Beyond the Fringe to cybertheater

Frank Chiachiere (C/EAS’00) came to Penn intent on pursuing a career in cognitive research. Not long after he got here, his academic interest took a dramatic turn.

“The reason I came to Penn was for its cognitive science program,” he said. “I had intended to do a dual degree in computer and information science [CIS] and psychology, but I also began to do theater as an extracurricular activity.”

It proved to be more alluring than psychology. “I felt myself headed for a career in research that I wasn’t sure I wanted to undertake at age 20,” he said.

Frank Chiachiere speaks words of love to Briehan Lynch, rehearsing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Annenberg Center, as director Jim Schlatter looks on.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

So he decided instead to “do something wild.” As a result, Chiachiere is the only theater arts major at Penn who is also majoring in CIS.

The dual major nicely reflects what he feels are two distinct sides of his personality. “There’s a half of me that needs to be artistic, and a half that needs to be fastidious,” he said. “I’m a computer nerd, but I get a kick out of acting.”

While some might consider going from psychology to theater quite a leap, Chiachiere doesn’t think so. Noting that most modern plays are psychologically driven, he said, “Both are attempting to make sense of humanity in their own way, and only a poor practitioner of either profession would study one without dabbling in the other.”

The connection between theater and computers is a slightly different story, though. “There are ways to use computers in the theater, usually in the design process,” he said. But often, designers and directors speak a different language.

Which is why Chiachiere thinks his familiarity with both technology and theater will serve him well. For instance, he said, “I hear from a lot of movie companies that animation software is now so advanced, they don’t need computer science majors [to run it], but rather people with a theatrical background.”

His dual interests are not confined to the academic year, either. He spent the summer interning at a local Internet-advertising firm, and ended it by traveling to Edinburgh, Scotland, with five other theater arts students — including his roommate Michael Sendrow (C’00) — to perform an updated version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

The Theater Arts version of the play shifts the action from a mythical forest in ancient Greece to a nightclub full of Main Line yuppies. The production will also be presented at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, September 16-18.

Chiachiere explained that the issue of presenting classical theater to a contemporary audience was a major subject for his theater arts class. “Do we recreate the original play exactly? Or, since we can’t recreate the audience, can we find what’s relevant and present that?”

Chiachiere and Sendrow plan to form a performing arts collective that would present productions in both physical space and cyberspace. The Shunpike Arts Collective — the name comes from a 19th-century term for a road that charges no tolls — would make its initial home on the Internet before branching out into the physical world.

Eventually, he said, faster data communications would make it possible for the collective to stage events — like concerts with high-quality sound and video or full-length movies — on line for a large audience. “In the future, everyone will be accessing the Internet via their TVs,” he said.

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Originally published on September 2, 1999