Blends Performance and Tech

6 mins read
Photo Courtesy of Bryn Mawr Theater Department

I attended the last scheduled performance of Bryn Mawr’s Performing Arts Series “Yesterday Tomorrow,” an hour-long show that was part of their “Algorithmic Theater,” in which algorithms produce a unique show every night. It was Friday night, Sept. 17, 2022, and I made my bi-annual trip to Bryn Mawr via a friend’s car (the only other time is the annual Tri-Co Film Festival at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute). It was the last show of three, but even so, it was the first time it was performed like this.  

Here’s what the website describes the show as, in its most derivative form: “Beginning with the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday,’ algorithms slowly transform that song into ‘Tomorrow’ from the musical ‘Annie.’ Three singers receive the computer-generated music and lyrics both aurally and visually, and follow a movement score, also produced algorithmically, that moves them from a starting to an ending position.” 

The stage was set up fairly minimally, with three couches facing the audience in a triangle formation. The three performers sat on a couch, backs rigid and faces slack like robots. They looked poised to decipher whatever the algorithm fed them. Hanging from the ceiling were huge transparent screens set up in line with the edges of the stage. They boxed the performance in, catching most of my attention throughout the show. On the screens rolled the sheet music for the performers, speeding up and slowing down at a sporadic pace. The screen facing the audience was backwards, as it was meant for the performers to follow on the other side, and so as the show went on I continued to stare at this backwards screen, seeing the music as it was sung but having to flip it in my mind for it to make any sense. A moot point, as for the majority of the performance, my brain could hardly handle the algorithm’s mix of notes. 

I like the song “Yesterday” by the Beatles, but I had never really thought about why I liked the song until I heard it completely dissected and thrown in a blender by a computer. “Yesterday” is very stripped down. The vocals don’t sound perfect, the intro is only accompanied by the strumming of a guitar. These three singers began with “Yesterday” and would not stop. Something about listening to a song on loop is a bit haunting, especially when that song is almost a husk of something you love. Emotion is not necessary or wanted. And when you think “Yesterday” might actually be some type of hellish time-loop you’re stuck in ala “Groundhog’s Day,” the notes begin to veer off path. The words begin to make less sense. Your ears begin to protest, but you can’t just walk out of the theater! At least that’s what I told my friend when she insisted that we run. You have to see this mess to the end.

And that’s what it felt like, a terrible mess that should not keep happening if art is to be something enjoyable. I did not enjoy the butchering of this song; in fact a few times I even laughed out loud, in a hidden way that only the college students in the row in front of us could hear. But they were also laughing, the pained kind that means maybe we regret driving all the way to Bryn Mawr to see this. I had to give my friend earbuds because she was complaining so much. 

When would all this terrible dissonance end? Now, when clearly we had transferred into the “Tomorrow” section of the piece, where the tempo is slowed down and more theatrical and the notes begin to comfort each other instead of fight. In some moments the performance even started to sound beautiful. 

“Each night, the spatial and musical path from the past to the future is different; neither the singers, the creative team, nor the audience knows where we will end up.” Again, the website tells me of a performance that I wish I had the pleasure of experiencing! 

From the past to the future? Like, because “Yesterday” was released a good ten years before “Tomorrow,” this is a path from the past to the future? To me, both of these songs are ancient. Or maybe it’s because both of these songs are old but the technology being used to perform them is new, then that’s past to future? Ultimately, it doesn’t make sense. Maybe it’s not supposed to. Maybe it’s actually beautiful in a Women in STEM way? “Yesterday Tomorrow” was something new and quirky, something I had never experienced before, but that doesn’t mean I want to see more of it. Once is enough for a humanities girly like me. 

1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed Gabriella’s honest and lively assessment of this production. I felt I was almost there, experiencing the highs and lows of the music, due to her vivid descriptions.

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