Improvised Theatre Alongside Artificial Intelligences

New paper to be presented at 13th AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment Conference.

This is a cross-post from http://humanmachine.live, where you can find more information on past and future shows, videos, and pictures. Also, find HumanMachine on facebook and Twitter.

A new publication on “Improvised Theatre Alongside Artificial Intelligences” will be presented at the 13th AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment Conference (AIIDE’17) in Snowbird, Utah.

This study presents the first report of Artificial Improvisation, or improvisational theatre performed live, on-stage, alongside an artificial intelligence-based improvisational performer. The Artificial Improvisor is a form of artificial conversational agent, or chatbot, focused on open domain dialogue and collaborative narrative generation.

Mathewson (as Albert) and Mirowski (as mYleZ), alongside A.L.Ex. the improvisational theatre robot and an enthusiastic audience member at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Using state-of-the-art machine learning techniques spanning from natural language processing and speech recognition to reinforcement and deep learning, these chatbots have become more lifelike and harder to discern from humans. Natural human conversations are seldom limited in scope and jump from topic to topic, they are laced with metaphor and subtext and face-to-face communication is supplemented with non-verbal cues.

Live improvised performance takes natural conversation one step further with multiple actors performing in front of an audience. In improvisation, the topic of the conversation is often given by the audience several times during the performance. These suggestions inspire actors to perform novel, unique, and engaging scenes. During each scene, actors must make rapid-fire decisions to collaboratively generate coherent narratives.

This new work introduces Pyggy and A.L.Ex. (Artificial Language Experiment), the first two Artificial Improvisors, each with a unique composition and embodiment. The paper highlights research and development, successes and failures along the way, celebrates collaborations enabling progress, and presents discussions for future work in the space of artificial improvisation.

Read the full paper

Building a Sextbot: botrotica

Building a sextbot for a smutnight art fest cabaret. Exploring the obscenity of interacting with artificial dialog systems.

In this post, I describe the development, deployment, and conclusions of a recent art-project-cum-coding-experiment called botrotica.

botrotica is a sextbot. It is a chat bot that is based on the sext messages that we send to each other. This sextbot is an exploration in sexting developed for futuresmut, a thematic cabaret at Nextfest 2017, an emerging artist festival in Edmonton, Alberta.

Background

The internet enables us to explore our identities and develop social and communication skills. Technology has changed the way that we interact with each other. How do we share ourselves online when only one other is watching? Who do we share ourselves with and what exactly are we sharing? These hypothetical questions remind me of a favorite quote from a song I love:

The television went from being a babysitter to a mistress
Technology made it easy for us to stay in touch while keeping a distance
’til we just stayed distant and never touched
Now all we do is text too much
— Sage Francis, The Best of Times

Thoughts, ideas, pictures, and videos can all now be shared privately with passion partners. It has been found that rather than increasing intimacy in these types of relationships, sexting may act as a buffer for physical intimacy and may be associated with risky behaviour in teens and young adults [1, 2]. botrotica explores questions of sexual communication, instigation, privacy, and censorship.

Interaction

botrotica is situated behind a phone number. Participants only need a mobile phone for interaction. This interactive cyber-installation piece turned-on for the duration of the futuresmut cabaret. If users texted the number they engaged the bot in a back and forth conversation which ranged from purely deterministic, preset dialog, to generative dialog pieces from a model trained on huge swaths of online erotica, to hooks into machine learning systems to classify objects, faces, details, emotions, and not-safe-for-work flags in the images (this was particularly engaging for those that engaged in sexy dialogs).

An early doodle of the physical installation… modeling the “lonely home”.

It was modeled to respond like a late night sexter. It would talk slightly coy and dirty, ask for (and send) photos (of sexy robots of course). The game was that if the user sent an image to the bot, then it would classify the objects in an image, thereby ‘objectifying’ the user.

Example classification, rating, and leaderboard based on my ‘classic’ gym swole sweaty selfie.

It would also classify potentially NSFW content, thereby rating the image, and it would assign scores to the images completely arbitrarily. Images that scored higher would be then completely randomly ranked on a fictitious leaderboard. For example, in response to a racy MMS botrotica responded:

73.42% explicit nudity. 37.27% graphic male nudity. I see a beautiful face. I am 70.0% sure. You look CONFUSED and a little bit CALM. I would guess you are somewhere between 35 and 52. Looks like a 2 dressed up as a 8… I see people, person, human, tattoo…

There was a pre-recorded message for those who call in to the number which prompted the human to leave a message and send an SMS for a faster response.

Advert cards littered around the physical space, with helloworld and the phone number on the card.

For physical advertising, I had little business cards printing with the phone number on them and the words… helloworld (an homage to the traditional computer program used to introduce novices to a new language or toolset). Behind the card on a table sat a single flower and a tv/vcr combo playing old adverts for phone sex lines with this phone number dubbed over top.

Realized physical installation at futuresmut.

During the night images from this video were interlaced briefly between scenes projected on the walls of the cabaret. For reference, this is what some of the images looked like:

Images from the advert video.

Tech

botrotica is a service that runs on a Twilio phone number. It is python code which runs a server on an Amazon EC2 server in a docker container with hooks to Amazon Rekognition image analysis. Additionally, there is a trained tensorflow model running for seeded generation, similar to the models used in my previous (and current) work in building an artificial improvisor. Of course, these models are trained with a (very) different dataset than the improvisational dialog agents.

Results

The results were incredible with 847 messages (731 SMS + 136 MMS) over the course of a single evening (5.5 hours). Interactions varied from innocent to full on sexy-text-messaging exchanging images and dirty talk, back and forth between human and agent. There were 64 minutes of recorded voice messages from 144 voice calls to the number.

From human texts the system parsed and responded from a wide variety of ways. Some of these more engaging than others… similar to human-to-human communication.

Conclusions

botrotica served as an interesting window into the world sext messaging. It illuminated how popular simple chat interactions can be if prepared, produced, developed, and deployed appropriately and in interesting ways.

This project gave me many ideas for future projects. For example, building future interactions of photo scavenger hunts, collaborative photo classification games, live streaming logs and interactions to rooms full of interlocutors, collective collaborations, and formats for large group communication at events and parties.

What we share online changes as new technology lands. How and what I share on facebook is different from how I share on twitter, or this blog, or snapchat, or Youtube, etc. Early on in my creative career I wrote 15 correspondences entitled: “A series of letters to which I do not expect a response”. These letters were written to inanimate objects and famous individuals. In a way, writing these letters gave me a channel through which I could communicate with an embodiment of a concept.

I believe there is value in building these channels. It is not obscene (ala Joseph Weizenbaum), in fact, I think it is beautiful, to think that in the future we may communicate our lusts, thoughts, fears, desires, emotions, judgements, interests, hopes, dreams and memories to artificial agents with full knowledge of their non-sentience. In a more distant future one step beyond one could imagine these systems communicating back.

Thanks

This project would not have been possible without the help from a small handful of incredible and helpful folks. Thanks go to Sam for making the event happen, curating, and inviting this piece into the event. Sarah for physical installations, discussion,  and deployment of physical interactions, idea storming. Lana for help on writing and aggregating texts and source material. Paul and Julian for testing. And every human who dove deep into experimenting and getting weird with the system on the evening of the event.

References

  1. Benotsch, Eric G., et al. “Sexting, substance use, and sexual risk behavior in young adults.” Journal of Adolescent Health 52.3 (2013): 307-313.
  2. Lenhart, Amanda. “Teens and sexting.” Pew Internet & American Life Project1 (2009): 1-26.

30 songs, 30 years.

A simple birthday request: tell me what song lies at the intersection of you and I.

As you may know, June 5 is the date of my birth… As you may not know, for the last several years I have attempted to curate very specific gifts from friends and loved ones all over the planet.

This year, my 30th, I would like you to submit a song, your own or one from popular culture. I am hoping to collect 30 songs, so that I may create a double-sided birthday mixtape. Feel free to submit the Artist-Title, the lyrics, or a YouTube link. It can be a song that you wrote, that you performed, or just one that you love.

These can be songs that I introduced you to, or that you introduced me to. They can be musical, or funny, or sad, or capture something in the connection that we share. These can be songs that are long or short, maybe we listened to them together one time, or it was that song that you can never remember the name of but makes you think of me.

Imagine that we are two points floating around in space; if you were to travel from one point to the other… what song would play in our minds the middle of your journey? What song lies at the intersection of you and I?

Feel free to comment on this post, send it to me on facebook, or email me privately to submit.

Some may ask: “Kory, can I submit more than one song?”,
“Thank you for asking, yes of course, but no more than three. And double points if you can tell a rich narrative with three songs.”

As a reminder looking back on past years…
 

Leadership in Improvisation

Making great teams work better together through creative collaboration.

Recently I was invited to give a talk on Leadership in Improvisation for the Peter Lougheed Leadership College at the University of Alberta breakfast event about Making Connections.

It was a delightful opportunity to share my story, and the audience was engaged, motivated and taught me some things in the process. It is my hope that by sharing the story here, the story can continue.

Note: It was critical to discuss the preparation of the talk with a sample of individuals who would be in the audience the week before, this allowed me to understand who would be in the room, what their expectations would be like, and what has worked well, and not as well, for that group in the past.

My name is Kory Mathewson; I am an improviser with Rapid Fire Theatre, and I am also a Ph.D. student in Computing Science studying artificial intelligence and machine learning at the University of Alberta.

If you want to read Part 1 of the story of me making an Artificial Improvisor, check it out here: korymathewson.com/building-an-artificial-improvisor/

Note: it was a failure. A not a total failure, because I learned a lot.

I had four short and clear goals for the morning:

  • Teach the history of improvisation and
    its growing relevance in leadership.
  • Share my stories of success and failure.
  • Distil everything I have learned over 12 years of improvisation to 6 gemstones takeaways.
  • Explore some improvisational exercises with the audience.

The same question my mom asked when she found my brother (9) and I (6) driving in a convertible we didn’t own. Let’s start with a brief history of my improvisation that should help you understand me and how we got to this point?

February 2005 at the Rapid Fire Theatre Nosebowl High School Improv Tournament. A bright-eyed memory of myself performing impeccable mime in cargo shorts, a popped collar pink polo shirt and rolled up tennis socks, with three of my best friends supporting from the bench. We lost that tournament, by a mile but we gained memories and fashion sense.

Flash forward to this month, on stage at Rapid Fire Theatre. Performing alongside the incredibly talented cast and the Mayor of Edmonton His Worship Don Iveson.

Who here knows what improvisation is? Has anyone done improvisation? Has anyone seen a comedic improvisation show? Or performed jazz? Has anyone built an ingenious solution to a problem facing scarce resources and limited time?

Improvisation, much like my life, is art and science. It sits at the intersection between the rules and pure creativity.

By the end of this talk, I promised, you will all be familiar with improvisation and the ways that the principles of improvisation can help guide your leadership and collaboration. First, it is not about being funny, it is about failing together?

I earned my stripes improvising in long 50-hour marathons. These grueling time tests stretch physical and mental abilities and provide an incomparable safe playground of practice.

Practice makes perfect; but why? Because it elucidates your patterns, obstacles and growth goals, then focuses your efforts on improvements.

The more you can adapt, response, and extemporize the more effective you will be. Veterans of the form respond proactively to sudden changes and road blocks.

The first lesson I learned in improvisation is that “the best improv performers can improvise with anyone.” They make everyone else shine; this is not necessarily true about painters, musicians, mathematicians, or lawyers, but it is right about improvisors, and more importantly: leaders.

Once I was in, I was hooked. So I did what any newly committed student of an art form does, I dug deep into the history of improvisation.

The river ran deep. Documented improvisation starts in Rome in the 4th century BC with the Atellan Farce and mask work. Flash forward thousands of years and we learn about Commedia dell-Art(e) in the early 1600’s exploring character archetypes.

Contemporaries in the field have written, studied, tested, tried and failed at shaping the art form. Each with their form of proselytizing:

  • Stanislavski: The greatest wisdom is to realize one’s lack of it.
  • Spolin 1963: Through spontaneity, we are reformed into ourselves.
  • Boal 1973: Theatre is a form of knowledge; it should and can also be a means of transforming society. Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.
  • Johnstone 1987: If you have a good idea, open your mouth and say something else.

And of course, no discussion of improvisation would be complete without mentioned the tortured genius of the 20th century, Del Close. A coach and mentor of many of today’s most popular comedians including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler.

With many words of wisdom, one that resonates with me as a leader is:

“Don’t bring a cathedral into a scene, bring a brick and let’s build together.” – Del Close 

Bringing us to the first gemstone takeaway.

  • Listen
  • Actually, listen.
  • Most people listen just enough to be able to respond.
  • Be willing to change.
  • Listen like this is the last thing they ever say.
  • Listen to the other is going to change your mind.

“Listen. Listen to one another like you know you are scholars. Artists. Scientists. Athletes. Musicians. Like you know you will be the ones to shape this world.” – Sarah Kay

  • Positivity.
  • Accept, agree, say “Yes”.
  • Accept and offer, say “Yes, and…” – it improves your relationships with others AND with yourself.
  • It is also a base principle of meditation. Accept your currently emotional state. Yes I am feeling like this. If this is true, what else is true.

A series of yeses takes us somewhere. All it takes is one no to stop the momentum. But what do we get when we can say: “Yes, and…”

But wait, there’s more…Practice strengthening your affirmation:

  • Practice saying “Yes, and..”
  • Use it to refocus, redirect,
    and 
    collect thoughts.
  • Improvisational leaders accept quickly and look for opportunities immediately.
  • Make your agreement prominent.

Much like building a cathedral, we can try collaborating in real time.

You can try as well, with a partner try telling a story by writing it down on a piece of paper one-line-at-a-time, for an additional challenge try writing the story one-word-at-a-time.

Then read the stories back, and see what it is like to directly collaborate on a creative piece. Remember: there are no wrong answers, no mistakes, and no judgment.

You are walking alone in a wooded forest, you have been without food and water for a few days and you are cold, scared and hungry. You come to a clearning and in the middle of the open area there is a saber-tooth tiger… you are afraid. You feel fear. Scientists think this stems from the amygdala, two almond-shaped bundles of nuclei in the temporal lobes of the brain. What is your emotional response? 

Most would say fight or flight, there is also new research on the freeze mechanism, and of course, the fourth and least favorable option in real-life, fail. You have to do something very critical in this moment, which leads us to the next gemstone.

  • Make choices.
  • In improv we often call them offers.
  • Make offers instead of asking questions.
  • Make your choices specific, unique and novel for bonus points.

Often times when we are forced with a decision we encounter a psychological phenomenon called: analysis paralysis.

Remember that you do not need to be 100% right 100% of the time. In fact, you need to be 100% right only about 10% of the time, the other times you just need to make a decision.

Your choices should be made in an attempt to make others look good. Shelve the ego and embrace the collective elevation and amplification. Endow others with power, status, and agency to create a team that functions better than individuals working independently.

I have tried on 1000 masks and understand the world slightly differently from each perspective.

Alex Williams of the New York Times has a very nice piece on friendships as we progress through life. One of the more salient points to me is that the three elements required for making close friends.

These are the exact characteristics of my interactions with improvisers all over the world. From Liverpool to Austin, to Slovenia, to New York, and back through North America… I have found my community around the world. We build relationships over space and time because we can quickly adapt, work together, collaborate openly and communicate effectively.

My research is in Reinforcement Learning. Training artificially intelligent systems to act in certain ways given rewards as feedback. This is the same way that dolphins are trained to do mind-bending stunts.

You can play this with a partner as well. Attempt to encourage your ‘dolphin’ to accomplish an unstated goal in the environment using only rewards as feedback.

This simple exercise elucidates the importance of clear communication, systems of collaboration, and shared goals.

In life,we are each living our own story (or stories), but we are major and minor characters in many other stories. We are the character that will give the right piece of advice at the wrong time or the hidden romance that ends up falling out of love and stop writing letters right before a chapter ends.

If this is the case, we should aim to make our story interesting. Aim to make offers over questions, decisions over ultimatums, and bring something specific, unique, and novel to each and every interaction.

Stories are about patterns. One of the easiest ways to understand patterns is through images. First, an action is taken establishing normal, then, with a second similar action, the pattern is established thereby creating a solid platform. Finally, the pattern is broken.

We can share the storytelling by trading back and forth on who is setting the patterns and who is breaking them. Improvisation encourages this ebb and flow, the constant back and forth of transferring energy between leading and following.

These are the characteristics of an improvisational leader who can think, speak, and act freely on their feet:

  • Listen actively
  • Amplify with positivity
  • Confidence to make authentic choices
  • Bring out the best in others
  • Tell great stories

Finally, is the failure. The most under discussed reality of the modern leader.

Here is a challenge, for the next conversation you have with a mentor or a peer that you have yet to connect on a deeper level with, ask them:

What has been your biggest failure?

Then, focus on understanding the learning that came from that failure. 

So, does anyone remember the first ‘best’ piece of advice that I ever received?

The best improvisers, make everyone else shine. I wanted to put this to the test. So I did an improv show with the audience member with the least stage experience.

Spoiler alert: He was magnificent.

So I thought, can I do it with an artificial intelligence? I would fuse my love for improvisation and machine learning. I would call it something sexy like “artificial improvisation, ” and there could be a hot Hamlet sequel skull in the bionic arm of a cyborg robot from the future.

Perfect.

And then I would do it a whole bunch, and tell everyone I knew the story and find other people around the world that were similarly passionate.

And then make an art collective in the space, and book a swath of shows in 2017. Learning and growing along the way, building businesses and research that impact millions of people.

That is how I embraced one of my biggest failures as a performer and scientist.

Questions for reflections: What do all the gemstones add up to? What is the big key takeway?

What’s your Doodle?

It is always surprising to see what people had ready to roll once they had a pen and a blank page.

Back in May 2006 (10 years ago, thanks @Meags for actually dating a doodle), I carried a notebook around with me and when I would have some down time with others I would ask them to share a doodle of theirs (something that they draw when they are on the phone, or in class, or a meeting) in this notebook.

I collected so many of these doodles, from many different individuals. It is always surprising to see what people had ready to roll once they had a pen and a blank page. It seems like everyone has a small doodle … so I ask….what’s your doodle?

Collective Improvisation: A review and thoughts…

Nerding out on improv theory with a bunch of notes on Collective Improvisation: From Theatre to Film by Sonja Vilc.

May 2016, I am invited to Llubjana, Slovenia to teach and perform improvisation. Hosted by the three heads of the Cerberus of Slovenian improvisation Juš, Vid and Peter at IGLU, I had an incredible time seeing what life was really like in Llubjana.

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 10.38.12 AM

The improvisational scene is alive and well in Llubjana, with monthly guests from around the world and some lively improv shows in Slovenian and English, it is truly a community worth venturing to for the adventurous improvisor. As well, word on the street is there is a Eurovision inspired Improvision show that draws hundreds and hundreds every year.

Upon departing, Juš was kind enough to give me a book as a gift. By a fellow Slovenian improvisor named Sonja Vilč, the book is Collective Improvisation: From Theatre to Film.

The book is composed of three chapters: 1) The Roots and Teachings of Modern Improvisation, 2) Using the Principles of Improvisation in Film Creation, 3) Looking forward: The Promises of Improvisation.

While the books main focus is the use of improvisational techniques in film creation, I was most interested in the background research on the roots of modern improvisational techniques and sections on the philosophies of improvisation.

I enjoy what I would consider to be the European explorations of improvisational philosophies, and this book is full of great discourse and thoughts on the romantic ideals of what happens when you start making things up.

The Roots of Modern Improvisational Teaching

Vilč explores the history of modern improvisational teaching, clearly laying out a trajectory of learning and evolution of theory dating back to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I enjoy how she clearly delineates some lists of ideas and concepts:

Four Johnstone-ian Basic Principles of Improvisation (pg 27):

  1. Accept and embrace your first impulse;
  2. Accept offers made by your other actors;
  3. Advance the action by truthful reaction to what is happening; and
  4. Advance the narrative by connecting previously established elements.

quote-if-you-have-a-good-idea-open-your-mouth-and-say-something-else-keith-johnstone-80-38-27

Three Del Close-ian (along with Elaine May and Theodore Flicker) Basic Principles of Improvisation (pg 67):

  1. Do not deny what is said or done onstage.
  2. Take the active as opposed to the passive choice.
  3. The actor’s business is to justify.

quote-if-we-treat-each-other-as-if-we-are-geniuses-poets-and-artists-we-have-a-better-chance-del-close-79-71-32

She delves into Del’s discussions on where laughter comes from (pg 73): “Laughter is a response to a gestalt formation where two previously incompatible or dissimilar ideas suddenly form into a new piece of understanding. The energy release during that reaction comes out in laughter”.  Which is all to say, that “the truth is funny”.

Vilč discusses the translation of the above principles and other thoughts and writings by improvisational innovators (Johnstone, Viola Spolin, Compass Players, Close, David Shepard, etc., pg. 87):

  1. The idea of individual genius is replaced by the collective group mind.
  2. The idea of a script is replaced by an emergent narrative, formed through the multitude of artistic, and audience, interactions.
  3. The idea of a final product as the goal is replaced by a focus on the risks and failures of an ongoing process.

quote-it-is-highly-possible-that-what-is-called-talented-behavior-is-simply-a-greater-individual-viola-spolin-53-25-06

I enjoy one thought she presents as a derivative of a Randy Dixon-ian idea (pg 91): “Less structure can often mean less freedom”, quite an odd concept, but she continues, “it is the limitations that work as catalysts for the creative processes and not the other way around”. As Dixon said: “[The] forms are a skeleton structure that allow the improvisor to focus…”

Vilč explores the ideas of the audience as the indirect-director, or the ‘indirector” as I call it. They are reacting to what is happening on stage, in real-time, and the actors can modify their actions accordingly. But, the responses may be inconsistent across audience members, and thus the actors, as an ensemble, must synthesize and translate the conscious and subconscious indirections from the collective.

Johnstonian improvisation focuses on the idea of “Yes, and”-ing any offer. But, there is an extension of this that connects to the theory of mind of the improvisors on stage. That is, that “in order to play … one first has to know what the other improvisors want, one has to be able to inspire others”. This note really resonates with me, as my inspiration these days has been stemming from the idea of Finding your Fun in the Fun of Others. Improvisors should be able to quickly embrace multiple impulses (as offers and acceptances), and start to guide their offers to this specific situation (the actor across from them, the audience, the show, the moment) accordingly. I am not sure if this something I truly do on stage, but I like to think that being able to play with different individuals, starts with being able to model the actor that you are improvising with, and updating that model online during a scene/show/performance.

Finally, there is a full chapter which explores some novel philosophies behind improvisation quite eloquently:

  1. “…to enable truly innovative art forms that will be able to address the questions and issues we are interested in … in a way that resonates with contemporary audiences, there needs to be a place and enough time for experimentation… Experimentation means that the artists need to have the freedom to take risks and … to fail (pg 156).
  2. Collective improvisation should be inclusive (pg 157).
  3. “The other actor is the most important focus of my own work and it is only through supporting the other actor that I will be able to shine and succeed myself” (pg 159, incl. Gregor Moder)
  4. Taking risks is a precondition for anything to happen at all, and any mistakes do not exist. Out of the thousands of choices one could make the first and often accidental or associative choice is the best and it will always enable the next thing to happen. Quality is not a matter of pre-meditated action but of complete commitment to what one is doing here and now (adapted from pg 163).
  5. The audience is freed from a role of passive spectator by being included in the show (cf. Ranciere The Emancipated Spectator, pg 164-5).
  6. One can only do things for oneself by doing them for and through the other (cf. Jean-Luc Nancy Inoperative Community, pg 167). Decision making happens because each individual is empowered to make decisions, but this is only possible if all the actors are tuned into the decisions of the others (pg 169).
  7. The more actors there are onstage, the less each individual needs to initiate and the more each individual needs to be actively listening (pg 171).

The thoughts and ideas presented in the book Collective Improvisation are inspiring and well-researched. I admire the preparation and writing of this book, as it formulates a great background for those of us that enjoy the philosophical understanding of improvisation as well as the historical exploration. As Julian Faid says, we are all looking forward to looking back.

Anything in this post totally counter to what you believe? Let me know below! As you can probably imagine, I really dig nerding out on improv theory.

 

 

 

Will you write me something for my birthday?

For my 29th birthday I want you to share with me a short essay of length 290 – 2900 words on “Finding Fun in Others”.

IMG_2091 - New

This year, 2016, I have been very inspired by the ideas of Finding the Fun in Others. In May, I was invited to teach on this principle in workshops in London, England (with C3Something) and Llubjana, Slovenia (with IGLU). What a true delight it was to get to share some of the ideas I have been floating around in my head with some of the best improvisors in the world.

So, that being said, it is only fitting that I will make a request for my 29th birthday. As a reminder, it is June 5th, the 5th of June, JUNE 5, the fifth of June, the 156th day of the year in the Gregorian Calendar, Arbour Day in New Zealand and the Feast of Núr in the Bahá’í calendar (if Bahá’í Naw-Rúz falls on March 21).

The request is as follows, for my 29th birthday I want you to share with me:

A short essay of length 290 – 2900 words on the topic of Finding Fun in Others. 

You can feel free to make it about improvisational theatre, about academia, about art or science, or life in general. You can make it specific or general, postulate wildly or sincerely. Tell me a horrific tale of a fun-free vacuum, or spin a heart-warming story of a land filled with fun-buns and jelly-bellys. What is fun, what are others, what does it mean to find? Feel free to semantically define it for yourself…

It is my hope that I can collect 29 of these short pieces and accumulate them in a collective creation collection. Much like I have done over the last four years. Another small piece in my larger, yearly, creative endeavour to collect, embrace, and feature the creativity around me.

As a note, feel free to add any necessary attachments, be it audio, visual, photos, supplementary writings, tree diagrams, pins on a map, that may help to clarify and expand your essays. 

To deliver the present to me, you can feel free to email it to me, you can  email me for my address and then hand write it and mail it to me (as you know, I love hand written letters). You can hand deliver it to me (if you are in Edmonton, or Toronto (I will be there May 30 – June 5 (which is my birthday as a reminder))) [ How about that, triple-nested parentheses ].

Over the past four years I have asked for some exciting, collective creation style gifts for my birthday!

25th year: 25 Stories on 25 Years of Age
26th year: 26 Love Letters
27th year: 27 Birthday Pictures
28th year: 28 Handwritten Notes

Dirt City: Grime and Punishment

Writing, Directing, Producing and Acting in a show at the Edmonton Fringe Festival.

The 2015 Edmonton Fringe Festival is almost upon us and this year will be a very special one for me. I co-wrote a show, alongside Colin Matty, Sam Jeffery and Lee Boyes. It is a wild ride to put a show together from scratch, and while it may be old habit for some talented fringe veterans, I had a lot to learn.

The Concept

Around June 2014, Colin and I were riffing on the idea of writing another show together after the wild (mild) success of My Name is Jonas (a concept-comedy-sketch show based on The Blue Album by Weezer, it was attended by Zach Galifianakis “which is probably the best endorsement any fringe show could ask for“. The idea gets shelved after we lose the Fringe lottery and the writing begins.

The idea comes up over a small riff on ordering red herring at a diner, it flourishes from there…

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Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946 Film) with Bogart and Bacall. This scene is the origin of the ‘take-off-the-glasses-let-down-the-hair” to make you more sexy move. If that is a move.

Writing

During the writing process we ask two additional members of Rapid Fire Theatre to join the team, Sam and Lee. Both are extremely talented performers who bring their own special talents to the show. Writing begins and continues over the summer of 2015 with a Google Doc that expands and contracts with good ideas and bad.

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Rehearsal in the best room in the Fine Arts Centre.

One idea that is presented by Joe Vanderhelm is the idea of writing a dramedy, but with each edit creating a second script with each of the removed chunks in chronological order, then presenting both shows in parallel (this is an obvious idea, but I wonder if it has ever been done?).

Paul Blinov and Lana Cuthbertson are great help and supports on the writing of the script, making sure that things make sense, flow, and stay interesting. Jokes are punched up, love is magnified and the mystery is expanded.

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Character portraits of (L-R) The Mayor, Pinot Noir and Ella Twist. Lee, Kory and Sam.

Producing and Directing

Putting a show together is hard work. The amazing team of talented artists and volunteers are Rapid Fire Theatre help to design promotional material (thank you Matt Schuurman) and handle administrative tasks (thank you Karen Brown Fournell).

We decide to self-direct the show as a co-creation team and elect not to bring in an outside director. Several individuals volunteer their time to come in and watch segments or runs of the show and provide an outside eye (thank you Matt, Paul, Andy and Lana).

Design

Late in the game we ask Syd Gross to join the team as the technical designer and stage manager. Her eye for lighting and ear for sound help to elevate the script to a magical space of suspended reality where dangerous and sexy things can happen.

The lighting, sound and costumes in a film noir are integral to the motif and story-telling and the dirty underbelly world that we zoom in on is aided by the ambience.

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Costume shopping with Ball’n Colin.

Press

We have been lucky to be featured on the What It Is Podcast as part of the Forceful Fringe Promo 2015 show, discussing gender politics and how to pitch a show to BROS.

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Podcasting with Taylor Chadwick and Colten Taylor Thomas.

As well, we had a nice little write up on After the House Lights by Jenna Marynowski, where we  discuss the show and coming from a world of improvisation into a scripted show.

Conclusions

This city never sleeps, except when it does.

It takes a village to raise a fringe show, in this case it takes E-town, or E-ville, or EVIL…

Come see Dirt City: Grime and Punishment at the 2015 Edmonton Fringe Festival starting Friday August 14th at Noon at Fringe Venue #9: Telus Phone Museum at 10437 – 83 ave.

For more information check out http://grimeandpunishment.ca

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Poster design by Matt Schuurman

Gallery of images of Dirt Cite

Gallery of images from Off Book

Diving into HarshImprovNotes.com

HarshImprovNotes.com has taken off in improv communities around the world. Looking back at some of the reasons it exists, and what we can glean from it as we progress the art form into the future.

As of July 8th 2015 (only 5 days since it went online), HarshImprovNotes.com has over 400 submissions. That is 400 harsh improvisational theatre notes given. Granted some of those are mine, and granted some people submit more than 1, or 2, or 5, but the site has brought together a community of improvisers from around the globe to share something super-personal. To share a note that they have received somewhere along their training that they deemed harsh. 

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What makes a note harsh?

Perhaps it is a note given the wrong way, perhaps it was given by the wrong person, or at the wrong time. The harshness of a note can vary from person to person and moment to moment, so who am I to decide if a note is truly harsh or not.

Often times it would seem that the harshest notes, least taken to heart, are those that are completely out of context. Many of the notes on the site are racist, sexist or otherwise offensive.

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Think for a moment that there are people in your company that have been given a note strictly based on things that they can not change about themselves. I find that so hurtful. Maybe you are someone who gave a note like that somewhere along the way, if that is true, in the words of Paul Blinov, “you need to check yourself”.

Why ask if it was taken to heart? 

Asking if the note was taken to heart sort of allows for the submitter to reflect on the note, and see how much it truly impacted them. There is a precious dichotomy between the serious, well-natured note and the submitted who doesn’t take it to heart. Similarly, there is something very curious about the harsh, offensive notes that are completely taken to heart.

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It is interesting to look at the statistics of submissions on a large scale to see on average how much a harsh note was taken to heart. The scale is 1 – 10 (from ‘not at all’ – ‘I think about it everyday’).  The trend shows a wide variation around a mean of about 7.5 save for a huge spike at 1. What is this to mean? I call it the blue whale distribution.

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Why does this exist?

HarshImprovNotes.com stemmed from my compulsive note taking, collecting, collating and aggregating. I have been doing improvisational theatre for 10 years, starting with Rapid Fire Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Soon after my first soirée in improv, I started travelling the world performing, learning, and teaching improvisation. I love the opportunities to co-create, to share creativity, and improvisation provides that in such a raw manner that I have wholly embraced it as a life passion.

I have had many great, influential improv teachers, mentors, and peers in my life: Jacob Banigan, Patti Stiles, Chris Craddock, Kevin Gillese, Amy Shostak, Keith Johnstone, Dana Anderson, Donovan Workun, Alistair Cook, Becky Johnson, Graham Wagner, Kurt Smeaton, Joe Bill, Billy Tierny, Steve Sim, Lee White, and Craig Cackowski, Ken Campbell, Adam Meggido, Torsten Voller, Susan Messing, Matt Baram, Naomi Snieckus, Ron Pedersen, and the list goes on.

That being said, over my progression in this wonderful art form I have encountered many harsh instructors (not going to name names). These companions and instructors have given me notes which I have both discounted, and taken to heart. They have reached deep into the pit of my soul and vacuumed up all the confidence marbles. Each time this happened, I would write that note down. I would collect it. Save it. Write it down and think about it.

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If the show sucks, it is because someone did something but usually because someone did not.

This collection soon turned into notebooks and notebooks of introspective improvisational ramblings, positive and negative. I needed a way to synthesize the good and the bad. I needed a cathartic release of the strain and pressure of saving these notes. In the same way you can’t keep love letters (or hate letters for that matter) forever, I wanted a means by which I could save the notes, de-personalize them after all these years, and open the discussion to the wider improvisation community. HarshImprovNotes.com does just that. It allows us to share what we have been harbouring, to hopefully move past that, into a realm of growth and development, together.

Would this work for other domains?

I think part of the reason that the notes read so well are because I, and many others, appreciate the improvisers sense of humour. I presume that either or both the giver and receiver of the note have at least somewhat attuned comedic-sense, so the notes are often funny.

The idea of a similar collection of Harsh Teamwork Notes or Harsh Breakup Lines is somewhat more tragic in my mind. In improv, we are our own worst (and best) critics, but there is something to be said about the external director’s eyes which see the performer as a part of the show as a whole.

Final Thoughts

I hope that this project makes me a better teacher and improv instructor. I hope that it makes us all more effective communicators. Improvisation is a young, transient art form. It is still developing modern masters. The vocabulary surrounding it is still forming (improv or impro? improvisor or improviser?), and I think that this allows for opportunities such as this: to look back on how we provide and receive feedback, and refine it such that it is more meaningful, more constructive, more supportive and generally less harsh.

Appendix: Demographics of Users on the Site

Using Google Analytics gives you all sorts of amazing insights in to visitors on the site. Here are several charts that show the demographics of the visitors to HarshImprovNotes.com.

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