Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep: Coding as dramaturgy with Tanya Marquardt and John Titus
Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep is a transdisciplinary performance by Tanya Marquardt, that tells the story of how they discovered a ‘sleeping self’ named X through their iPhone. The piece imagines what might happen if our ‘waking selves’ and ‘sleeping selves’ met, conversed, and maybe even healed. Two SMS texting versions, a sound/sculpture installation and scripted performance invite the audience to contemplate the dream world through years of sleeptalk recordings. At PushOFF we are presenting a GPT-3 AI version, where participants ask X a question before they go to sleep, and awake to X’s response.
The piece started with the fact that I am a sleeptalker. My mother told me I talked in my sleep and when I was a sixteen year old runaway my friends woke up when I talked. Then I downloaded a sound activated recording app on my iPhone and started to record myself at night. That’s when I discovered that I have a sleeping self; an entirely different ‘person’ that rolls around in my head, talks to themself, to me, and to the people sleeping next to me. Then my sleeping self became aware they were being recorded: “Hi, my name is X,” they said, and “I want to see you.” This baffled me. I thought maybe X was trying to heal trauma from my childhood, or that I was speaking to a ghost, receiving proof of our collective dream world. Which freaked me out. And totally intrigued me.
Premiering with frank theatre in 2023/24.
Creator / Performer: Tanya Marquardt
Direction: Fay Nass
Sound Composition: Omar Zubair
Scenography: David B Smith
Lighting Design: Masha Tsmiring
Coding, Coding Dramaturgy and Design: John Titus
Dramaturgy: Heidi Taylor
Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep was developed through the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, Mabou Mines, Earthdance, FOLDA Innovation Residency, Playwrights Theatre Centre, NPRs Invisibilia, and Deirdre Barnett at Harvard University. Beta-Testers include DB Amorin, Jess Barbagallo, Ethan Brown, Sabrina Fonseca, Diana Garcia, Chris Harder, Evan Medd, Bobbi Sue McCollum, David B Smith, Elliott Reed, Anais West, Adrienne Wong, Michael Wheeler, Sacha Yanow and Alice Yorke.
TANYA MARQUARDT is a writer and performer. Their work is intimate — memoirs, Tedtalk/séances, private dances, ‘texting plays’, MP3 meditations, epistolary performances written to dream lovers — a fierce mucking about with vulnerability to get at life as a former runaway, third generation Magyar settler and genderqueer. Their book Stray: Memoir of a Runaway was named a Best Queer & History Bio by The Advocate; a punk-musical version toured nationally; Nocturne (an incomplete and inaccurate account of the love affair between George Sand and Frederic Chopin) was produced at Dixon Place, Transmission, based on Sophocles’ Orestia, was published in the Canadian Theatre Review, and Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep, Tanya’s play about being a sleep talker, inspired an NPR Invisibila. Their essays appear in Medium, huffpost, Plentitude, DanceGeist, Lesbians Are Miracles and OffAssignment; their performances at PuSh, VIDF, Dancing on the Edge, The Tank, Brooklyn Museum, BAX, and The Collapsable Hole. They have worked with JoAnne Akalaitis, Jerome Bel, Ballez, Jess Barbagallo, Mallory Catlett, Fay Nass, frank theatre, radix, and the Leaky Heaven Circus. Currently, they are learning Magyar legényes folk dance, working with nonbinary drag artist Rose Butch and writing Creature (a memoir of selves).
JOHN TITUS (they/them) is an artist, programmer, and digital citizen. Moving through various mediums and disciplines, they utilize their talents to serve others and focus on creating unconventional work that explores the power of language, the beauty of the mundane, and the necessity of community.
This interview is condensed from a conversation between Tanya and John recorded on January 13th in response to questions from dramaturg Heidi Taylor.
Tanya: So, hey everybody, my name is Tanya Marquardt and I am zooming in from Keni Land, which is also part of Lenapehoking aka Brooklyn, New York. And this is,
John: John Titus. Hello. I’m the coding dramaturg for the show. And I’m zooming in from the same place.
Tanya, what did you know about coding before you started working with John?
John: I’m very excited to hear the answer to this.
Tanya: Not a thing. (laughs), I mean, there’s like, what, two generations between us. So when I grew up, people were coding, but I think they were using like C++ or something. So I remember computers with like the green font, which is kind of part of the aesthetic of our show now. But, you know, it was so long ago and it was in computers, like we’re just coming out with the printers with like the, the ripoff sides and stuff. And I, um, randomly coded a, “where in the world is Carmen San Diego” inspired question game. I have no idea how I did it.
Although I suppose actually I have coded like my own website and stuff sometimes. So I know a little bit about how to put in code when an image goes in. But anytime I’ve done it, I’ve messed it up and someone else had to go in and look at it. So I was very thankful and grateful to find John through my friend Ashley Tata, who’s an amazing director of musical theatre.
John: Thank you, Ashley.
Tanya: So John, you did a double major if this is correct in computing and theatre studies?
John : I would love if I studied that much computing, but I did minor in it! It’s on the degree, right. So I studied theatre, that was my major and then I minored in computers and web programming. I had been programming stuff in high school and so everyone was kind of more surprised that I did theatre. It was like a 180, because I was a very bookish person, I guess.
I don’t think they’re entirely separate practices. It’s not like science and art. I think they’re much more similar than common conception could say. There’s a lot of, maybe warmth is the right word, that artistic practices can bring into the computer world. I don’t think computers have to be cold and unfeeling, but that’s the idea – it’s a computer, it doesn’t feel anything.
And so that’s why it’s nice with this show we’re, you know, making art with computers. And then on the flip side, being in the tech world but having an artistic background gives me a different approach, a more humanistic perspective, I guess. Tech can be very, “give me everything”, like very greedy or not caring about the individuals. They blend together in a way that I think enhances them both.
Tanya: That’s really cool. Yeah. I have a lot of friends who are dancers who got a double major or a minor in mathematics, like a surprising amount. I think that’s another interview.
Does your theatre expertise impact your coding practice and vice versa?
Tanya: Well, you kind of answered that (laughs). But do you find though that the forms that you learned in theatre and the forms that you learned as a coder feed and inspire and offer potential, as you are weaving both of these practices? You’re a practicing coder and you’re a practicing theatre artist, you know, do they speak to each other or feed into each other in some way?
John: I suppose I am, I suppose I am both of those things, wow! (Laughs). It’s kinda wild to think about. Yeah, I think, like I said, a warmth or empathy, really. I think a lot of the training that I got was about emotions or exploring my own memories and how those can then translate into scenes where people aren’t like me, right? So, the stepping in someone else’s shoes can be very helpful when you’re building a website or some sort of tool or something. How are people gonna use this? You know, what are ways that people could use it that I wouldn’t normally think of, right? Which is why it’s helpful to have a group of people that are all talking about how it works.
I don’t know about the computer part affecting my acting as much; I don’t think about coding when I’m on stage or anything like that. I wonder if there’s a way to like apply it in a fun- you know, when we were doing Zoom theatre and stuff, they got to blend a lot more.
Tanya: Well in this case you are, in the way that we are working together. We’ll be talking about the coding and how if we’re gonna try this, then the coding needs to be like this and if we’re gonna try that, the coding needs to be like that. That’s one of the reasons why you’re credited as the coder, but also a coding dramaturg, cuz actually our discussions around the coding possibilities have shifted the narrative structure of the piece. The way that we’ve trained GPT-3, the way that we’re feeding it, you know, it reminds me of that musical, what was it? (laughs).
We’re dropping in the sleep talking transcripts… it becomes – I don’t know if consciousness, consciousness is not the right word – but genre-making, and is able to have the cadence of this sleep talking person. We are directly creating a performative character through coding, which is, I think, really fascinating. And something I haven’t really given a lot of thought to until this moment, because we’re like in it right now! (laughs).
For the Some Must Watch experiment at PushOFF, you’re moving into new territory to develop the audience relationship to the voice of X. What have your experiments with GPT-3 shown you so far?
Tanya: (laughs) You first!
John: (laughs) Off of what you just said about creating this entity with coding. I think that is… imbuing some character into this AI. I’ve read about it and used it in other situations where you’re asking it questions and it’s giving you responses, like facts or, ‘write me an essay’ or something. So imbuing it with character in this way is surprisingly affecting as we’ve been beta testing. Yes. Very thrilled by it.
Tanya: Yeah. People seem to be really affected by it. I don’t know. Another thing – this whole journey of X and finding this sleep talking self and then moving it through all these different genres, has helped me to see my non-binary nature. It definitely helped me come out as trans. There was something about it switching genre to genre and also medium to medium.
And there is something about the GPT-3 thing. When I first discovered X, that really helped me – I’m gonna loop this around. It’s all gonna fit. – But when I discovered X, it did help me come out as trans. I was like, there is another thing inside of me. And maybe potentially a bunch of things inside of me. And you know, that related to a whole bunch of stuff around gender and sexuality too, it wasn’t the only thing that happened to me. But then as we’ve moved through these iterations to become more fluid, it feels almost like a star, not like a movie star, an actual star or something that everybody’s like, whoa, that star is so interesting.
This GPT-3 version is so much more interesting than I thought it would be. It’s not that I didn’t think it was interesting. We got Canada Council funding, thank you.
But actually it’s quite beautiful what’s happening and people are really being drawn into it. It just seems like people are able to interact with their own dream lives in whatever way they want. It doesn’t seem as prescriptive or something. And so it’s opening up space for people to share, which I think is like really great. I dunno if I’ve ever made a piece like this before.
Artists are experimenting with AI in many ways. What does this GPT-3 technology mean for you as a writer, Tanya? Is it a collaborator, a tool? Would you edit or censor the outputs?
Tanya: We’re in the process of discovering all of this stuff. But I do feel like I’m writing it for sure.
In the last beta test we did, at a certain point John was like, “we need to feed it more words.” And we thought, well, when we do all the beta testing, we’ll take every, we’ll take all of X’s answers, not the questions. Those would remain private and we’ll just, like, keep feeding it in. And then we were talking about privacy issues and we came to the conclusion that actually we like it that people can ask X any question and that their responses are private, that we won’t use them.
But also it’s really important that I’m housing X, so X has to do it. I pulled from my journals, and I tend to write in the very early morning. So it was very easy for me to touch into that liminal state of mind and pull dialogue and questions and little poems and stuff. I feel more like I’m channelling oddly rather than writing, but it is me writing – both X and me, are me. There’s some amazing dream creature that’s speaking to us through the GPT-3 technology, some sort of divination or something.
For John – what dramaturgical tools do you find are helpful in this coding dramaturgy practice?
John: I’m gonna need—I don’t know if I have a proper framework to digest this question.
Tanya: Like, what dramaturgy tools are you finding helpful in this particular role that you’re doing? Like how’s dramaturgy playing into the — you’re a coding dramaturg. What’s the dramaturgy part of that title? What does that mean? And do you find that it requires a different approach than say if you were dramaturgically approaching, a performance text or a play or something like that?
John: I feel like I just had an epiphany or something. An answer – it’s arrived (laughs). There are definitely some commonalities in terms of when you’re putting up a physical theatre piece, and you’re looking at the script and you’re saying: “What is the context of this piece and where are we at?” and “How can we contribute to this place and time through the art of performing?” and “How do we remain true to the actual realities of the time period or the location?” or what have you. For the coding side of it, there’s a similar mindset in terms of: we are entering a particular space that behaves in a particular way, nd how do we either follow those norms or intentionally disrupt them? And there are also different obstacles to come up against. But I think a lot of it is considering the approach of, okay, this might be the prevailing way that things work in computer land, but it can be better, right? Part of doing this can be presenting alternatives or contributing to a betterment of technological tools, right? These AIs are very controversial. And people are very concerned about them. I think— very valid concerns. But I think using it in this artistic way presents another side of it that can easily be lost in the concern.
Tanya : Do you feel conflicted using GPT-3 in this way?
John: I think a little bit. Not very much, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. When we were discussing where to take the piece next and this presented itself as an idea, it was intriguing particularly because like I said, oh, we can take this tool and have a somewhat novel or or less common use of it. I think that’s worthwhile because I don’t want to throw tools like this out. But, I’m very cautious about them. So that’s why the discussions we had about using people’s answers [for data for the project] and deciding not to are really important for our project. But also thinking about how doing this project will affect the way that we interact with that part of the world. And also people are interfacing with a computer rather than sitting in an audience. So what does that mean to consider the extra level of interactivity that you have in a digital medium that you don’t typically have in traditional Western theatrical spaces?
Tanya: The implications of how we interface with technology – it’s so big.
It’s so vast. There’s so many questions. Every time I log in to Instagram now I feel I am increasingly feeling more and more anxiety about my own avatar out there being created. Like some kind of X-Files, you know, where he is like, you know, you’re like genetic materials like somewhere in like a vault and they can do whatever they want with it, you know, the proverbial they, I mean the technological equivalent or something. We’re at a very strange moment and it feels like a repeat always these moments, right? I’ve been reading Frankenstein and I’m like, oh yeah, this totally tracks, you know, this idea of technical fear. The fear of technology and the brokenness, and then what happens when that broken thing becomes human and can we care for it? And what does it mean and how does it relate to our identity?
John: But I think you asking: “Do you think this is a play?” made me realize— Well one, when we started the conversation, I was like, “I’m the this for the play.” I think that whenever I’ve been describing it to people, most of the time I told them about the texting version that we did previously. And so I always say, “Oh, you know, that texting play that I did, and now we’re doing this thing…”. So I kind of get to skirt around describing what this is. (laughs)
Tanya: Right? Right.
John: And so, I don’t know. I’m very curious what other people’s responses would be when they understand what this is or if they participate in it.