Memories, tech intertwine in student play ‘Benchmark’

Anna Evtushenko is a student of both information science and playwriting. At the intersection of these two passions is “Benchmark,” her play about a woman who relies on technology to preserve her memories, and what happens when that lifeline is severed.

“Benchmark” will stream online March 26 at 7:30 p.m. and March 27 at 2:00 p.m. Free tickets can be reserved at
Evtushenko’s studies as a Ph.D. student in Information Science at Cornell keep her attuned to the multiple ways technology affects people’s lives. Although she wrote the first draft of “Benchmark” in 2018, the world’s reliance on cell phones and computers to stay connected this past year has added a new dimension to the play.
The Department of Performing and Media Arts (PMA) selected “Benchmark” for its New Works Festival—scheduled in-person for late March 2020. Although the event was canceled, Evtushenko and her team have the opportunity to bring it back a year later, albeit in a different, online format.
Evtushenko views “Benchmark” as her gateway into PMA. Playwriting instructor Aoise Stratford encouraged her to enter the play into the New Works Festival. Developing “Benchmark,” Evtushenko said, “led to a lot of fun experiences, like [PMA theatre showcases] Festival24 and 10-Minute Play Festival, and I’m glad that, as a production, it may inspire someone else to do more in the department, see more shows, or will simply be an interesting experience.”
And she’s not the only graduate student in the sciences involved in this theatre production. Clare Burhenne plays the lead role of Ashley, a female history teacher obsessed with facts who must learn to live with uncertainty when technology fails her. Burhenne was cast in the role while a senior at Cornell in 2020; now studying astrophysics in graduate school at Rutgers University, she’s still able to fill the role, thanks to the online format.
Ross Haarstad, an Ithaca-based journalist and theatre maker, directs “Benchmark.”

“Virtual theater is a challenge that has created some exciting work over the past year,” Haarstad said. “Given the play’s focus on memory and its loss, and its use of virtual connections, I found this strange hybrid online environment of theater and film perfect for ‘Benchmark.’” 
The production uses green-screen technology to realize the “ephemeral nature of Anna’s exhilarating words,” explains Haarstad. Local video designer Noah Elman and composer Keir Neuringer helped bring the world of the play to life.
A talkback led by Stratford will follow each screening. This project is funded in part by the Cornell Council for the Arts.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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Event poster: "Benchmark"