Journal

Stephen Hawking gives a presentation in Croatian Feb 26, 2013

by Anonymous

Certainly the best moment of what we saw was when the computer generated the following:

Ghost: MEANINGLESS NONSENSE
GIBBERISH
ABSURD NON SEQUITUR
RIDICULOUS ARBITRARY TEXT
PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE
INCOMPREHENSIBLE VERB / NOUN COMBINATION
MORE NONSENSE
Hamlet: What?
Ghost: YET MORE NONSENSE...(etc.)

The idea of algorithmic theater intrigued me, and the premise of using Shakespearean text as a source for it was honestly quite appealing.  The marketing materials promised "New scenes, songs, scores and visuals."   I understand that this was algorithmically generated,but was it even "theater"?  It had no plot, setting, character, dialogue, motion, or theme.  Instead, there was only a guy spouting gibberish in a mechanical voice, with lights that periodically dimmed.  Then there was an incomprehensible talking computer that flashed nonsense onto a screen.  The idea of a "scene" is somewhat laughable, as is the idea of a song or score (the repetitive sequence that I believe was supposed to be a song was without melody or even differentiation in tone, and had no rhythm, or any of the other attributes that one might associate with music.  Let me assure you that putting words on a screen in various sizes does not count as "visuals."

Shortly after the above "conversation", we couldn't take it anymore, and left.  As we left the theater, we looked around for somebody from whom we could demand our money back but there was nobody available.  The main takeaway for my girlfriend and I was that politeness is a very potent force in persuading audiences to stay in their seats, and that I would never be able to take her to experimental art or theater ever again.

This was like listening to Stephen Hawking give a presentation in Croatian.  It was without exaggeration the worst show I have ever seen, and ever expect to see.  The only way it could be worse would be if literal shit were literally thrown at me; this was, thankfully, only figuratively the case.

Allow me to suggest some things that would actually comprise "theater," maintaining the solo-actor and algorithmic generation restrictions:

- Above all, make it accessible.  Improv theater is difficult, but not impossible, not inaccessible.  Use sentences that relate to each other, or are at the very least internally coherent.
- Allow the actor to act.  Feeding him gibberish, with some time, removes all agency from the actor and renders him irrelevant.  Some of the lines could have been presented comprehensibly; the computer did not allow him this.  Use your actors' abilities to interpret the text.  Timing and appropriate emphasis in speech, paired with physical expression, is essential.  Include actions and screen direction, if you like.  Swiveling in a computer chair is not an action.
- Generate a plot.  For example, someone dies, or sees ghost.  Once someone is dead, they do not return (except perhaps as a ghost).  More exposition!
- Implement a method for preventing excessive repetition.
- Give the actor and computer characters.  Remember in your intro theater course when you discussed what that meant?  Implement that!  Ways I might do this:
----- Give different seed text to the two characters.
----- A markov model is the wrong way to do this.  A memory-free model (that is, any model with the Markov property) is simply not appropriate to theater, where events and dialogue hinge on previous events and dialog.
----- Have the computer set up a dialog between itself and the actor.
- Songs should have a time signature, melody, and rhythm.  This can be algorithmically generated.  The tone can be happy or sad, corresponding to major / minor keys.  Hell, make things rhyme if you like.

Again, the concept is interesting and even exciting.  The implementation was worse than a blank screen and silent actor.

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