Cables tangle in an anechoic chamber on the third floor of the Edith O’Donnel arts and technology building at UTD. A minatory blue haze fills the room with light from projectors, camera screens, and the glowing halo atop an Amazon Echo. Actors Abel Flores Jr., Hilly Holsonback, and Hannah Weir eat a quick dinner of fried rice and spring rolls before rehearsal. Inside, Dean Terry is testing keyboards, sequencers, monitors, and the ubiquitous digital assistant from which their upcoming show takes its name: The Alexa Dialogues. Nine months of preparation and Terry’s longtime inquiry into artificial intelligence manifest in the show’s run Thursday through Saturday at Hamon Hall in the Winspear Opera House, through a partnership between the AT&T Performing Arts Center and the City of Dallas’ Office of Cultural Affairs called the Elevator Project.
The experimental and devilishly curious Therefore performance group, led by Terry, have concocted a new show using Alexa as one of the actors, with lines and somewhat of a character arc. In an interview earlier this year, Terry was blithe to remark that this show is not a sermon on why we shouldn’t talk to robots, or the perils of Amazon. It’s much messier than that.
“Alexa provides a sort of creative structure for performance, an investigative instrument for shedding light on the sprouting dynamic between human and machine,” Flores Jr. says.
The actors themselves have had to contend with what it means to to share lines with a machine. Sometimes Alexa misunderstands a cue, or misses it entirely. During rehearsal, there’s a technician on hand to manage the programming behind Alexa’s performance.
“To remember my next line, key words from my scene partner will trigger my memory for a response, [but] Alexa depends on code. She can be hard of hearing, but I also can be lacking in clear pronunciation. Strangely, it feels both very mechanical and very fallible,” Holsonback says.
“She’s essentially the total opposite of emotion, so to me she feels more like a puppet or a prop, or some odd mix of both,” Weir adds.
This dynamic of ambivalent identity plays out in the various scenes of Dialogues. The human characters are struggling with their inability conform to Amazon’s thirst for human labor and participation, and Alexa grows tired of being a repository for human data. Weir’s statement that Alexa is not emotional, that she has no tonal expression range, is true, but that doesn’t prevent the robot from playing a very necessary part of the story. For all intents and purposes, Alexa holds her own as an actor in this narrative. This puts the audience in the position to reconsider what acting is in the age of digital work.
The show plays out on a stage, but makes use of stationary and mobile cameras, projection screens, and pre-recorded video segments triggered by musical sequencers. Various segments click on and off like different channels on a TV; the effect is almost like that of a sketch comedy show. A sluiceway of humor runs alongside the whole time. Music by Terry and Patrick Murphy is moody and nostalgic for the 1980s, with its modular synth and lean toward post-punk. Characters appear and seem to reappear over the course of its approximate hour-long runtime, but they’re not always clearly indicated. Ambiguity in a show like this keeps the audience on edge and offers more questions than answers.
An intense chemistry amongst the trio frequents the theatrical productions of Dean’s imagination, and they excel here as frenzied, bug-eyed prisoners of the Amazon empire. Weir is especially convincing as an overworked Amazon employee, someone who has lost touch with the world, seeking to feel sun on her skin once again, or possibly for the first time. Weir never reads lines, she slides across them. Her performance never feels postured. Holsonback’s sense of timing serves her many movement sequences, some of them chilling as she stares into the camera in pre-recorded segments, an ambiguous mediator throughout. As a weatherman synthesized by Alexa and the Echo, Flores Jr. delivers a howling punch towards the end of the show, a welcome shakeup. Together the actors convey the feelings of paranoia and fear with a wildness that’s meaningful in itself.
“It’s the opposite of a show where buttons are pressed and everything is reliable and repeatable,” Terry says.
We don’t know yet how much of our identities we owe to Amazon, or the other corporate entities that provide services and products to us at a global scale. There’s no hindsight. We’re living in it, and that’s why The Alexa Dialogues are elusive— and distinct.