The Only Living Boy, a Microfiction
What happens when real and virtual actors join forces in a new production of Shakespeare's "Othello" on Broadway?
As regular Dispatch readers already know, I've been experimenting with microfictions, short SF stories (1,000 words or less) that help me explore and illustrate aspects of how our lives might evolve within digital transformation.
Here, then, is another microfiction.
Next issue, I’ll dig into how realistic this story is.
I'll put some miscellaneous goodies and things worth your attention at the end.
The Only Living Boy, a Microfiction
He'd been reluctant to head into the LAX terminal for his flight to New York. Then Joe, his husband, kissed him on the cheek, gave his chest a gentle push, and quoted the old song. "Tom, get your plane ride on time. I know your part'll go fine."
Now, weeks later, Joe smiling up at him from the best seat in the house, Tom Bowie was playing his dream role: Iago, the honest-seeming villain, on opening night of the strangest production of Shakespeare's Othello ever to grace the stage and the internet.
The most difficult technical moment in the play was coming up.
Tom was the only flesh and blood actor. The rest of the star-studded cast was dead. A fraction of the audience, in the packed theater, watched the play wearing Augmented Reality (AR) glasses that projected the dead actors onto the stage. A larger virtual audience watched from afar.
At first, the silent drones helicoptering around the stage to get the best angles for the remote audience had distracted Tom, but he got used to it. The AR glasses filtered them out for the audience in the house.
Paul Robeson played Othello in a revival of his famous 1943 performance. Instead of Uta Hagen playing his wife, Desdemona, it was a young Ingrid Bergman, about the same age as when she'd played Ilsa in Casablanca. A young Carrie Fisher played her maid and Iago's wife, Emelia, capturing Emelia's humor and pathos. A severe, older Henry Fonda played Desdemona's father. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, both decades younger than when they co-starred in Antony and Cleopatra, played Cassio (Othello's lieutenant) and Bianca (the courtesan Cassio neglects).
Generative AI had brought each of the dead actors back to a compelling facsimile of life. Only with Gen AI would high-powered actors like Taylor and Burton ever play small roles like Cassio and Bianca.
Getting the rights had been no problem. The estates of the actors had been delighted to profit off their dead relations in a highbrow Broadway production of Shakespeare.
The company that created the technology, AICTOR, poured everything they could find about each actor into their database—biographies and obituaries, articles, interviews, correspondence, pictures, audio and video recordings—to synthesize what each actor had looked and sounded like at the life stage when Des Flynn, the pathbreaking director and AICTOR CEO, cast them in this first-of-its-kind live (sort of?) production.
A separate high-powered computer with the AICTOR software powered each of the dead actors, which meant that each performance was different as the individual instances of the algorithms learned from the other virtual actors and from Tom. It wasn't the same as working with flesh and blood actors, Tom thought, but it didn't ask him to give a zombie performance where he tried to keep his own choices identical night after night.
The virtual actors could even be difficult to manage—like their deceased progenitors. Des had cast Robin Williams as Roderigo, the clownish nobleman who Iago manipulates. But the AICTOR technology had captured Williams too well: the revivified comedian kept improvising in the middle of his scenes. Tom had found this delightful (like Des, he was a huge Williams fan), but the algorithms powering the rest of the cast, the dead actors, couldn't support improvisation and kept glitching out. With sadness, Des recast Philip Seymour Hoffman as Roderigo. Hoffman hit his marks.
The tricky bit. In Act 3, Scene 3, Emelia finds Desdemona's beloved handkerchief on the floor, where Desdemona dropped it during a difficult conversation with Othello. Emelia does not know that Iago is plotting revenge against Othello for making Cassio his lieutenant. She offers the handkerchief to her husband.
EMELIA: Look, here it is.
IAGO: A good wench! Give it me.
EMELIA: What will you do with't, that you have been so earnest
To have me filch it?
IAGO: [Snatching it.] Why, what's that to you?
Transforming a virtual handkerchief in the hand of a virtual actor into a real handkerchief in the hand of an analog actor had been a challenge. At first, Des tried having a drone carry a real handkerchief around the entire time, but the floating drone couldn't move fast enough. Finally, Des and Tom decided on sleight of hand. A stage magician taught Tom how to use a sudden gesture with his left hand to distract the audience from his right at the key snatching moment. Des made sure the drone cameras floating around the stage didn't zoom in on Tom's and Carrie Fisher's hands at the snatch.
Tom had the real handkerchief in the right sleeve of his costume. He would whip it out at the same moment that Iago snatched the virtual handkerchief from Emelia. In rehearsal, it had worked about 70% of the time, a nail-biter.
Poring over Othello, Des had realized that Shakespeare's script almost never requires the actor playing Iago to touch another actor. Iago floats around other characters, especially Othello, Roderigo, and Cassio, whispering into their ears, convincing them that his lies are truth. Iago makes physical contact with other characters only six times in the play. Four are stabbings, easily mimed. Then the guards bring Iago into the room in the big Act 5 climax, and that moment of physical contact isn't the focus of what's happening onstage. That's why Des chose Iago as the only part for a living actor, then cast Tom (after a nationwide search) because Tom's history as a dancer meant that he had the physical chops for a performance that would require balletic moves around other actors who weren't there in real life. The handkerchief touch was the first contact.
"What will you do with't?" Carrie asked, waving the virtual handkerchief in front of Tom, "that you have been so earnest to have me filch it?"
Snapping the fingers of his left hand with a loud pop, Tom grabbed the virtual handkerchief with his right and flicked his wrist. The real handkerchief appeared.
The hard part was over.
Miscellaneous Goodies and Things Worth Your Attention
La Profesora on NBC News! My wife, Kathi Inman Berens, and her research partner, Rachel Noorda, were guests on Top Story with Tom Llamas on 12/8, talking about their work on how Gen Z and Millennials prefer print books and are engaged library users. You can read the study (done for the ALA) here.
Gemini: This Google video demonstration of its new Generative AI "Gemini" is amazing and took the internet by storm when it hit YouTube on 12/6/23. Alas, Bloomberg's Parmy Olson revealed that the video was not a true live demo but edited—quite a scoop! OpenAI's ChatGPT isn't losing much sleep.
Intimate Wearables: This is a fascinating 404 Media story about ClitTrak—an innovative wearable device that measures blood flow into the clitoris. I wonder if this gadget will be on display at CES? I hope so!
Quick followup to last week's piece about Elon Musk: Page 243 of Walter Isaacson's biography has this choice tidbit: "Another trove of data, he would later come to realize, was Twitter, which by 2023 was processing 500 million posts per day from humans." That got me to thinking: could the reason Musk has removed all the brand safety technology from Twitter (X) be that he wants the purest representation of human behavior, however negative?
I don't understand why Apple would want to bundle its streaming service with Paramount+. Isn't the key point of AppleTV+ to get Apple users to subscribe to all of its services? A Paramount+ bundle seems like a distraction.
Trigger Warning: I'm not a huge fan of Sheryl Sandberg's legacy at Meta, but this week she absolutely did the right thing by using her fame to call attention to the brutal sexual atrocities and murders that Hamas perpetrated on Israeli women in the October 7 terrorist attack. Sandberg also called UN Women to account for not explicitly condemning Hamas. This New York Times story has the details, but approach with caution: it's not an easy read.
Thanks for reading. See you next Sunday.
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