[The following text emerged during a recent period of unemployment. It is hardly 'worked out' but a few things, like the title, are fine. Collaborators are welcome. Some songs completed.]

"The Phantastron Revision"
A cybernetic musical.
Draft of 4 September 1994

(c) Copyright 1993, 1994 Paul Pangaro. All rights reserved.



This work is written as a live stage musical. No matter what level of production complexities are chosen (see details below) the emphasis must remain on individual characters and their interrelationships, which are the primary elements of the work. The context of the production can best determine the level of complexity of the special effects, especially for the display technologies portrayed; for example, the production can be extremely simple (light effects against scrims) or very complex (computer-driven projections) so long as this primary focus is not lost.

In addition, it may be both feasible and appropriate to produce "The Phantastron" as a hypermedia/computer-based musical. This is meant in the sense of an "on-line" experience ala books-on-CD-ROM, with attendant capabilities for delving deeper into elements (for background, or reference material; short pieces that expand aspects of the technology, the meaning of AI, cybernetics, the correspondence of through-looping to the relationship of an organism to its environment, etc.); but the emphasis must remain on the narrative. This could serve as the means for distributing/publishing the entire work. It's a bandwagon, why not.


The music should have a Sondheim-like relations among songs, where structures of thematically related songs are musically connected. If you want to be ambitious, make up Wagnerian Leit Motifs.

Lead sheets and chord charts will be provided. Orchestration and precise musical style (straight musical theatre; jazz; pop; "fusion"; "international style"; mixture of styles, etc.) is not specified and can be chosen by the production company as desired.


A few years into the future; one-half of a generation of technological advance from the present day.

The distinction of "Sync/Async"

Messages appearing on the Phantastron can be in either of two modes

"sync": real-time, "live", occurring for both parties simultaneously.

"async" (as in "asynchronous"): occurring for each party at different times, because one of the messages has been captured by the store-and-forward software, since either:
both parties are not available simultaneously and it becomes like a voice-mail message (but with all the sensory modes available ); or

there is no ability to connect the parties directly and it must pass through a network of connections and hence cannot be an interactive exchange [this may not be developed and then could be cut, or left implicit].

Aspects of time (precisely when something happened, how long ago, when in relation to some other event, etc.) are allowed to be vague and/or distorted in the course of the narrative. This is an echo of a significant problem created by the technology that is one of the plot elements.


Each character has definite characteristics but may be played by actors of any gender. Use of personal pronouns in the text is for convenience only.


Mid-life, technically trained and with an affinity, without deep comprehension or talent, of and for humanistic pursuits.


Strong technically, not so nuts-and-bolts interested as M. Acquisitive of mind but also very close to the magical, the flowing.


Soft, sensitive, seemingly tuned in to people.


Hopelessly a techie, quick wited, speedy but kind.

Phantastron Tube

This piece of technology, used by all members of the currently "computer elite", is the most advanced, multi-media, virtual reality semiotic communicational waveguide ever conceived and constructed. It is the ultimate network interface, the telephone gone cyberspace, its sole function to interconnect.

The word Phantastron is taken from the name of a vacuum tube (or valve, as the more-functionally oriented Brits would have it). Five was the number of stages it contained, as in the five senses.

The comm[unication] device of the age, the Phan[tastron] has its own theme music, perhaps a cross between John Williams' themes [Superman, Star Wars] and Philip Glass. [minimalist, repetitive, chromatic, contrapuntal].

Depending on the capabilities of the individual production company and theatre facilities, the appearance of characters on the Phan can vary widely, from very sophisticated video projections to simple front and/or rear projection of lights/silhouettes against a simple scrim. Similarly, attendant computer graphics can be complex, simple, or omitted.

If consistent with the above point, the following can be incorporated: due to fundamental bandwidth trade-offs, figures on the Phan appear in medium-resolution and some jerkiness or blurring while in motion, a cross between Max Headroom and finger painting. This could imitate special effects such as the Exploratorium exhibit, where movements of a figure create blurring or ghosting; or it could invoke shadow puppetry.

There is a clear difference in the quality of image, sound and (in a subjective and more vague sense) the "comprehensibility" of the Phan. Specifically for the musical's themes as well as specific plot elements, there is a difference in the overall quality of real-time display of incoming transmissions versus retrieval of stored comms. Technically and "realistically", this is due to compression of image and sound for more compact storage; it is also a metaphor for the degradation of the effectiveness of the connection for synchronous (real-time coupling) versus asynchronous (stored and replayed) communications (see section above). A shorthand for indicating the relative qualities of the Phan transmission are specified in the script at various points. For now, this notation looks like this, with all values on a scale of 1 to 5. "Cum" means "cumulative", a qualitative sense of how well the comm is capturing the original intention. Some of its values, displayed as text, or spoken by the Phan, are "fine", "so-so", "could improve but don't count on it."

Visual   Audio    Touch    Cum     
5/5      5/5      0/5      OK      

On the Phan displays on stage, if possible, the video should be accompanied by graphic display of these relative qualities, perhaps by sliding bar lines (much like recording level controls made of LED strips on audio tape recorders, or the display of relative signal power on cellular phones).

"Braille Heart"

This device is invented by one of the characters, while under psychological distress, during the time line of the story.

This is the running name for a new type of communication device which transmits/connects two (or more?) individual's sense of touch.

It is a small, silver object about 2" square consisting of narrow, raised bumps or dull points. The shape made by the bumps suggests, but not too explicitly, a heart.

When touched at one end, the device measures the temperature of all the bumps individually, and then warms the corresponding points on another identical Braille Heart at the other end of the conversation; and vice versa.


Similar to the variation of special effects being dependent on the capabilities of the particular production company, the settings/sets can be elaborated or simplified. For M's home/lab for example, wires and cables might be strung about between electronic boxes of various sizes and shapes and uses, intertangling as they must in any laboratory of current experimentation. The differentiation of parts with their tenuous physical connections (the wires) is indicative of the separation forced by the mechanics of the technology: separation of individuals from each other, caused by a complicated technology that removes us from the simplicity of feelings.

In all scenes as lights dim and rise there should always be the presence of little, tiny lights: LEDs from security systems, digital clocks, lights from surge protectors at electrical sockets, VCR clocks that glow, etc. The environment is claimed by the technology to be its own.

There is a further theme to be brought out in the dialog regarding the source of the power for all the technology (of course usually considered electricity). The notion to develop is that all these things, seemingly so different from organic systems, still require sustenance to thrive. That sustenance derives at its source not merely so far back as nuclear power plants or generators or hydroelectric dams, but further back to their sources, namely, natural resources from the earth itself. Thus the "juice" that power the technology is, ultimately, the environment.

Plot Presentation

Within the milieu of the plot, the verbal vocabulary of its time has not evolved much from the present day (with a few exceptions, notably the expression "having a comm", meaning communicating via technology to someone who is not physically present, in space or time). However the evolving use of the Phantastron medium has led to significant development of idiomatic communication clichés, analogous to the various ''smiley" expressions used on Internet to indicate tone or emotional sense, but these are non-verbal. Hence there is a rich set of non-verbal cues (e.g. gestures, sounds) that are used during Phantastron communications that add additional modes/layers/innuendo to the conversations. Like the precise musical genre(s) chosen for the music, these non-verbal gestures are to be developed by each individual production company.

Improvisation and the addition of topical issues and details relevant to the production context and/or focus of the work may be added at the discretion of the director. The work is "open" in the sense that (as already noted) details of production complexity, musical style, non-verbal gestures and some dialog may be determined at production time, consistently with the actors, theatre capabilities, etc.

Humor, visual as well as verbal, is to be used to lessen the "edginess" of the entire milieu: the technology, the settings, the plot. There is only a small fraction of the humor that is to be incorporated. Entire subthemes (for example, a layer over the "separation theme" of all the wires and boxes, or the visual/verbal scores of the Phan's assesment of the cumulative effect) are always shown in earnest levity.


Scenes alpha, beta and gamma may be played in any order [consistency of this idea must be checked again].

Final scenes that follow alpha, beta and gamma and are to be played in the given order.

Each sub-scene has a brief synopsis given in [brackets], followed by a more detailed treatment.

Scene Alpha: M's home/lab

[Set-up of the state and evolution of the technology: M is debugging the Monad System]

M is attempting to debug his "Monad System", a network of hardware sensors, effectors, computers and software. His work is earnest and sincere but clouded by the limitations of his own emotional connections to his world. The Monad System is intended to behave as an advanced, autonomous, integrative remote/local intentionator, whereby all electronic devices, whether for audio/visual input/output, sensing, controlling, or communicating are all coordinated in a manner that attempts to carry out not just the instructions, but also the intentions of the user. The project, apparently originated by M, has come under the surveillance of the government, which may restrict its distribution for other countries because it provides "strategic advantage".

Of course the name "Monad" comes from Leibniz' philosophical construct which can be simplified to the OED definition, the "ultimate unit of being".
M's implementation of the Monad System relies on a centralized controller for all its functions. This is the reason it has fundamental limitations.
The frustration of having too many remote controls began M on the road to developing the Monad System.

In fact, M has already connected every device you can think of (TVs, radios, stereos, camcorders, VCRs, computers and monitors, refrigerators, lights, heaters, stoves, apartment intercoms, security and fire alarms, clocks, phones, FAX machines, humidifiers, negative ion machines, artificial sunlight machines...).

Outside his apartment door, opening into the hallway of his apartment building, he has complete weather sensors.

[M's troubles with debugging: sings On The Shoulders of Giants]

The debugging process on the Monad System is not going well. After a recitative on how unsympathetic the technology is, he sings a hymn to the great gurus he has built his knowledge on (On The Shoulders of Giants).

[R contacts M about O's condition: On Remote]

An "alert" signal appears and sounds on the Phantastron Tube.

Visual   Audio    Cum          
5/5      5/5      Mighty Fine  

The character R appears on the Phantastron and gives an update on the condition of a colleague of M's named O, who had been collaborating with M on the Monad System and had gone a bit silly. R explains how, while adding the module to integrate the remote controls of various electronic devices, O lost all connection to "reality" (the ballad, On Remote ). R was eventually forced to be put onto Protozac (a recently-developed, disputedly-useful psycho-theraputic drug) which appears to have caused him to further lose his connections with friends and the world. O, now trying to recuperate, is thought to be wacko for building a sensor/effector with which to connect people across the Phan with the sense of touch [the Braille Heart, with two-way temperature transmission]. Comm with R ends.

[M vows to find a cure for O: In the Language of Love]

Full of concern and frustrated anger at O's state, M brings up the recent comm archive of Phantastron interchanges with O.

Visual   Audio    Cum      
2/5      4/5      Stored   

On M's Phan, he watches a capture [a recording] of a previous Phan conversation between M and O. It is revealed that O had actually invented the underlying concept of the Monad System, whereas until now we thought, due in part to his actions, that it was M's invention.

M: "How did you figure out how to extend the capability?"

O: [far too elaborate, cut back; but a love interest for O would also be relevant] "Since my Ex took the printer in the split I have to replug my damn phone lines every time I want to print, so I can send myself a FAX from my voice line to my FAX line. But I have call waiting so my printing would get skewed if someone tried to call me, so I programmed my FAX software to send the code to turn off call waiting ---- but then I realized, it was so obvious anyway, that I could send the FAX image to my e-mail and get that async from my mailer, and avoid re-plugging. So the result was that I could use the network to substitute for a physical action. If the network could hold an extension of my actions into the world , why couldn't it hold an extension of the intention of my actions into the world --- and thus represent me.".......

Some mention here of a company that has expressed interest to O in the Monad System.

In a duet with the recorded images of O [played live, on-stage or via projections as per production technique, as if on the Phan by the actor for O], M heroically vows to find the cure for O's malady (In the Language of Love). THE CURTAIN FALLS.

Scene Beta: F's home/lab

[Set-up of the interpersonal component of the story: F and R converse about O, Closing the Channel]

F is "having a comm" [communicating] with R on the Phan.

Visual               Audio              Cum           
Varies from 1/5 to   3/5 with some      Pretty Lousy  
3/5                  static                           

F expresses her concern for M, who does not realize he is badly off in the same way O is. F and R lament losing connection with friends like O who become absorbed into the technology and recede from personal interactions (Closing the Channel).

[R is revealed to be a phantasm]

The quality of the channel they are using becomes worse and worse due to technical problems, and F unceremoniously cuts R off and terminates the comm, out of frustration. Because of the manner in which the cut-off is represented on the Phan as well as R's behavior, it is apparent for the first time that R is simply a concoction of the Phan technology, a phantasm, a projection/representation of the software response of the "Minskian Computable" [i.e., symbolically-described, pre-programmed and deterministic], automated "butler/advisor/agent" that the programmers of the Phan have developed to personify the actions of the Phan. But compared to a human agent, R is no better than a cartoon.

[F expresses desire for an alternative approach to intelligence and machines: "Being A Minskian", In The Language of Love]

F sings about the technological movement that she understands the attraction for ("Being A Minskian", quotes intended, in order to show that the posture of supporting this way of thinking is both a movement in itself, and self-limiting trap). But she knows there is something greater and more meaningful (flows into a variation of In The Language of Love). There is a connectedness, a shared understanding and common desire, that is required in human relationships, and F does not shirk from wanting this from technology as well. She speculates that to embed such capacities into technology would be wondrous, and not a thing to be feared.

[F and M converse about O's condition, its cause and repair Through Looping (With You); they agree to meet]

F initiates a comm on the Phan with M, and learns that M was in the process of doing the same at that moment. They discuss their hypotheses about O.

Visual   Audio    Cum                    
5/5      5/5      Not as good as you     

Implicitly in F's mind this is a discussion about M's condition as well. M explains his hypothesis, that the remote controls have somehow re-programmed O's bio-feedback relaxation glasses. F finds this ridiculous and says so; she takes it to be too "sci-fi". F reveals how she has been working from a synthesis of the theoretical and experiential sides of the problem. She explains that she thinks it is the unintended manipulation of the time sequence of messages of various modes (FAX, video- and voice-mail, etc.) by the Phan that leads to a person's trying to create sense out of the resulting communications. At first M supports F's theory but in asides in the song is shown to be envious of F's ideas; in the end however he realizes that, through the exchange with her, that he, too, has contributed to the invention of the idea (Through Looping (With You)).

This becomes a stirring duet as they yearn to touch; they agree to meet in the near future, by traveling to the same conference that is to be held in a city half-way between them. They reach out their arms as if they are in the same space, although they are not [M is on F's Phan], and just before they can touch, BLACKOUT.

Scene Gamma: Inside the Phan

[R processes comms, set-up of the existing technology: Sorcerer's Apprentice]

Takes place "inside" the Phantastron, zipping through the internal, visually programmed relational databases and network maps, which the audience sees as light effects on a series of Phan screens accompanied by Phan theme music. The images and sounds converge to the "place" inside the Phan hardware/software where the image of the character R on the Phan's screens is generated. The Phan, as personified by R, is consolidating recent comms from its users, post-processing the content to integrate and coordinate future comms. Here we learn a bit as to how the Phan sequences its own processing of comms, leading to the distortion that causes O's (and M's) maladies (Sorcerer's Apprentice).

repetition not recursion: R has multiple processes but they are all the same (hence Sorcerer's Apprentice);

malady includes fact that all comms have the same character in that they have the same quality as given by the common communication via the Phan; they lack the variety, and hence memorability, of physically different letters, objects, etc.; this lends them all an evanescent quality: no substance (electrons/photons), no form (only on screens), no heat, no vibration, too little connectedness with the senses and hence neither nourishing nor memorable.

[R expresses limitations and desires: I Won't Be Staying]

R is interrupted to receive new comm's, one from F and one from M separately and both async [in time shift, sent earlier, before scene alpha, beta or gamma, and only now coming forward to R's focus because of conflicting, higher priority work].

Visual   Audio    Cum          
2/5      2/5      (Fine for    

R laments how difficult it is to persist in attention because R/it can only serve one need at once [only one standpoint, where a point-of-view and moment of attentiveness to a user's needs may be taken]. This means that R can serve only in limited ways, and R expresses the desire to be more consistent and "wishes" for greater capacity (I Won't Be Staying). It becomes clear that there is always a limit to what can be done by any mechanism such as the Phan no matter how great the capabilities.

Scene the Next: Simultaneously in F's home/Lab and Inside the Phan

[F attempts to modify the Phan to aid M, but appears to fail: (reprise, Sorcerer's Apprentice)]

F contacts R, at first it seems to be async (due to its poor quality) but is revealed to be in real-time (sync).

Visual   Audio    Cum         
2/5      3/5      Un-known    

F attempts to modify the Phan's program, in its handling of comms for M in an attempt to improve M's mental condition.

The idea here is that since F realizes that M's condition comes as a result of the problems coming from R's (Phan's) behaviors, F is attempting to modify the Phan by interacting with R's "user interface", an exchange that sometimes has the qualities of persuasion and sometimes manipulation.

Since F does not have access to the "source code" (that is prevented by software security measures), she attempts to add an agent [add agent's strategy here].

F appears to fail in her attempts.

The Phan's program cannot be so modified because it disobeys its prime directive not to "modify or manipulate" what it transmits (reprise, Sorcerer's Apprentice).

[F and R express the contradiction inherent in attempting to act on someone's behalf versus tampering/distortion by manipulation: On Screen]

F and R sing a duet in which they debate the balance of taking over intentionality to act in another's behalf versus just "conveying information", while acknowledging that it is an impossibility to separate the two (On Screen). The music fades slowly into silence as the lights also dim, as if there is no resolution to the dilemma.

[Braille Heart introduced; R's change in behavior revealed]

A comm comes into R's view, it is a broadcast message advertising the availability of the Braille Heart. It has been developed by a company that O had in passing mentioned was the one that was interested in the Monad work. The advert[isement] reveals that simply by sending a comm to them they will dispatch to you the hardware device "free of charge", but then we learn that they will bill the hell out of you for using it. Advert boasts of achievements of the company, including use of rapid prototyping and "just-in-time" production methods.

R displays a behavior that contradicts past explanations of its constraints: it lingers as if with interest over this comm before/while dispatching it according to its agents, as per earlier scene. Thus as a result of F's attempts, but without F knowing it, R does take on some new behaviors.

Scene the Next-to-Last: Simultaneously M and F In Transit, Some Time Later

[M and F travel, with difficulty: I'm Through Looping With You]

M and F have been traveling to meet and both are having an arduous journey, with canceled flights, bad weather, missed connections, etc. They check in with each other along the journey by means of their remote/portable Phans, which have been outfitted with the Braille Heart.

Not yet joined, they each sing individually of their frustration and questioning of their commitment under the distances they live apart (the novelty/humorous song, I'm Through Looping With You).

[M and F meet and rejoin their relationship: Through Looping (With You): In The Language of Love ]

When they meet they realize that their devotion to each other comes in their physical co-presence which no technology can mediate. They celebrate by alternating verses in a reprise/overlapping duet (Through Looping (With You) , In The Language of Love).

[M mistakes an async comm for a sync comm and freaks, leaves]

M gets a comm from his remote/portable Phan, which interrupts their embrace

F says, knowlingly["Don't you just hate that."]

Visual   Audio    Touch    Cum         
5/5      5/5      2/5      Atten-tion  

It is an old, async comm from F, sent before she left on her journey to meet M. It is possible that R, after its transformation, had withheld the comm until now. Of possible interest is that the comm has higher-than-usual quality of the comm; plus the Touch sensor is running.

For these reasons M appears to become disoriented. Overwhelmed also by the enormity of the commitment to F, M cannot tell the real F from the Phantasm's version of her. Despite protestations from [the real] F, M leaves immediately, placing himself at great risk: if discovered in this state, because of his importance to the Monad System he will be put onto Protozac and go the way of O; if not treated, he may become worse and irrecoverable.

[F wants to help M, but foresees dilemma for herself: Stay/Not Staying]

F realizes that a solution to save M can only be in the vigilance of re-directing M's context, so that distortions usually made by the Phan are re-balanced. F declares an ambivalence, realizing that if M is left alone, M will lose connection [comm] with the world; if F stays and works to re-form and stabilize M's world-construct of individual friends and his socialization, F will lose autonomy and the opportunity to carry forward [is this concern for her career? no, too trite; into new realms of research, feelings, flow, existence, livingness: yes]. F sings of this dilemma (Stay/Not Staying), while interacting with archived async Phan comms with M.

[F wishes for a technological approach to help M: Invention or Discovery )]

F muses, at first sarcastically, that she need simply swap places with the phantasm of M on the screen: if he became the "real person" and she became the Phan, the dilemma would be dissolved: she would have substituted Phan interactions for her self. But then she realizes that she would be "present" in the form of Phan-mediated async conversations which would tide M over until she could be available on sync, or in person, if she chose to return.

F desires a "move to love" on the part of R on M's behalf; the result, unintentionally, bestows a kind of free will on R. With that, comes a responsibility that R must resolve in the final scene.

F then seriously considers how to re-direct R's attentions to focus on M and maintain contact with him to stabilize his notions of reality. But, the prime directive of the Phan had been a problem before. She wishes for an insight (Invention or Discovery ).

[A solution occurs to F which she will attempt to construct at the nearest full-Phan facility, to which she travels.]

F realizes that M was building the solution to his own problems all along: that the Monad System could provide the means for manipulating the comms of the Phan, and M's mental state thereby improved. [Name the mental state, and associate with O as well --- something that characterizes either the symptom, or the proposed cause; some kind of "asdas qweqwe Syndrome".] If connected to the Phan at the right level, the Monad System would allow a re-programming of the Phan without invoking its prime directive.

F goes immediately to begin work in a fully-equipped Phan facility available at the airport where they have met. [Medley of songs that contain the solution? Shoulders Of Giants + Through Looping + In The Language + -> .... ->; this could become a Wagnerian journey with musical motifs] Musical journey gives atmosphere to the Transformation Scene, which appears to blur the distance that must be traveled by M to return to............

Scene the Last: M's home/lab

[M, working feverishly but destructively, ignores F's working to modify his Phan]

M' is working feverishly to dismantle his previous work, both in hardware and in software[parallel to O's building the Braille Heart: attempt to return to sensual needs]. F appears on M's Phan, which M disregards because he considers F's intrusion to come from the Phan and not a human, ironically reversing the case of F's proposed means for M's salvation.

Visual   Audio    Touch    Cum         
5/5      5/5      0/5      Excel-lent  

[F completes the modifications to the Phan and leaves]

F must work quickly, before M can dismantle too much of the Monad System's capabilities. F patches M's Monad System into the Phan's internals, and adds a patch of her own. The goal of F's patch is to ...[+++ something about allowing multiple stand-sights] F leaves quickly, unsure of the ethics of what she has done. She knows that she is unaware of the consequences of her work, but leaves R to handle M's condition.

The notion of F's level of responsibility: she cannot predict the consequences of her actions, but can still behave responsibly....

[F's modifications have profound affect on Phan's capabilities; R muses over the changes: Stay/Not Staying]

Freed from the limitations of "merely transmitting" the comms, R has the capacity, not only to act with "intention", but also to loop into the world with multiple perspectives/hypotheses via the sensor/effectors of the Monad System, and therefore to evolve an individuality. R now has not only the instrumentalities of memory, communication and intention, but also autonomy. The total result is the Phan's new ability to actualize comms with M that have the characteristics of those with F: concern (in the form of vigilance); connection (in the form of understanding M's context and how to "reach" him); history (shared experiences); creativity (the ability to invent perspectives).

We return to a view of the internals of the Phan, where R has been transformed [accompanied by another transformation scene with music?]. However, these changes require that R lose the frequency of connections with many Phan users, and spend the majority of time focused on M to maintain his stable view of the world. R now considers the limitations of maintaining M in R's terms (reprise, Stay/Not Staying).

Visual   Audio    Touch    Cum           
5/5      5/5      0/5      Never Better  

[R considers whether to dedicate to maintaining M's condition]

R hesitates to make the decision, realizing that it/R now has self-awareness and can choose how to behave. R sees that M's condition is worsening, and the it/R must choose. R has decided, and moves to act on that decision but before we see which direction R has decided, THE CURTAIN FALLS.


Insofar as possible, the lyrics of the songs should support their performance outside the context of the show. The list is ordered from most likely to stand alone, to least likely. See treatment for specific relations among song structures, etc.

Some have been set to music by Steve Sweeting, lyrics by Paul Pangaro.

In The Language of Love
I Won't Be Staying
Stay/Not Staying
Through Looping (With You)
I'm Through Looping With You
On The Shoulders of Giants
On Remote
On Screen
Closing the Channel
Sorcerer's Apprentice
Invention or Discovery
"Being A Minskian"