Five questions with: playwright Rob Merritt

TCR Underground Festival

Theatre Cedar Rapids — Aug. 8-18

Director Katy Hahn gives instructions to her cast during rehearsals for ‘Aurora,’ a new play by Rob Merritt that premieres Aug. 8 at the Theatre Cedar Rapids Underground New Play Festival. — courtesy of Rob Merritt

In 2011, at the first ever Theatre Cedar Rapids Underground New Play Festival, the community was surprised by a new play from local playwright Rob Merritt, The Summerland Project. A fascinating and philosophical piece of rare science fiction theater, The Summerland Project explored the implications, both ethical and emotional, of Carter Summerland’s decision to place his wife, Amelia, into an experimental project that would transfer her consciousness from her failing body to a synthetic one.

While there are always gems to be found in any evening of new works, a lot of audience members sensed something more from this piece. Among them was TCR’s artistic team, who came to Merritt and asked if they could re-stage the play as part of their regular season, in 2013.

At that performance, another opportunity was in the audience: producer Mary Meisterling approached Merritt after opening weekend to discuss a film adaptation. In 2017, the film Amelia 2.0 premiered, starring Ed Begley, Jr. and local actress Angela Billman, who played lead Amelia Summerland in the 2013 production. Katy Hahn, who played Amelia in 2011, had a bit part in the film as well. Merritt wrote the screenplay. Amelia 2.0 went on to score three Iowa Motion Picture Association awards.

Now, this perfect storm of success has come full circle, with Merritt’s play Aurora, a sequel to The Summerland Project, anchoring TCR’s ninth annual Underground New Play Festival, themed Out There: Science, Technology, Fantasy and Humanity. The festival opens with Aurora on Thursday, Aug. 8; it plays five more times over the course of the festival. Hahn is directing the play, and Billman returns as Amelia Summerland.

A full festival lineup and schedule can be found at Tickets run $13-40. On Saturday, Aug. 10, there will be a sci-fi/fantasy-themed costume contest, free and open to the community, with Z102.9 radio personalities Alex Schulte and Jackson Bartelme as emcees and judges. Participants should arrive by 6:30 p.m. for a slot in the 7:30 p.m. contest.

Merritt answered some questions for Little Village about Aurora and The Summerland Project via email.

Did you know this story had a longer arc when you first wrote The Summerland Project? Or did these new angles reveal themselves later?

I had absolutely no idea. The Summerland Project was its own thing, and I genuinely thought it was done once the film wrapped. But in 2015, I went to see a production of the stage play in Kansas City. Revisiting the characters, it occurred to me that the final minutes of the play raise enough questions to generate an entire new story of their own. In the final minutes, The Summerland Project reveals that multiple copies of Amelia Summerland are now being built and sold. How does that complicate the question of who she is? And if Amelia tries to stop them from mass-producing her, how would she do it in a world that now views her as a product and not a person?

By the time we got back from Kansas City, I had the outline for a story, and it took off from there. The first play was very much about how other people viewed and reacted to Amelia. Her husband. The media. The company that built her. By contrast, the second play is about how Amelia views herself, and how she takes control of her own fate.

Science fiction and theater aren’t worlds apart, but they’re not exactly common bedfellows. How did you know that this was the right way to tell these stories? What brought you back to the stage for Aurora, even after translating The Summerland Project into a screenplay?

My personal feeling is that science fiction doesn’t get put onstage enough. By contrast, movies and TV are overrun with science-fiction stories. Many people hear “science fiction” and their minds immediately go to Star Wars and lasers and big spectacle. But for me, the best science fiction asks ethical and moral questions about our society today. “What if technology we have right now were just a little more advanced? What would that mean for humanity?” Once you think about it in those terms, science fiction is a perfect fit for the theater. And I knew early on that Aurora was going to involve multiple versions of Amelia. Doing that on film is easy. Doing it onstage? That’s a more interesting challenge, and one that we definitely wanted to take on.

Noel VanDenBosch plays Cindy, an AI-powered robot that learns from all she observes, in ‘Aurora,’ a new play by Rob Merritt. — courtesy of Rob Merritt

What do you feel the story gains in launching it, again, at the TCR Underground Festival? Can you talk a bit about the role of community in story development and the value of new work incubation?

I cannot say enough good things about the community support for The Summerland Project. I’d had the idea for the play for some time, but it was the creation of the festival that finally kicked me into gear and made me write it. From there, TCR’s artistic director and tech director saw the Festival show, and immediately pushed to re-mount it as a fully realized production on the TCR Mainstage. Which led to other productions, as well as the film. And when the movie happened, people invested money, volunteered like crazy and then came out in huge numbers to see it locally. The movie sold out all five screens at Collins Road Theatres on opening night.

And with Aurora, as a group we’ve done a lot of workshopping, sharpening up the story points and really giving the actors a lot of room to flesh out individual characters. There is no way that The Summerland Project or Aurora would have happened without that level of community support. And there’s something kind of poetic about the story returning to the place where it first came to be eight years ago. And with the original Amelia (Katy Hahn) serving as director, no less! It feels like everything has come full circle.

In the time between writing The Summerland Project and developing Aurora, you got married yourself. How has that informed your understanding of the ethical and emotional issues at the core of your first play and your approach to the sequel?

In many ways, I empathize even more with Carter’s desperation to save his wife in The Summerland Project. Although, Carter doesn’t really figure into Aurora. He is mentioned a few times, but we realized in early drafts that Amelia was spending too much time mourning him. Aurora is very much its own standalone tale. You don’t have to see The Summerland Project to appreciate it, and constant references to Carter interfered with that, so we took a lot of them out.

That said — one huge way that my wife factored into Aurora is that she’s an attorney. What really made me realize that Aurora had legs as a story was when I asked Megan, “Legally, what options does Amelia have? What if Amelia Summerland walked into your office tomorrow and said, ‘Here’s what happened to me. What should I do?'” Megan immediately had ideas for Amelia’s legal strategy, but she also had ideas for the strategy that Wesley Enterprises would employ in response.

Angela Billman plays Amelia Summerland, a woman whose mind is revived in artificial form, as she struggles to regain her life and identity in ‘Aurora.’ — courtesy of Rob Merritt

You share a lot of real-life tech developments on social media, under the auspices of “… today, in Summerland news …” How close do you think the ideas in your play are to being science non-fiction? What IRL AI development (a) scares you most and (b) excites you most?

Grounding The Summerland Project and Aurora in a world we know and recognize was important to me. There are other sci-fi stories that deal with human consciousness being preserved in an artificial body, but they usually take place in some far-off future, using technology that’s never explained. But The Summerland Project is based on actual research happening right now, both in robotics and in mapping of the brain. A lot of transhumanists, including Ray Kurzweil, believe we’re going to see this happen in our lifetimes.

And with artificial intelligence, we are seeing huge leaps happening in that field every day. I went to EntreFEST in Cedar Rapids just a few months ago, where they demonstrated an AI program with the ability to create original paintings and art. That was unthinkable just five years ago, but here we are.

What both excites and scares me about artificial intelligence is that at some point, it’s going to advance past us, and we will no longer understand how it thinks or what it’s doing. That could have a huge benefit to humanity, or it could be incredibly destructive. No one knows. But I love that we’re asking questions like this. And that’s what makes projects like Aurora exciting to work on.

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