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How Do You Act Like a Computer? John Ellison Conlee plays multiple Watsons, including a machine

By LINDA BUCHWALD

Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles

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This season, several actors are playing multiple roles in the same show---Jefferson Mays in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder and Jeff Blumenkrantz in Murder for Two both spring to mind---but at least all their characters are human beings. In The (curious case of} the Watson Intelligence, however, John Ellison Conlee is playing three people and a machine, which adds a distinct new wrinkle to the challenge of crafting several performances at the same time.

Conlee's roles in Madelene George's witty play, which is now at Playwrights Horizons, constitute a tour of famous Watsons: There's John Watson, Sherlock Holmes' assistant; Thomas Watson, who was on the receiving end of the first phone call made by Alexander Graham Bell; and Watson the IBM supercomputer, which defeated two Jeopardy! champions in 2011. (There's also Josh Watson, a computer repair guy that George invented herself.)

Asked how it feels to be part of this season's multi-role trend, Conlee says, "I think it's probably just a coincidence in that there seem to be [actors playing multiple roles] right now, but I think it's a thing that exists so much in the theatre because it's genuinely theatrical. It is one of the few things that we in the theatre can do in terms of storytelling more effectively than I think film and television can do. It's not like a sitcom that we put onstage. We use very theatrical devices, and I think that's the reason that so many great playwrights like to use that tool. And it's so much fun for actors."

Conlee's co-stars, Amanda Quaid and David Costabile, also play multiple characters, but for Conlee, the show is actually defined by its sense of unity. "What we're meant to take from all of these different stories in different time periods is not their differences, I believe, but their sameness," he says. "People's search for connection and assistance and help, and the way that we all want love and connection, but also independence and the battle for that. All of these different stories and different time periods are essentially the same story. So I think it's valuable and helps bring that point home that you're seeing the same people, even though they're in different time periods or clothes."

To research his well-known human characters, Conlee read Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and listened to recordings of Thomas Watson speaking. But even though he researched how Watson the computer works, he had to get creative to decide how the machine should be played in a scene.

"I don't actually really look at my scene partner or interact in a sort of human way with her, which makes that a very strange thing and an interesting challenge that I enjoy a lot," he says. "I try to listen in a different way than I do as a person." In order to do that, he focuses solely on operative words to understand what his scene partner is saying and how she is feeling, rather than taking in context or tone. "I feel like that is in fact how the latest technology, in terms of question-and-answer artificial intelligence, works. It looks for cues that give a percentage chance that this person is feeling xyz. So I try as much as possible to listen in that way. Which of course I'm not really capable of, but it prevents me from listening in the way that I would normally."

Though each Watson presents its own challenges and pleasures, Conlee doesn't have a favorite to play. Or rather, it changes each night. "I definitely have performances where one is more fun than others, but it alternates. Also, the audiences seem to have different favorites, which can affect the performances," he says. "But I love them all. I really do."

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Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @ PataphysicalSci

Photo by Joan Marcus