‘What is the theatre of the future?’ wondered Camila McMoody. She, Sara Harvey and Penelope Hervouet were interested in experimental theatre and looking for a show to bring to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the summer of 2018. When they read an early draft of the script for Like Drowning, they were intrigued.
Hervouet is studying for her Masters degree in theatre studies, and is directing Like Drowning alongside her degree this summer. McMoody is directing in the middle of her fine arts degree from the Edinburgh College of Art, and they met Harvey, their producer, on her exchange from a degree in theatre at McGill University in Canada.
The script was written by two Cambridge students, who emphasised that it was just an early draft, and it was a very collaborative process from there. The plot is fragmented, focusing on two main characters in a waiting room who do not know what they are waiting for but meet each other along the way.
What’s fascinating about the characters is that they were partially written by artificial intelligence. The initial script contained sections created with the use of online cleverbots alongside excerpts from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and a selection of French Avant Garde works from the 1890s to the 1920s.
Over time, the excerpts were removed and replaced with texts meant to impart a similar feeling, written through a dialogue between the pre-existing characters, artificial intelligence and the original writers.
To do this, the creators commissioned David Hodges, an artificial intelligence PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh to create text models for each of the characters. The models analysed the existing dialogue and content and created more text for the characters, which was sent to the writers to be modified and incorporated into the script.
Through this process, they were already accomplishing what would ultimately be the crowning feat of the play; to take gender and body to an abstract place where it can be critiqued and explored.
Normally, the assumption is that artificial intelligence is rational and nothing other than strictly impartial, but Harvey explains that it is created by people and thus “infested with humanness and prejudice”. The character models and dialogues from the cleverbots betrayed interesting assumptions about gender, sexuality and theatre. While the cleverbots draw their artificial intelligence from the internet, the models are informed by other theatrical writing.
Throughout the process, from finalising the script to blocking and choreographing the play, McMoody, Harvey and Hervouet were forced to interrogate how we internalise and naturalise attitudes as humans. When their run starts next week, their audiences will likely find themselves asking similar questions.
theSpace @ Niddry Street – Lower Theatre (Venue 9)
Image: Camilla Makhmudova