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Author: Jill Kimball

CU Theatre’s ‘The Adding Machine’ opens 2017-18 season

The century-old expressionist play is a cautionary tale about workplace automation.

The University of Colorado’s theatre division kicks off the 2017-18 season with “The Adding Machine,” a landmark of American expressionism. CU’s take on the timeless work runs Sept. 29 to Oct. 8 in the University Theatre.

Written in 1923 by Elmer Rice, “The Adding Machine” tells the cautionary tale of a glum accountant’s descent into oblivion when he discovers he’s been replaced by a machine. The man, named Mr. Zero, is forced to examine his dull life and its unclear purpose as he journeys from job to jail to the afterlife and back.

While theatre today usually relies on dialogue and interpersonal interactions to tell a character’s story, early 20th century expressionist playwrights, including Rice, approached things a bit differently.

“I’ve never directed an expressionist play before, so I’m excited to explore the way the play delves into characters’ inner lives using symbols and movement,” says Director Cecilia Pang.

Mr. Zero’s plain name, faceless employer and repressed desires, for example, serve as a symbol for increasing workplace automation. The 1920s were an era of increasing automation—think Henry Ford’s early car assembly lines—and many, including Elmer Rice, worried that impersonal workplace culture would seep into the rest of our lives.

“It’s definitely about the mechanization of society,” says Marla Schulz, the production’s movement director. “We lose jobs when we start integrating technology into our lives, and we lose humanity as well. We stop thinking about the people who are needed to create things, and we risk losing our sense of self.”

It’s a timeless topic that’s been on our minds since the early 1800s, says Pang.

“Machine automation as a replacement for human workers, which started in the Industrial Revolution, is more prevalent than ever today in all industries,” she says. “It’s been predicted that machines and AI will eliminate 6 percent of the jobs in the U.S. in the next five years.”

Despite this grim prognosis, Pang believes audiences will walk away from a performance of “The Adding Machine” filled with hope and inspired to do more with their lives.

“What this play really teaches us,” she says, “is that destiny lies in our own hands.”