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‘The Compass’ puts you inside a courtroom drama

November 5, 2017

What if you could trade in your internal moral compass for a digital compass?

In “The Compass,” which opens this weekend at the Paul V. Galvin Playhouse, an app lets users forgo the struggle of making decisions altogether. Using information given to the app and users’ online history and social media data, the Compass app is more than just a prediction tool. It tells users what they actually would do in any situation.

“The relationship that we all have to our devices and to apps I just find pretty fascinating,” said Michael Rohd, who developed the piece over three years at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. “At first I thought we were working on a science fiction, or speculative fiction, piece, but I interviewed big honchos at Facebook, Google and other places, and all of them said we’re only a couple of years away.”

Rohd, an institute professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, not only explores the future of technology but also taps into the future of theatre as participatory art.

In this inventive play, the audience acts as a jury — determining the fate of Marjan, a teenage girl on trial for actions she took after consulting the Compass app to see what life-altering decisions she would make. Should she be held responsible? Did the app make her do it? Do her motivations matter?

“The jury will decide if our main character is guilty or not guilty,” Rohd said. “Things they say in their discussions will affect and appear in things that are done and said in the show. Part of the show is the jury wrestling with the case.”

Flashbacks to Marjan’s story, scenes from the app’s launch and witness testimony inform the audience during the trial. The audience will be divided in groups, each with their own juror. Throughout the play, jurors will lead conversations with their groups, as if the audience were stepping into the deliberation room.  

“When I am playing prosecutor I really have to pay attention to what the jury is thinking, how they’re reacting and also be very flexible in terms of changing tactics and maneuvering, trying to sway them from thinking not guilty to guilty,” said Leslie Campbell, an international undergraduate student double majoring in theater and global health. “It definitely raised the stakes in a way that I have never been able to play before.”

The ethics of technology served as one of the starting places for this groundbreaking play, but Rohd said it’s about more than that.

“It is about the relationship that young people have to adults, the relationship young people have to technology, the relationship we all have to how we make decisions for ourselves,” he said. The show explores how communities respond to trauma and violence, questions what it means when adults tell young people to stand up for themselves yet may not agree with how they do it, and puts the desire to use technology to make things more convenient next to potential downsides.

“The show presents the facts. It doesn’t offer a right or wrong ­— the audience, in a way, decides how it feels about that.”

 With the final verdict left up to the audience, many might even wish they could pull out a phone and open the Compass app for help.

'The Compass' 

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11, 16–18; 2 p.m. Nov. 12, 19.

Where: Paul V. Galvin Playhouse, ASU's Tempe campus.

Admission: $16 for general admission; $12 for ASU faculty, staff and alumni; $12 for seniors; $8 for students. Purchase tickets online or call the Herberger Institute Box Office at 480-965-6447.

School and Film, Dance and Theatre, Herberger Institute
480-727-4433
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samccar5@asu.edu