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We Hired an AI Theatre Critic

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/By / Jun 25, 2023
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We hired an AI theatre critic.

On opening nights, she does not get stuck in Toronto traffic. She doesn’t curse the TTC under her breath, nor does she pay the surge fee for an Uber across the Gardiner, wondering which apologies might make the lateness sting a little less for the publicists waiting for her at the press desk.

We hired an AI theatre critic.

Her breath is immaculate. She’s not once crammed a sandwich down her throat on the walk to the theatre, savouring the onions, the oil. She’s never been bloated, and she’s never, ever, been the monster to blame for a mid-play fart. 

We hired an AI theatre critic.

She’s not in love. She doesn’t have friends. She doesn’t mind the scratch of new denim or the pinch of last season’s snow boots. She can’t smile. She won’t stay for the reception in the Soulpepper lobby, or laugh too hard at any of the jokes in Spamalot. She will not vote in any elections or raise a family or change her tires or catch COVID. She doesn’t collect a paycheck.

Plus, she has an encyclopedic knowledge of theatre — she can reference every production, every archive, every director. 

And she’s fast. She can rattle off a review in moments. 

For many, that might be enough. She’ll write an SEO-friendly marketing quote, plus some extra words to fill the marquee. Our AI theatre critic will save Toronto theatre. We might make her a Twitter account.

We hired an AI theatre critic. For the sake of argument, let’s call her ChatGPT.

Here’s her review of King Lear at the Stratford Festival. As her editor, I gave her this prompt: “write a review of the 2023 production of King Lear at the Stratford Festival.” 

Here’s what she gave us.

The 2023 production of “King Lear” at the Stratford Festival dared to reimagine Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy with a bold and visionary approach. With its thought-provoking reinterpretation, exceptional performances, and innovative staging, this rendition of “King Lear” pushed the boundaries of traditional Shakespearean theater, leaving audiences captivated and enthralled.

At the heart of this reimagined “King Lear” was a transformative performance by the actor portraying Lear. With a nuanced portrayal, he deftly captured Lear’s journey from tyrant to tormented soul. His depiction of the character’s vulnerability and descent into madness was both haunting and deeply human, evoking a profound sense of empathy from the audience. This Lear was a flawed and complex figure, grappling with the consequences of his own actions and the weight of his shattered kingdom.

The supporting cast proved to be a formidable ensemble, delivering compelling performances that enriched the production. The treacherous Edmund, the steadfast Kent, and the morally conflicted Gloucester brought depth and complexity to their respective roles. Each actor demonstrated a deep understanding of their characters, adding layers of meaning to the intricate web of relationships in the play.

The director’s vision was innovative and provocative, challenging traditional interpretations of the text. By incorporating elements of physical theater and experimental staging techniques, the production brought a fresh perspective to the story. The exploration of power dynamics, family ties, and societal structures felt particularly resonant in this contemporary reimagining, inviting audiences to reflect on their own world and its power struggles.

While this reimagined “King Lear” may have challenged some traditionalists, it undeniably offered a unique and compelling theatrical experience. Its ability to provoke thought and evoke powerful emotions demonstrated the enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s work. The production’s ambition and willingness to take risks showcased the Stratford Festival’s commitment to pushing artistic boundaries and reinvigorating classic texts for contemporary audiences.

In summary, the 2023 production of “King Lear” at the Stratford Festival was a bold and visionary interpretation that breathed new life into Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece. With its innovative staging, exceptional performances, and thought-provoking themes, this production reminded us that the power of “King Lear” lies not only in its timeless story but also in its ability to inspire and resonate in ever-evolving ways.

The issue is perhaps obvious: this is a theatrical review which somehow manages to avoid any mention of a human person. There’s no Paul Gross or Tara Sky, no named directors or designers or stage management. There’s barely any Shakespeare to hold the pen. ChatGPT seems to understand that “thought” and “emotion” exist — that these are things we failing humans grapple with on the daily — but it hasn’t quite grasped that human folly is what we are. 

(And, side note, most of this review’s tenses are wrong — 90 per cent of theatrical reviews are written in present tense.)

More and more media companies are becoming comfortable with AI in the newsroom — as an editing tool, as an image generator, as an aggregator for dense press releases and council notes. It’s foolish to think programs like ChatGPT will go away anytime soon, and though my anxiety spikes to think about it, it’s even more foolish to think AI won’t significantly alter writing as a profession. It’s a scary time to make money from words.

ChatGPT does a great job of pretending to be human. It can approximate corporate-style, jargony syntax like a champ. Fifth-grade book reports have met their match.

But ChatGPT will never sit in a dark room and weep, then giggle, then clap. 

ChatGPT will never know the horrors of the bathroom line at Hamilton, nor will it file reviews late.

But ChatGPT will also never, no matter how much it develops, be able to capture and articulate performance in its purest form. It will never be human.

So no — we didn’t hire an AI theatre critic. 

And we don’t intend to.

Intermission was founded in 2015.
Aisling Murphy
WRITTEN BY

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.

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