It sounds like a late-night freshman dorm debate after a marathon viewing of the “Matrix” trilogy: What if we’re all just bits and bytes in someone else’s computer simulation?
But Jay Scheib’s “World of Wires,” which the adapter-director is staging at the Institute of Contemporary Art this weekend, comes with a more serious pedigree. Scheib is an associate professor of theater arts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and well known as a writer and director of plays and opera. He was a 2011 Guggenheim fellow and won a 2012 Obie Award for directing “World of Wires” at the Kitchen in New York, where it premiered in January.
But the story line does have that mind-blowing feel. A man named Fred Stiller (Jon Morris) works for a corporation that has created a vast, complex computer simulation. A co-worker disappears and no one seems to remember her. He begins to investigate and finds that she has been deleted. His inquiry leads him to a disturbing discovery about his life.
“The spark for this,” Scheib says, “was me trying to figure out where the first reference in science fiction is to being able to plug oneself into a computer simulation, where you actually attach your nervous system to a computer.”
WORLD OF WIRES
The quest led him to Daniel Galouye’s prophetic 1964 sci-fi novel, “Simulacron-3,” and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 adaptation of the book for German TV, called “Welt am Draht” (“World on a Wire”). “I became hooked,” Scheib says.
He had already made the first two parts of a trilogy he calls Simulated Cities/Simulated Systems, both of them edgy, hard-to-capsulize works based in science fiction: “Untitled Mars (This Title Might Change)” and “Bellona, Destroyer of Cities,” which was seen at the ICA in 2011. He began to create his own adaptation of Fassbinder’s script, first with MIT students and later in a New York residency with his regular troupe of actors. They began with exercises such as improvisations based on still photos from the Fassbinder production.
Later Scheib incorporated what he says was his own most intense life experience into the script.
“This funny fluidity between what’s real and what’s simulated, I didn’t really understand it until one night at a Duane Reade drugstore right before it closed,” Scheib says with a chuckle. “I was there to buy some shampoo, and suddenly I found myself with a gun to my head for the next 45 minutes.”
This was near Columbia University in New York, a little over a decade ago. Scheib was caught in a takeover robbery in which two employees were badly beaten, he says.
“In one moment, [one of the robbers] held the gun away from me and pointed it at someone else, and I swear to this day it was a fake gun, like if he pulled the trigger a little ‘FIRE’ [flag] would come out the end,” Scheib says. “But of course I didn’t have the courage to test that theory at that moment.”
The perpetrators were never caught, he says, but the experience gave him insight into how much or how little the difference between authentic and ersatz might matter. “World of Wires” includes a “really intense” section in which the makers of the computer simulation demonstrate their product by creating a drugstore robbery scene in which the police arrive, shooting starts, and one person is killed.
“A lot of video game technology now is actors performing roles, and motion capture is being used to make very, very realistic situations in contemporary video games,” Scheib says. “We thought long and hard about things like Grand Theft Auto, where they’re simulating really high-adrenalin situations.”
No surprise that this production — which the ICA recommends for adults only, because of nudity and strong language — includes Scheib roaming the stage with a hand-held video camera, beaming a live feed to onstage monitors.
David Henry, the ICA’s director of programs, explains: “It eventually starts to dawn on some of the characters that they’re not sure if they’re really themselves or if they’re part of the computer simulation. And from that sort of lack of knowing comes a kind of existential humor. People break out and behave in all kinds of different ways, and they’re not sure if that’s who they are or if it’s part of the simulation. It’s kind of like the world we live in with the Internet.”
For the audience, it’s a layered experience, Henry says. “Your eyes are constantly moving back and forth between the live action and close-up video, which is the experience of watching a film as opposed to theater. Your eyes keep going back and forth between the theatrical and the media.”
As theory-laden as it sounds, Scheib and Henry describe “World of Wires” as the most easily digested segment of Scheib’s trilogy, driven by its thriller plot. “Up to this point, his narrative often could seem a bit opaque,” Henry says. “I found ‘World of Wires’ to be his most accessible work yet. It’s actually quite funny at times.”
Some theatergoers might once have been thrown by the reality-bending concepts. But Scheib and Henry say that’s no longer the case in a world where movies often delve into topics much like this one and Internet avatars and social networks provide an alternative to real-world interaction for many.
“It’s interesting to me that this was originally written in the 1960s, before computers were readily available,” Henry says. “Philosophers were already thinking ahead to what virtual worlds could mean and be, and now we’ve sort of gotten there.”
That, of course, is the nature of science fiction.
“At this point,” Scheib says, “what we’re doing is really a history play.”