ABOUT THE PLAY
In a world in which we spend more time with our smart phones and computers than with other people, genuine intimacy has become a sometimes vexing concept and occasionally a puzzling pursuit. Finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Playwriting Award, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence explores the technological advancements that bring people together and tear them apart.
The impetus for the play came “out of an idle moment of speculation and daydreaming” by playwright Madeleine George, about various Watsons throughout history in 2011, but the seed had been planted years before George even realized she wanted to be a playwright. “My dad’s a scientist. So, we had a lot of fun bedtime stories about [Albert] Sabin and [Jonas] Salk and the discovery of penicillin and other things,” George reminisced. “I don’t know when I learned about ‘Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you,’ but pretty early.”
Although she had been contemplating how to connect human Watsons throughout history for sometime, it wasn’t until the 2011 Jeopardy! IBM challenge, when IBM’s supercomputer defeated human Jeopardy champions, that George saw a potential play in the making. George shared, “I was like, ‘Okay, now that’s a thing.’ That’s interesting to me. I’d like to see what is the essential core of this archetype being expressed quintessentially in this name.”
So what is The Watson Intelligence about? “The short answer is that the play is about three Watsons who, coincidentally, all serve the purpose in their various stories of being kind of assistants or exquisite helpers of one kind or another,” George said. “Watson, Sherlock Holmes’s side kick; Watson, Alexander Bell’s Assistant, who is immortalized in the famous first call through the telephone, ‘Watson come here, I want to see you;’ and Watson, the supercomputer built by IBM.”
One of the fascinating and challenging aspects of this play is the unconventional structure. Although the story takes place linearly, it does so in a very unique fashion. The action of the play functions “like a braid,” George clarifies. “So the first scene is in the present day. The next scene happens in the past, and so on through the three time periods in the play.”
While it’s true that the play explores the relationship between people and their technology, the heart of the play is about intimate human relationships. “It’s about this fundamental human wish to be open to, and vulnerable to, and dependent on, other people without risk. And, obviously that’s impossible. People are unpredictable and terrifying and mortal,” George explains. “In order to have what relationships will bring you, which is arguably everything that’s worth having in the world, you have to experience unbearable things.” She goes on to say, “The difference between Amazon suggesting your next book based on a complex algorithm of Library of Congress serial numbers, and your girlfriend buying you the book because you had a conversation once, this is a salient difference. We can feel however we feel about being connected to other people, but we can’t survive without it.”
George was particularly humbled during the beginning stages of development when she and her creative team were invited to IBM’s Westchester research campus to meet with the team who developed their supercomputer, Watson. “It was like one of the great moments of my life. I mean, who would think you would go into playwriting haplessly and naively end up getting to meet some of the greatest computer scientists of our age?” During this meeting, George made some important discoveries about the intersection of art and science. “Those scientists are so philosophically adept, you know, they can really talk about what it might mean for us to become dependent on machines, come to love machines. You know, they’re interested in those problems.”
Reflecting back on her visit, George adds, “Plays ask questions. When they’re rich, they ask questions and this is a question driven endeavor too.” When it comes down to it, The Watson Intelligence is “basically a break-up story,” George explains. “It’s a love story crossed with a mystery. It’s really looking at not only what it means to suborn your life to the vision of another person, but also, what is it for any of us when we go into an intimate relationship with somebody else? Anytime we throw in our lot with another person it’s perilous and it’s thrilling and it’s scary and it explains why romances and mysteries are perennial favorites.”
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
With over 80 PCPA productions to her credit as an actor, director Kitty Balay follows her directorial work on last season’s Trying by returning to helm The Watson Intelligence. Balay expects this production will serve as an opportunity to explore our deep yearning for a warm connection with other people, and how we sometimes find it easier to fill that need with cold technology.” She explained, “Technology can offer us instantaneous gratification in a way that a person often can’t. With our phones in our pocket, we are able to connect to the world, our kids, our moms, in an instant. We can ignore the messages from the people we don’t want to talk to. It gives us the power to choose connection or distance from the people in our lives. We can program the settings to see our favorite colors, choose the artificial voice and accent we prefer. And, if we get bored with that voice, we can change it. We are able to curate all of the content that we want to see and hear, at any time, with a single click. We hold in our hands a device that gives us a sense of control in a world where we increasingly feel out of control.”
Balay continues, “Invention and reinvention are played out in the characters’ need to connect with another. ‘Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,’ we hear over and over as the characters flounder in relationships. We see them inventing ways to connect with each other then, subsequently, reinventing themselves when the relationship becomes uncomfortable; when it threatens their sense of autonomy.” For Balay, The Watson Intelligence gives us an opportunity to question how we connect to one another and our world. “Like any good mystery, this production will have us asking lots of questions. Who, or what, is actually in control? Is it me? Or my partner? Or the government? Or a corporation? Are we alone in our private world with our private screens? Or are we tiny cogs in an invention so large that we’re not even conscious of it? Or, and let’s hope this is the case, are we all connected by our humanity, like points of light in a web of connection that’s crackling with electrical energy?”
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Madeleine George is an award-winning playwright who grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts. As a teenager, George participated in the Young Playwrights Festival at Playwrights Horizons and The Public Theatre in New York City but chose to study linguistics during her undergraduate studies at Cornell University. She then returned to the city to study playwriting at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Her plays have been produced by Playwrights Horizons, 13P, Clubbed Thumb, Shotgun Players in Berkeley, and Theater Wit in Chicago, among others. She received a Whiting Award, the Princess Grace Playwriting Fellowship, and two MacDowell fellowships, and she holds commissions from the Sloan Foundation/Manhattan Theatre Club, the Big Ten Theatre Consortium, and the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Madeleine is a resident playwright at New Dramatists, a founding member of the Obie-Award winning playwrights collective 13P, and the Mellon Playwright in Residence at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey.
“The theatre is human size no matter what you do,” George says. “Because it’s necessarily going to be about a small-scale relationship, if you can figure out how to get the small-scale relationship to ask the big questions, then it’s like the perfect doorway for people to enter through to ask the big questions. This human sized version of massive problems is how we live. The theatre is such a great medium for that.”