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Daily drama UB takes on a week's worth of Lori-Parks plays

When Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks set out on her project to write 365 plays in 365 days, she seemed to envision a new kind of collaboration, a massive festival of theater with hundreds of institutions across the nation performing her plays.

Four years later, "365 Days/365 Plays" is in full swing, and Lori-Parks' vision has materialized.

What Lori-Parks might not have envisioned, however, is one of her plays being performed by two computer "agents" with artificial-intelligence programming. Or virtual-reality helmets, which seemingly project the inner thoughts of one of her characters onto huge screens using 3-D digital animations. But at the University at Buffalo, where several departments are collaborating on the production of a week's worth of Lori-Parks' plays, the technological capabilities of theater are being stretched to their outer limits.

"It's extremely interdisciplinary," said Amy Strahler Holzapfel, one of the project's organizers and an assistant professor in UB's department of theater and dance. "We've got students and the creative team coming from computer science and engineering, media studies, theater and dance, architecture and education."

The idea to approach the project from such an unconventional perspective came after Strahler Holzapfel and her colleague Sarah Bay-Cheng attended a theater education conference. There, Lori-Parks was asking companies and educational institutions around the country to consider performing a week's worth of her plays -- sight unseen -- in a yearlong national festival.

UB jumped on board.

"It's very meta," Bay-Cheng said of the university's approach to the project. "It's meta-theatrical, it's meta-technological, it's meta-textual."

Besides actors, there are dozens of students from various departments helping in the construction of video motion capture devices, fluid projection screens and the integration of film and photography across the seven plays, which take a total of 45 minutes to perform. Audience members will wear 3-D glasses during the show so they can interpret the digital environments in which the actors -- real or digital -- are immersed.

One of the plays, titled "Lights/Rats," consists of just a few lines of dialogue that occur in a matter of seconds. But in UB's version, the roles are "played" by computer programs created by students in the university's department of computer science and engineering. According to Strahler Holzapfel, each "agent" has a unique personality that changes over time as each reacts to its counterpart's lines. Lines of code that make up the artificial-intelligence programming will also be projected onto a screen, so every piece of the production is revealed.

Another play, "Diva," involves a woman in bed who wakes up to a round of applause. "That's played by an actor who is networked into a digital projection of her ego, and that becomes this beautiful headdress that moves," Bay-Cheng said. "That's just something that we invented."

Megan Benjamin, a participant in the project and a senior theater and English major at UB, said she's excited at the opportunity to collaborate with so many students and university departments that would normally have nothing to do with theater.

"Theater is such a close-knit community," Benjamin said. "To open it up to other departments, that rarely comes along. It's hard to get everyone on the same page, and this project definitely does that."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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