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Review: Writing with AI (Chinese showcase) by Emergency Stairs

Does artificial intelligence dream of meta-jokes?

In his No More Theatre series, Emergency Stairs Artistic Director Liu Xiaoyi takes a deep dive into the infinite realm of possibilities for theatre, breaking convention and seeking new frameworks and means of presenting theatre and the arts. Most significantly, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Xiaoyi’s research has taken him down a tech-heavy route, as he wonders how it’s affected the way we perceive reality itself.

As part of the research process, Xiaoyi has taken on several collaborators in a brand new theatre experiment – Writing with AI. Across two sessions held on Zoom, one in English and one Mandarin, the live presentation showcases a series of original monologues either written by an actual playwright, or collaboratively written by an artificial intelligence and smoothened out by Xiaoyi. The twist? Both actors and audience members don’t know who authored which script, and it is up to us to guess which is which, before the big reveal at the end.

All featured plays begin with the same prompt and opening line: “There is a joke on artificial intelligence that goes like this.” Naturally, the remainder of each play goes on to explore the potential reality of a world where AI has infiltrated our lives, at times subtle and benign, and in others, wonderfully fantastical and out of this world.

Watching the Chinese performances, we began with Pillage. Taking on a metatheatrical slant, the monologue twisted and turned as performer Zelda Tatiana Ng played a playwright writing a play about…AI. Along the way, she speaks to her mother, expressing her fears of being replaced by AI, and the ever-present question raised by The Matrix – could we be living in a simulation? In a marked shift, the second play of the night, The Trade, saw Dennis Zhou embark on a cyberpunk-meets-wuxia adventure, considering the value of humanity as his character meets a mysterious figure, eventually trading his soul to become a literal computer and join the cloud.

In the third play, Shadow’s Light, performer Ng Mun Poh muses over control and agency, as expressed through the metaphor of the deep dark ocean, nursing her fear of the unknown and musing on the philosophical, as she illustrates her abstract thoughts on paper. And in the final play, Our Story, Rei Poh, with a greyscale filter, types away in front of a computer, as he wonders about whether AI have the potential for creativity, paralleling that with a tale of an actor who can’t act, and the place of AI in theatre.

At the end of each play, audiences are posed a series of questions asking about the way we interpreted the realism and believability of the performance and characters, as part of Emergency Stairs’ data collection. And at the end of all four performances, researchers Neo Kim Seng and Akanksha Raja led a Q&A session with the actors, Xiaoyi and the two human playwrights (Ora and Huang Suhuai), as we discussed the nature of the scripts and reasoning behind our thought process as we assessed each one, whether to do with language or presentation of humanity.

By the end of the showcase, all is revealed. But whether one gets the answer ‘right’ or not honestly doesn’t matter, as the purpose of Writing with AI isn’t a test of intelligence, but an exploration of possibility. As we come to a close, perhaps the most surprising thing about the exercise was how no one script was obviously written by a human or AI, blurring the lines between ‘artificial’ intelligence and the human touch. What does this mean for the future of theatre? Only time will tell, as Emergency Stairs continues their research, and uncovers even more possibilities and potential to come.

Writing with AI ran on 11th February (English showcase) and 12th February (Chinese showcase, with English surtitles). Find out more about the No More Theatre project here

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