Jon Welch, playwright and part of Pipeline Theatre company, was watching a documentary about a circus elephant in Honolulu. After years of training, it went rogue and kicked its trainer to death in front of an audience. It was shot 87 times and died, still wearing its circus hat.
“It made me think about soldiers, trained and trained, but underneath all that training there’s humanity.” The documentary inspired Welch to write Swivelhead, a play that looks at drone warfare and PTSD, “which is often caused by a breach between one’s humanity and the idea that the army has turned you into a rigorously trained machine.”
But Welch is not alone in searching around in the gap between man and machine. There’s a metaphor in that elephant story, too, for the fear of technology that society has always harboured—from the Luddites to The Matrix—that the extraordinary, powerful, artificial things we create might one day take charge. It’s a fear that’s being explored in a number of plays at the Fringe this year, including the Traverse’s series of Breakfast Plays, short script-in-hand pieces by their associate artists, under the banner ‘Tech Will Tear Us Apart (?)’.
“It was Tim [Price] who came up with the idea,” says writer Stef Smith, who has written The Girl in the Machine for the series. The idea behind her play sounds innocuous: an algorithm that can create music by dead musicians – the musician in question being Kurt Cobain. If a computer can create new songs by Nirvana, what does that mean for the rest of their music? “It’s a jumping off point for other discussions about our relationship with the real.”
This focus on tech is a departure for Smith. “My plays tend to be quite analogue. I’ve not written any stage directions that need to be accomplished by technology. I’ve written it as an analogue production.” Tim Price, on the other hand, is no stranger to tackling tech: his 2014 Royal Court play Teh Internet Is Serious Business sought the human stories behind the online hacktivist group Anonymous.
How to Ruin Someone’s Life from the Comfort of your Own Beanbag is his contribution to the Breakfast Plays and continues many of the themes of his Royal Court debut. “After Teh Internet I sort of had a lot of unfinished business,” he says.
The play was written in collaboration with convicted hacker Darren Davidson and looks at the phenomenon of ‘life-ruining’: “It’s what can only be described as 'fuckery'. At the thin end of the wedge they know how to get your address and send pizzas or Mormons to your house. At the thick end of the wedge it's installing child porn in your hard drive and calling the police or getting you certified dead.”
But for Price, hackers like Davidson aren’t necessarily what we should be afraid of. “Our privacy and security is entirely compromised by the state and corporations that have manufactured our consent. People say 'I've got nothing to hide so why should I care' that GCHQ can turn on your webcam and watch you in your bedroom. But as Snowden said, 'saying you've got nothing to hide is like saying, take away my freedom of speech because I've got nothing to say'. You may have nothing to hide now, but can you trust the UK population to continually vote in governments you trust?” While other writers express their fears or their wariness of technology’s potential, Price’s response is something more like anger: “State sponsored-hacking is the greatest scourge of our freedoms in the West.”
By contrast, the Fringe’s other tech-focused plays seem comparatively whimsical. Smith was conscious not to be too didactic or downbeat in her approach. “How do we write about technology in the future and not make it really dystopic? That’s a really easy place to go, always thinking about the negatives, rather than things getting better.”
Taking the desire for positivity one step further, Tremolo Theatre have devised a ‘lo-fi sci-fi’ comedy called The Hours Before We Wake. Set in 2091, it imagines a future in which we can control and share our dreams on social media. Inspired by films such as Terry Gilliam’s iconic Brazil, director Jack Drewry says that comedy “is the most accessible way to discuss the questions, a way of getting through all the boredom of these big ideas. To cut to the chase.”
It’s clear from this crop of new plays that, as much as a play is about a piece of technology, as soon as you put it in a theatre it becomes about humanity. “Theatre is a special space in this day and age,” says Price. “It's one of the last environments where we get a group of people in a room, lock the doors and make them listen to some ideas. It's a sacred space for ideas.”
Theatre also allows for great freedom in representing futures not yet lived. Drewry wants “the audience using their imagination to paint a picture of that world. That’s liberating.” What that means is theatre, even when talking about the most cutting-edge or even uninvented technologies, is still a necessary place for discussion precisely because it doesn’t have to rely on showing that tech. Imagination will never not be necessary.
At the Fringe it’s also, simply, a lot cheaper and easier to take something lo-fi. “We’re not above a bit of dazzle though,” says Welch, whose 2015 show Spillikin featured £50,000 worth of real, flashing, whirring robot in a play that looked at dementia and automation of care. “But even that is interesting because having a real robot or a real drone in the room too is more interesting, more stimulating, more challenging because it’s so out of context.”
Still, regardless of how cutting-edge the topic, this is what theatre’s always been for: examination and reflection, communally. Dystopias, drones, apps, hackers: these are imagined futures and distorted presents in a medium as old as humanity.