When the literary staff at The Denver Center commissioned playwright Michael Mitnick to write something, the deal came with a twist: the play should incorporate visual technology in a way that was integral to the storytelling. So often video is used in the theatre to augment or even replace set design: an image of a New York street or a leafy park can come and go with the flick of a switch. But what we were curious about was could today’s state-of-the-art visual technology be used narratively instead of decoratively? Could videos and projections, like those songs in musicals that carry the action forward, advance the story in exciting and unexpected ways, perhaps even forging new types of hybrid playwriting?
Intrigued by the challenge, Mitnick dreamed up Ed, Downloaded, a story set in a future world only slightly more advanced than our own. Ed, who is terminally ill, has decided to have his brain downloaded upon his death, taking ten memories with him into the great beyond. His girlfriend Selene works at a “forevertery” (a repository of digitized brains) and facilitates this cutting-edge procedure. When curiosity gets the better of her, she peeks at Ed’s memories, only to find that instead of herself, most of his memories are of Ruby, a vital young street performer Ed met shortly before his demise. And so Selene, who is not amused, decides to do something about it.
Mitnick takes pains to present the human story first. In fact, the whole notion of the forevertery doesn’t appear until the third scene.
“I wanted to establish the play firmly in terms of plot and character and drama onstage before bringing in the technological world. But once it was introduced, I wanted the two to coexist in a way that made each dependent on the other.”
That they do. In fact, the entire second act is a thrilling display of the interaction between the live actor playing Selene and the projected memories she is so unhappy about.
“If you were to look at a physical copy of the script,” Mitnick points out, “once the video is introduced, the page is rotated, it’s in landscape mode, in three columns. The character of Selene appears in all three columns talking with herself, stopping and starting, editing memories.”
Which makes Ed, Downloaded fiendishly difficult to present in standard play reading format. In fact, in the two workshop readings that this play has had, the videos were presented, whether in a rough, or “scratch,” version or more fleshed out with actual location shots. Charlie Miller, who is designing the video for the production and has been attached to the project since day one, felt the workshops with projections were invaluable: “It helped us hear how it sounds when you have layer upon layer of sound and video, especially in the second act. It also allowed us to develop a visual vocabulary for the show. Because we have the same director [as we had for the reading], we can start up our work on the production at 30 rather than at 0.”
That director is Tony-nominee Sam Buntrock, who made a splash with his 2008 New York revival of Sunday in the Park with George that was designed entirely with projections. “I was thrilled when Sam joined the project,” Miller continued. “I knew that he had a real eye for video and how video can successfully integrate with live performance.”
Mitnick appreciates Buntrock’s dramaturgical skills as well: “Sam is certainly someone who not only realizes the potential of a piece on the page, but he’s someone who can elevate the material. I’m very fortunate to have found him, and I’m glad he’ll be by my side in a piece that’s as ambitious and daunting and perhaps foolish as this.”
The production will be staged in The Ricketson Theatre, which seems ideally suited for a play with so much filmic material, given that it started out its life as a movie theatre. And the human scale of the theatre will work especially well for this three-character play.
Except for a film of the Grand Canyon that Ed shows on an old school pull-down screen in Act One (he works in a natural history museum), all of the video will be projected on state of the art screens.
“We have this really cool new screen technology,” waxes Miller, “SpyeGrey, made by SpyeGlass, is a semitransparent film that when affixed to plexi-glass becomes an amazing projection surface that glows like a TV monitor, so it will look very futuristic.”
The memories will be projected on two large screens made of this material and suspended in the air over set designer Jim Kronzer’s minimalistic forevertery with its downloaded brain boxes perched atop pedestals like so many terra cotta soldiers.
But back to Ed’s story. Mitnick didn’t invent the idea of brain downloading (or uploading as it sometimes is called). Some scientists predict that within the foreseeable future, we may actually be able to download or digitize the contents of the human brain. According to Mitnick, the main stumbling block is the vast amount of digital storage needed. But the question always arises when science fiction draws nearer to non-fiction: Just because we can, should we?
The playwright is not sure whether he would, but he is curious about what it would be like to recapture a perfect moment: “It’s fascinating to me what it would be like to live that moment again and again and again, to exist within these euphoric moments.”
Ed, Downloaded plays Denver’s Ricketson Theatre January 11-February 17, 2013. Tickets: 303.893.4100.
This article first appeared in Prologue, the Denver Center Theatre Company’s subscriber newsletter.