Toronto Playwright Wins Neukom Institute Literary Award

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Instagirl by Jessica Moss explores authenticity and humanity in a digital world.

Jessica Moss
Jessica Moss has won the 2023 Neukom Institute Literary Arts Award for Playwriting. (Photo by Denise Grant)

The Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth this month recognized two plays that question the meaning of authenticity and explore what it is to be human in a computerized world.

Instagirl by Toronto-based playwright Jessica Moss won the 2023 Neukom Institute Literary Arts Award for Playwriting—and a $5,000 cash prize—for its unique portrayal of social media and influencer culture.

The play angel’s share by New York City-based artist Dominic Finocchiaro was named a finalist.

“We are delighted to see the continued tremendous interest of the theater community in the Neukom award,” said Dan Rockmore, director of the Neukom Institute and a professor of math and computer science who created the award program. “It is so exciting to see the thoughtful and creative work that is being sent in response to the call and gratifying to be able to support this work at the nexus of the arts, humanities, and computation.”

Established in 2018, the annual Neukom playwriting award considers plays and other full-length works for the theater that address the question of what it means to be human in a computerized world. The award is a partnership between the Neukom Institute, the Department of Theater, and Northern Stage, the professional theater company based in White River Junction, Vt. This year’s winner and finalist come from a shortlist of nine plays selected from 111 submissions.

The emotional feminist comedy Instagirl focuses on a house of Instagram influencers and their perpetual struggles in pursuit of fame and success. Their agency brings an influencer powered by artificial intelligence into the house in a final attempt to revive their dwindling careers. But her arrival rips open the facades these young women keep up and probes into what lies at the core of authenticity and humanity.

In her statement of purpose, Moss speaks of the relationships between influencers and their followers, which can be founded on the influencer’s commitment to sharing much of their lives and being “real.” But, Moss says, “It’s a curated authenticity that doesn’t really encompass a lot of humanity. … I’m interested in how our increasingly digitized existence has commodified our relationships with each other and ourselves.”

Dominic Finocchiaro
Dominic Finocchiaro is a finalist for the 2023 Neukom Institute Literary Arts Award for Playwriting. (Photo by Matthew Dunivan)

Finocchiaro’s angel’s share takes place in the (not too) distant future where a deceased loved one can be “archived” and digitally “resurrected” via another person. The play centers on a couple who grapples with the consequences of using this technology for their recently deceased son. Finocchiaro’s poetic piece outlines a sorrowful, yet hopeful journey undergone by parents in their search for solace.

Moss and Finocchiaro will host weeklong workshops at Dartmouth and Northern Stage during the 2023-24 season. The workshops will culminate in the Neukom Festival from April 25-27, 2024, which will consist of two public readings of each play at Northern Stage and at Dartmouth featuring professional and student actors.

“I write to be with other people. I’m in theater for the magic and the friends, and as an actor and a writer, it is the greatest gift for me to get to be in the room,” Moss says. “The fact that this play’s room has a larger cast made up of mostly young, college-aged actors—who are some of my favorite people to write for—makes me even more grateful for the chance to hear it for the first time.”

“This year’s Neukom Award winner and finalist speak directly to the experiences of young people,” says Sarah Wansley, associate artistic director of the BOLD Theater Women’s Leadership Circle at Northern Stage. “Instagirl depicts the constant pressure social media puts not only on our social interactions but also on our very identity, asking, is my content who I am? angel’s share asks what happens to someone’s digital memory after they leave. Both of these stories are powerfully resonant with the human experience and especially important given this prize’s relationship with the Dartmouth community.”

Nine additional plays were selected as honorable mentions: Trans World by Ty Defoe; Porn: A Love Story by Jen Diamond; This is Half a Play by Pedro Eler de Carvalho Eiras; ALL MY FRIENDS ARE DEAD by Somebody Jones; PROTOCOL 116 by Tess Light; We Borrowed Brokenness by Yilong Liu; Polar Bear Society by Meghan Maugeri; CLICK Accept by Suzy Ridenour; and PRETTY PERFECT LIVES by Gage Tarlton.

The Neukom Institute for Computational Science is dedicated to supporting and inspiring computational work. The Literary Arts Awards is part of the Neukom Institute’s initiative to explore the ways in which computational ideas impact society.

Morgan Kelly