Katy Hahn of Atkins stepped into Amelia Summerland’s artificial skin and digitized brain in 2011 as part of Theatre Cedar Rapids’ Underground New Play Festival.
Angela Billman of Cedar Rapids stepped into Amelia’s skin when Rob Merritt’s play, “The Summerland Project,” jumped to the TCR main stage in January 2013. She reprised the role when Amelia’s story made the leap into cinema with “Amelia 2.0,” which sold out all five screens at the Collins Road Theatres for its local premiere in August 2017.
Now both women, in their early 30s, are back to continue Amelia’s saga through “Aurora.” It’s the headliner for this year’s Underground New Play Festival, opening at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (8/8) in TCR’s Grandon Studio. The series, and “Aurora,” continue through Aug. 18. All are exploring the theme: “Out There: Science, Technology, Fantasy and Humanity.”
Hahn is directing “Aurora,” and Billman is exploring the next chapter of Amelia’s evolution, delving even deeper into the moral, ethical and legal questions of uploading a human brain into a synthetic body when the human body is dying. Is the end result human or machine?
Without human designation in the eyes of the law, playwright Merritt said Amelia “cannot buy a home, get a job or even walk down the street safely.” To further muddy the waters, Wesley Enterprises, which created Amelia, is now mass-producing her duplicates. So are they all human, or machines?
Merritt has been toying with the notion since jotting down a basic synopsis in 2015, before fleshing out the first draft by 2017.
“It was really important to me that when I when I wrote ‘Aurora,’ one of the first people I reached out to about it was Angela,” Merritt, 43, of Cedar Rapids, said. “I sent her a copy of the script and I had her read it and tell me, ‘Is there something here?’”
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The answer was yes, and Billman participated in a staged reading of the new piece in 2017. And when the director for that reading wasn’t available to direct the completed play this summer, Merritt reached out to Hahn, who is a teacher and director at area colleges, as well as a leading actor on regional stages.
“When Katy was available, that seemed like this really perfect coming-full-circle moment — that the Amelia from 2011 was coming in to direct the next chapter of the story, featuring the Amelia from the 2013 version and the film,” Merritt said. “I’m really lucky that I have collaborators like that who are onboard for this.”
Billman’s only hesitation was thinking it would be important to have different people play Amelia, “especially in the development of a new story.”
“Rob and I had some conversations regarding what would benefit him most in his writing process,” she said, “and I value his opinion from that perspective. I asked him if it would be appropriate for another person to try to bring a new light to the role, in case that opened up new options or opportunities for the character in the plot. But Rob thought that this would be the most meaningful and valuable path for the production and for his writing process, and so I wanted to respect and value that.”
She also was happy to further her own path with Amelia’s character.
“She just became part of me, because I’ve lived with her for so long,” Billman said. “And it’s not like her story ended at the end of the movie. It was not the same, but a cliffhanger much like the play was, so there was always the opportunity for another iteration of her existence and her story.”
Hahn, who noted that even though she originated the role, she only played Amelia for two performances in 2011, so guiding someone else through the new story wasn’t awkward at all. Her history with the show has given her valuable insight as a director.
“On the one hand, it’s nice being familiar with ‘The Summerland Project’ already,” Hahn said. “I felt very familiar with the world of the play, so that has its obvious advantages when you’re working on given circumstances.
“But on the other hand, it was especially valuable for me to talk to the (cast members) who were not already involved with this project, because we’re hoping that people will come to see this who might not necessarily have seen the first one, and we’re hoping that they will be able to get something out of this, as well.
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“Sometimes it’s hard when you’ve been with the story for so long — when you’re so familiar with this story, with the characters — to be able to look at it with fresh eyes, so I’ve relied a lot on the contributions of others to provide that perspective,” Hahn added, especially since several cast members work with artificial intelligence in their day jobs.
From the beginning, Merritt intended to create this new chapter as a stand-alone story, so audience members who didn’t see the original play or movie would not be lost watching “Aurora” unfold.
He also expanded the character, Cindy, with whom Amelia forms a bond. Whereas Amelia has more of a “Frankenstein” back story, having been created by digitizing the brain of a comatose woman and inserting it into a synthetic body, Cindy is fully artificial, with a synthetic human form run by an artificial intelligence program known as “Aurora.”
“There are a lot of opportunities for Amelia and Cindy as they talk to each other, to see what it’s like to see this artificial intelligence-being communicating with another robot where the brain is completely based on a human brain, and how they interact. And so that’s part of it,” Merritt said.
“But also, ‘Aurora’ means ‘dawn,’ and there are multiple things dawning in this play. They’re building multiple Amelias and Amelia is trying to figure out what to do about that. Then, Cindy’s intelligence is growing and Amelia’s intelligence is growing. A plot element of the first play that continues in this one is that now that she’s in her new form, Amelia’s brain is growing in ways that it never did when she was still human. So on top of everything else, she’s also dealing with the fact that she is constantly changing.”
All of these notions are on the verge of being science fact, not science fiction.
“One of the things that was really important to me, is there’s lots of stories out there about robots, and they’re usually about some far-off future, and they’re using technology that you can’t even begin to understand how they did it,” Merritt said. “But I was really fascinated by how there is real-life research going on right now, and real-life technology where if you advanced this just a little bit, if you gave them a little bit more computer power or a little bit more time, we’re not far off from this.
“This could actually happen, and if it happens, what are the moral questions that result.”
Not to mention the legal quagmire. Merritt turned to his wife, a lawyer, to help with that aspect of the play. She told him that “the court system would be so overwhelmed by this, it would open up so many questions that our system isn’t even prepared to address.”
So will this brave new world open new doors for Merritt to continue Amelia’s saga?
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“I don’t have any plans right now for a third one,” he noted. “That said, I had no plans for a second one. ... If down the road another story appears that makes me think, ‘Oh yeah we could revisit the world of Amelia,’ then great. But for right now, the thing that I really like about this (chapter) is that it feels like Amelia takes control of her own story, and that was what I really wanted to see happen.”
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If you go
• WHAT: Underground New Play Festival: “Out There: Science, Technology, Fantasy and Humanity”
• WHERE: Grandon Studio, lower level, Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
• WHEN: Thursday (8/8) to Aug. 18, various times
• TICKETS: $13 to $40 festival week passes, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org/event/2019-underground-new-play-festival/2019-08-08/
• HEADLINER: “Aurora,” by Rob Merritt, 7:30 p.m. Thursday (8/8), Friday (8/9), Sunday (8/11), Aug. 15, and 2:30 and 8:30 p.m. Aug. 18; ASL interpreter 2:30 p.m. Aug. 18; tickets $20
• FESTIVAL SELECTIONS: “Again, I’m You,” by Dylan Cooley; “Black Box, An Adoption Story,” by Zhen E. Rammelsberg; “Classic Cage,” by Francis Bass; “Duncan,” by William O’Loughlin; “Genesis Project.” by Erica Jo Lloyd; “The Gerrig Problem,” by Mike Miersen; “Hello, Friend,” by David Scanlon; “One,” by Grant Freeman; “Seasons Don’t Fear the Reaper,” by Brian Tanner; “The EULA,” by Brian Tanner; “The Revolution Will Not Be Instagrammed,” by Duane Larson; “The Battle of Ulunaduhaunal,” by Mike Miersen; “We Can Be Heroes,” by Zachary Johnson
• EXTRAS: Panel Discussions with Rob Merritt and the “Aurora” team at 1 p.m. Sunday (8/11) and with festival playwrights at 1 p.m. Aug. 18; costume/cosplay competition 7:30 p.m. Saturday (8/10), TCR Auditorium, register in lobby at 6:30 p.m.; festival awards, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 18
• DETAILS: Theatrecr.org