Meet the Playwright: Jordan Harrison
February 10, 2017
MARJORIE PRIME is set in the not-too-distant future when artificial intelligence is deeply embedded in our daily lives, providing entertainment, care and comfort to humans. Recently, Luan Schooler, Director of New Play Development & Dramaturgy, interviewed Jordan about his inspirations for the play.
LS -I understand that MARJORIE PRIME was partly inspired by your own grandmother and her loss of memory. How did that feed into the creation of the play?
JH - My grandmother suffered from dementia in her 90s, and my parents went to see her in assisted living every day. And a large part of caring for her was reminding her who she was on a daily basis – the people she loved, the interesting things she had done. When you “talk” to an artificial intelligence program, you’re feeding it information so that it can sound more human. And part of what my parents were doing for my grandmother was keeping her human, keeping her aware of all the things that made her her. In the play, as Marjorie loses more and more of the details from her life, the Prime remembers more and more. Is there a point at which there is more of her in the Prime than in herself?
One of the things my dad loved to talk about with my grandmother was a young boxer who had been infatuated with her more than half a century ago. And I don’t know exactly how much he was embroidering, but through sheer repetition it started to sound like an Affair for the Ages. I think my grandmother knew that there was an element of fantasy in it, and I think she enjoyed the fantasy. So obviously this was not only about my grandmother, but about my dad too. He had an investment in the boxer story, an investment in my grandmother being the sort of person who’d lived a glamorous life – in contrast with the grayness of assisted living. So in a way, he was giving her the information that he needed her to have. Which is very much how the humans in the play interact with the Primes.
LS -What other experiences or interests sparked the creation of this play?
JH - I was interested in the Turing Test, which the mathematician Alan Turing devised in 1950, based on a Victorian parlor game. Basically, there is a computer and a human being in another room, and you ask them both questions. Then you have to guess, based on their answers, which is the human and which is the computer. I wanted the play itself to be a kind of Turing Test – there’s a human actor on stage, and the only thing that hints at their inhumanity is the language – or their inability to grok subtle ironies, emotional situations. What are the things that computers still haven’t mastered? What can we do that they can’t?
I originally wanted to write the play in collaboration with a computer chat program – it would be a conversation between me and the computer. And the good news for humanity, but the bad news for the play, was that the chat program couldn’t keep up its end of the conversation. So I fired the chat program and wrote the play by myself. But some of its misunderstandings, its stilted language, made it into the Primes’ language in the play.
LS - In many books and stories set in the future, technology has a dark, threatening aspect, but in the play the technology provides company and emotional support to the humans. Did you set out to find a benign use for this kind of technology?
JH – I didn’t know this when I started writing the play, but one of the first intended uses of A.I. was psychotherapy. This was the 1960s, and they thought that computer chat programs would be a way for psychologists to field thousands of clients at a time. There was an early chatbot program called ELIZA – named after Eliza Doolittle, the ultimate linguistic learner – and “she” would respond to your anxieties with stock phrases. “Tell me more about your mother” was apparently one of them, and the play pays tribute to that line.
LS - In the play, Tess has a line about ‘science fiction is here’. Do you think that’s true? Are you excited about that?
JH – One of the inspirations for the play was Brian Christian’s excellent book, “The Most Human Human.” In it, he posits that we are already conducting little Turing Tests in our everyday 21st Century lives. You’ll get an email in your inbox that claims to be from your friend, but then you see in the syntax, even in the subject line, that it’s actually a computer virus that’s co-opted their email account. You don’t open the email, because it hasn’t passed your own personal Turing Test; you’ve figured out it’s not from your human friend. So yes, I think science fiction is here. I can’t exactly say I’m “excited” about it, but it gives me a lot to write about!
LS - You were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for this play. What’s that process like? When and how did you find out?
JH - I was in the writers’ room working on the fourth season of “Orange is the New Black” – we aren’t supposed to look at our phones or computers while we’re at work, so I didn’t find out until lunch when I turned my phone on and it lit up with a million texts (or, like, 8 texts – but that’s a lot for me). It was pretty wonderful to get the news while I was off doing something that felt so far away from theatre. I was still a bit of a freshman on the show at the time, so I think the other “Orange” writers were a bit flummoxed. I remember one of my bosses said, “All of your pitches better be really good from now on!”
Read Jordan's bio here.