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Datebook: ISU's Freestage Theater Explores Arts And AI

Freestage Theater.jpg
Carol Kelleher
Freestage Theater is a student organization at Illinois State University's School of Theatre and Dance. Students handle all stages of production. Alums include Jane Lynch.

The new play "The Hologram in the Mirror" premiered Friday evening in central Illinois and runs through Sunday. It posits artificial intelligence will disrupt the arts.

Director Carol Kelleher, a senior at Illinois State University, said AI already is affecting some branches of the arts, in particular music, but is edging into other territory.

“There is already AI that is basically auto-generating whole plays and movie scripts and poetry. It can author a whole book that is completely original, although of course there is the philosophical question: Is it original if it is completely synthesized from existing things?” said Kelleher.

The action takes place in the near future. It centers on people who are frustrated with a society in which most art derives from AI. In what could be the playwright’s nod to Thoreau, the characters go into the woods to try to create art free of that technological influence.

“There’s the question of perfection first of all and the idea that any human art is going to have flaws in it. And once AI becomes more sophisticated, there is going to be this idea that art created by AI is going to be better, somehow more desirable to see because you won’t be able to see the seams, and cracks, and imperfections,” said Kelleher.

She said AI can be more productive than humans. It can churn out product at an astonishing rate. Especially in an age when people want things faster, say a whole season of a TV show at one time, Kelleher said this makes AI commercially appealing.

The production at 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday outdoors, on the plaza north of the Centennial West building at ISU is the first in-person production by Freestage Theater in more than a year.

“It’s an enormous relief. The palpable difference in connection between actors online or in person is crazy,” said Kelleher. “It feels like we’ve sort of been running with weights on for an entire year.”

She said in-person rehearsals started out with a feeling of unfamiliarity. She felt a strong desire to return to something as close to what it was like before as possible, acknowledging the very idea of resumption stretches the idea of what counts as theater.

“I think that in the future there will be more different forms of theater. There will be online theater ... That’s exciting. That’s one thing I think we did gain,” said Kelleher.

She said the play is a sci-fi show that feels close to home for an audience, adding it is not dystopian and because it is in a familiar near future, it could prove all the more unsettling.

The play is authored by ISU alum Mike Kelleher, a former congressional candidate, Illinois lieutenant governor candidate, and Obama White House official. He’s also Carol Kelleher’s father, which raises the question of how you settle creative differences with a family member.

“In a way, it’s almost easier because if I’m going through something and I don’t think it works I can just go to him and say, 'Can we change this? Can we alter this little thing?' But I mean it is difficult because (laughs) you gotta be delicate,” she said.

Who wins?

“Um, it depends. Sometimes I insist on things that I feel very strongly work on the page, but not on stage, but sometimes he wins (laughs),” said Carol Kelleher.

The production includes actors Ben Davis, T Bixby, Miki Meyers, Jacob Rodriguez, Nora McKirdie, and Carol Kelleher.

“The Hologram In The Mirror" plays all weekend at 8 p.m. outside Centennial West at ISU.

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