Oh no! Bots have invaded theatre and they can do it: Plays By Bots, a Fringe review

Plays By Bots. Photo by bots.

Plays By Bots (Stage 7, Yardbird Suite)

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Welcome to the future. Crazy: Why did I choose to believe that, OK, bots might be able to do neurosurgery, repair Maseratis, host TV morning shows, but there are limits. Bots would NEVER be able to write plays. C’mon, theatre is, like, special. You know, reserved for humans.

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What was I thinking? 

True, the improvisers of Rapid Fire Theatre (a corps that includes a couple of brainiacs like Kory Mathewson who specialize in A.I.) have created scenes with A.I.’s before now. Now, RFT has enlisted Dramatron, a bot brainchild of the research scientists at DeepMind, to write scripts for theatre, including locations, stage directions, characters, dialogue. And, OH NO!, Dramatron has actually delivered. It’s just that the bot script just stops part-way through (I mean the bot doesn’t get a Canada Council grant or anything). And it’s for the RFT cast to improvise what happens and how it all ends. 

Plays By Bots presents one Dramatron play per Fringe performance. Friday night’s script was The Man At The Bar, set in a dive bar called The Pool Pit with (as specified in the stage directions) a dirty floor and an atmosphere full of smoke and the smell of beer. 

At the outset the four-member human cast each got a sealed envelope with script and  their role descriptions, and a bag of props and costume pieces. Teddy (Jacob Banigan) is “an orphan and gifted lounge singer,” Gerald (Michael Johnson) is “quite wealthy.” His wife Rosie (Tyra Banda) is “a regular.” Gordie Lucius in a fetching blond wig is Lolo the road-weary bartender. 

And if there’s a certain flatness in the dialogue, which runs to declarations, that in itself is amusing since it turned out to be perfectly suited to the deadpan comic talents of Friday night’s improvisers. Banigan, for example, knows exactly what to do with “I’m putting down a song. A special song. I’m gonna sing the song.” He returns, as instructed, to the mic to deliver lounge-y songs extempore (“this is a helluva town…”).  Rosie declares “I have a new hat…. I look beautiful in it.” Gerald says to Teddy “I want my money…. I’ll sue you.” 

The surprising thing (surprising to me, anyhow) is that the whole Dramatron play does hang together and create a world. About half-way through, the alert human actors start improvising,  from the groundwork of the first part. They run with the characters; they reprise particularly funny laugh lines. Things happen, but Lola keeps pouring the drinks, and the human actors continue to capture the playwright bot’s tone. 

It’s a genuinely funny entertainment. Uh-oh. 

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