Arts·Art Apart

Theatre by email: This unique virtual project lets you 'teach' an AI how to feel

Years after Howard Dai first had the idea, the time is finally right for his interactive experience The Rex Project.

Years after Howard Dai first had the idea, the time is finally right for The Rex Project

The first workshop of The Rex Project wrapped this week, but stay tuned for Version 2.0. (The Rex Project)

The new class of Canadian theatre-makers might be stuck at home like the rest of us, but the COVID-19 crisis won't stop them from doing what they love. So when the pandemic struck, the National Theatre School launched Art Apart. Its mission: support projects by emerging artists. Some 100 applicants from across the country have already received a $750 grant from Art Apart. And now, their shows are ready for an audience. Every week, CBC Arts will put the spotlight on one of these original works.

Name: Howard Dai

Homebase: New Westminster, B.C.

Project: The Rex Project

Three years before we were all stuck at home, Howard Dai and Tiger Xu were laying the groundwork for The Rex Project. The duo — co-founders of the Two Gents of New West collective — were out to make a piece of virtual theatre, an experience that could seamlessly blend with the viewer's sense of reality. A story that would reach them where they are. Like, say, their inbox.

So adjust your spam filters, and imagine you (as an audience member) have taken a gig doing quality control for the Royal Academy of Intelligent Design, a mysterious company developing a new breed of AI. Every day for 11 days, you'll be checking in with this super-computer in-training over email. The robot's learning how to feel, and it's programmed to send you audio files for review. They're short, podcast-style recordings about human emotion, and if there are any performance issues, feedback must be sent. (The narrative apparently benefits from a little audience interaction.)

But just like the robo-protagonist, The Rex Project is a work in progress. Through the support of Art Apart, Dai launched the first workshop of the piece last week, running the production for an audience of 40. Expect version 2.0 later this summer, he says. Just follow his website for updates.

But first, more from Dai.

Your new employer? (The Rex Project)

Did the project evolve in any way because of COVID-19?

I think really, since the beginning, it's always been a virtual experience. It takes place over 11 days, so it's a lot to really commit to. But now, people will actually do it because they're not going out, they're staying home. (laughs)

Three years ago, why did you want to make theatre like this?

It was around the time that Pokemon Go was becoming popular. It was the first time we'd heard the word "augmented reality." I think more of what I was interested in is something that is really immersive. I think that was really the drive — how to make something immersive.

It was the idea that I don't want the fourth wall. [...] I want the narrative to be part of real life.

You're in the middle of your first run right now. How do you actually put on the show?

It's a one-man operation, so it's just me. I've been playing around in Google, and they have a really cool service called Google Apps Script, and basically it's a little programming language that lets me automate their services. So I've been writing a code that triggers the emails. 

Today is day nine of the 11 days, and the latter half of the experience is more personalized. So at this point, I've been replying to emails one by one based on people's responses.

As part of the Rex Project, the audience is emailed collages like this one. It illustrates the details from the AI's "simulation reports." (The Rex Project)

How has your experience developing this project compared to the theatre work you were doing pre-COVID? Had you ever done a "virtual" show like this before?

Definitely not. I just finished school, as of December (BFA in Theatre Performance at Simon Fraser University). Our theatre program is pretty physical. [...] You're on your feet, in a studio, working with a group of people. But this is almost the opposite of that. So it's very different from what I've been doing. It's very interesting to me. Almost nerve-wracking, as well.

If we weren't living through a global pandemic, what would you be up to right now?

I was the assistant producer on a show that would have opened last week. The show was Made in Canada. It's called an "agricultural operetta," and it was developed by a company called rice & beans theatre in Vancouver.

When we're on the other side of this, how do you think your approach to theatre might be different?

This is really an experiment in audience engagement, and the ultimate test of how long they'll stay with me. That's something that I never really thought that much about in other works.

Definitely after this work, I'll be continuing to think about ways immersive work can engage the audience through the duration, whether that's an hour or two weeks (laughs). That's something I'm really thinking about now, for sure. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Visit Howard Dai's website for updates on The Rex Project.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

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