Noam Chomsky, Steve Jobs, Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, Elon Musk and President Trump are among the figures represented in Pedro Reyes’s satirical puppet play, “Manufacturing Mischief.” The work tackles ideas around the ethics of artificial intelligence, the use of technology to solve all humanity’s problems, the current political climate in the United States and Randian philosophy. Also, Karl Marx raps. The play, which had recent runs at MIT and Carnegie Mellon University, opens June 5 at the Tank in New York. ALL ARTS spoke with Reyes via email about the work, techno optimism and his disdain for Ayn Rand.
What inspired you to create this play?
Being at residency at MIT, I was hoping to meet Noam Chomsky, as many people do. I was especially interested in asking his opinion on how he was looking at the issue of techno optimism, which is an omnipresent mindset at MIT to consider technology as the answer to any problem. I went to visit him and told him I wanted to do a puppet show, using him as a protagonist. Happily, he agreed and I started, together with a research assistant, to do a cross reference of everything he had said about some of the “techno heroes” that are heralded today, such as Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.
This started to create an interesting database of quotations that we started to cross reference, in order to have material to start writing a play.
The plot is pretty wacky and satirical. Can you talk a bit about your decision to use this mode of storytelling to address the specific issues you’re addressing here?
Puppets have the advantage of being incredibly versatile to convey ideas, especially political satire. So, in general, comedy is a great way to deliver content in a fast and efficient way. Even very sophisticated ideas can lead to great jokes. That’s why I was very interested in using puppets in comedy to deal with complex philosophical questions.
How did the audience at MIT react to it?
Well, everyone was very receptive, especially because there are a number of insider jokes that they get, such as the celebrity status of Noam Chomsky, because when he comes to campus you often find people chasing after him, hoping to exchange some words with him. There are a number of references in the play that people were happy to see.
Did you have any contact with Elon Musk when you were creating the play?
No, I haven’t had any contact with him so far. I think he is someone that has truly exciting projects, and others which I find absurd or wrong minded, such as going to Mars or creating underground superhighways for cars, where you could have a decent public transport system.
So I think that one of the interests that I had in criticizing him is that he is a visionary, yet his ethical framework continues to be one in service of the 1 percent. And that is something that you could also find in Steve Jobs, as both were fans of Ayn Rand and haven’t overcome that narrow-minded individualism.
What do you hope audiences will walk away with after seeing it?
I have a very specific mission — that is, to mock Ayn Rand, as she has a very large currency and a toxic ideology that has permeated so much of society. So I think that it’s important to let people know that they should not read that [stuff].
Top Image: From left, Karl Marx, President Trump, Noam Chomsky, Elon Musk and Ayn Rand reimagined as puppets in Pedro Reyes's "Manufacturing Mischief." Courtesy of Sham Sthankiya.