UC Berkeley doctoral student Miyoko Conley talks play ‘Human Museum,’ participating in Bay Area Playwrights Festival

photo of Cal PHD student Miyoko Conley
Stephen Meyerink/Courtesy

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Every year, Playwrights Foundation receives up to 750 play submissions from emerging playwrights across North America, and four or five are selected to be read at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. This year, one of the five selected plays is written by Miyoko Conley, a doctoral student at the UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. 

Conley’s play, “Human Museum,” is a science fiction work set in a future where the human race has gone extinct. On Earth, a group of robots runs a Human Museum, a museum dedicated to the preservation of physical and digital human artifacts. As they complete their special exhibition commemorating the centenary of human extinction, the robots receive a mysterious transmission from what appears to be a human, upending what they thought they knew about the last days of humanity.

“I would say that I do tend to like sci-fi as a genre,” Conley said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “ ‘Human Museum’ is a sci-fi play, and I would say that it is representative of a lot of my interests in terms of thinking about the future and what’s possible in the future.” 

More specifically, Conley is fascinated by robots — which appear frequently in her work — and what humans’ relationships with robots and their humanlike qualities say about us. “Robots are a way that humans define themselves,” Conley explained. “I also find it really interesting, the idea of wanting to both embrace the robot as something that is humanlike, but also to say it is not.”

In addition to examining human-robot relationships, Conley’s play explores the very human themes of death and loss. “I also think about the process of grief and communal grief … I think that is very present in ‘Human Museum’ as well,” Conley said. The exploration of this theme is particularly interesting given the play’s post-apocalyptic setting and nonhuman characters, which construct a unique perspective on this agelong contemplation.

“Human Museum” is her latest project, but Conley has been playwriting since her undergraduate years at New York University Tisch School of the Arts, where she majored in acting. While there, her studio encouraged students to try writing their own material, and Conley knew writing was something she wanted to continue pursuing. “I think that’s where it really sparked,” she said. “And then after I graduated, I found myself wanting to do more writing.” 

The idea for the premise of “Human Museum” was conceived much earlier in Conley’s writing career. “The idea for this play, in terms of a very general premise of there being a human museum run by robots, was actually something I thought of 10 years ago,” she explained. She explored the idea with a short 10-minute play early on but decided to focus on other projects. It wasn’t until December 2019, when she found herself thinking about what would happen to humans as a species, that she started developing the story again and “Human Museum” became what it is today.

Conley had a reading for the play in February 2020 as part of the New Play Reading Series put on by the graduate students in the UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, right before COVID-19 shut everything down. Despite this, Conley continued working on “Human Museum,” and her persistence paid off.

“My friend introduced me to this director who she thought would really like the play, and he read it and he did like it,” Conley said. “His name is Bob (Shryock), and he is now the current director for this play in the festival.”

Conley worked with Shryock to put on a couple of private readings and write some revisions; a few months later, she submitted the play to the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. “Human Museum” was then one of five plays out of hundreds to be selected for development. When selected, Playwrights Foundation helps the playwrights gather creative teams consisting of a director, a dramaturg and actors.

“It’s been a really positive experience,” Conley said about participating in the festival. “The Foundation has been really supportive, and that’s nice because it’s not easy to find opportunities where you, as a playwright, have the space to work with actors and revise over what is essentially a workshop-type period.”

One reading for “Human Museum” was held July 18, and the second will be held Saturday, July 24, at 5:30 p.m. After that, the play’s time at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival will come to a close, but the conclusion of the festival is by no means the end for “Human Museum.” 

“After the festival, I’m hoping that I can try to find more life for (‘Human Museum’),” Conley shared. “It might mean another festival. It might mean production. I think I would love to try to find some sort of writing residency program that I could do. Then just write another play.”

The Bay Area Playwrights Festival ends July 25. Tickets for the second reading of “Human Museum” and other plays at the festival can be found here

Contact Joy Diamond at [email protected].