Transhumanism (noun): the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.
It began with an age-old wish: the longing to live forever. An elixir sought by kings and pharaohs, warriors and peasants. A fountain of youth that has eluded the strong, the wise, the thoughtful and the cunning.
Transhumanists say they have found the answer. Their solution lies in technology — where they believe they will ultimately exist, someday.
The loosely defined transhumanism movement has gradually developed over the last two decades. It is steeped in the idea that human bodies represent the early stages of development, not the end, and that their consciousnesses can live on through technology — the jumping-off point for an experimental performance written, directed and designed by Isla Hansen, Tucker Marder and Christian Scheider.
“I sort of loved how both absurdly topical and futuristic the theme was, while simultaneously being operatic and archetypal. That was an odd combination that lends itself well to a theatrical piece,” Scheider said. “The theme of the show is people trying to figure out how to live forever by disembodying themselves partially, so theater is a great medium to consider that wish, because it’s all about human beings in the room in the space in front of you, right now.”
They call the play, “The Summit,” commissioned by Guild Hall in East Hampton, where it will make its world premiere on Friday, August 31, and question when progress should end, if it is always warranted, or even welcome, Marder explained.
“Aubrey de Grey has this TED Talk where he walks on stage and says, ‘Death is an illness,’ and all three of us were like, ‘Wait … is it an illness?’” he said. “There’s this human hubris that some people are marching together in agreement on, that the three of us aren’t necessarily so much.”
In the futuristic world the trio has created, that group of people is the techno-elite — who, as they prepare to abandon their bodies and upload themselves into the virtual beyond, are met by a malfunctioning Empathy A.I. mistakenly assigned to assist with the procedure.
What ensues is a final night of physical embodiment that is a “real bacchanal, if you will,” Scheider said.
There are puppets and slapstick and four live feeds projected on screens. There’s a garden scene, a dance scene, a balcony scene and a dinner scene — in which no real food is eaten. There is a kitchen appliance rebellion, and props that become animated and talk.
“From our perspective, the puppets and the props and the costumes are almost like sculpture,” Hansen said. “We come from an art background and we haven’t been thinking of them as just accessories to this plot. The plot came around knowing some of what we wanted to make first.”
This collaboration is not the first to come from the trio. It follows in the footsteps of their first play at the Parrish Art Museum, “Galápagos” — a large-cast production with a science fiction bent, featuring elaborate costuming and even a live dog.
“I think we were like, ‘Oh, let’s do something totally different than “Galápagos,”’ and then we decided to make another giant science fiction with a large cast …” Hansen said.
“That has a dog in it and many different elements,” Scheider finished. “But if anybody’s afraid they’re going to see some weird, unintelligible, intellectual think piece, it’s not that.”
Starting last year, the group locked themselves in a room at least once weekly to write and work through ideas, merging plot, theme and humor into the script.
“It was … really difficult,” Marder said.
“It’s hard to get three people to come to a consensus on what’s going to happen in a show, and that’s what we did,” Scheider said. “What rose from it was this holistic document that is one part straight-up narrative, and one part experimental performance.”
“We prioritized the concept we were going for — valuing the human body over the integration of the human body with technology, which we see as a loss of having a true embodied knowledge of your own body and nature,” Hansen said. “That concept was the top priority, and the second priority was including everything we wanted to include formally: the props, the set, these live video elements. The plot fed that, and the dialogue came last, and that’s not always the case with writing theater.”
In an off-site replica of the theater, the three directors have been working with their cast of 20 before transitioning to Guild Hall, where the play will stage through Sunday, September 9.
“I think I would like people to leave with a sense of wonder at the ability of all these physical things to hold their attention for as long as a screen can,” Hansen said. “Could a high school student put their phone down for the hour and a half we’re gonna do this crazy show and be as entertained by these bodies as by playing Fruit Ninja? We’re hoping, yes, they can be. The physical can compete with all the screen-based sensory we’ve become used to.”
“And if it’s doesn’t …” Marder said.
“We’ve failed,” she responded.
“No, no, no!” he said with a laugh. “If it doesn’t, we should think about why it doesn’t.”
“And I would just add, if I were in the audience, I would like to hope that I would walk out of the building asking myself, ‘If I had unlimited time to live forever, would the time that I have lived mean the same that it does now?’” Scheider said. “Meaning, we don’t get to live forever — most of us — and how are we gonna go about making meaning in the time that we have? It’s a question that gets brushed over in the transhumanist movement. Is living forever really the solution to living well?”
“The Summit” will make its world premiere on Friday, August 31, at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall, located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton. Performances will continue Tuesdays through Sundays, at 8 p.m., through September 9, which will stage at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $25 to $75, or $18 to $70 for members. For more information, call (631) 324-4050 or visit guildhall.org.