INTERVIEW – What IS It Like To Improvise With Robots?

For the past two weeks, we have been talking to Piotr about the world of Improbotics and more about the tech side as well as the beginnings of the interactive theatre experience. However, one thing that has been playing on my mind and I am sure it is for you as well is what is it actually like to be an improviser in Improbotics? I was lucky enough to catch up with Sarah Davies to find out just that. Sarah is an advanced improviser with her hand in so many metaphorical improv pies, she is a teacher and she is also in the troupes Twinprov, Bassoonprov, Plus Support and City Impro so I thought it would be interesting to find out show she finds performing a very different type of improvisation.


Photo Credit: Natalya Micic

Hello Sarah – how did you get involved with Improbotics?

I met Piotr a few years ago when we both guested in an Improfest short form show, and then I went along to see his show ‘Human Machine’ in the same festival. Back then it was just him, Kory Mathewson (our partner in Canada) on live link up, and A.L.E.X the robot (who memorably, had recently caught on fire!). I loved the experimentation and risk in the show, as well as the whole concept of improvising with AI, so as soon as auditions for a larger troupe were announced, I jumped right in, and was very happy to be cast!

What is it like improvising alongside a robot?

Unbelievably fun, ridiculous and terrifying – like all the best improv is, in my view! It really stretches your improv muscles, as essentially you are on stage with the most difficult yet strangely adorable scene partner of your life! The (paraphrased here!) ‘treat everyone like geniuses’ adage is tested to the absolute limits, as obviously the AI can’t reliably provide the ‘who what where’ platforms or connect well to emotions. However, the tangents, non-sequiturs and sometimes full-blown technical failures are where a lot of the joy lies!

The challenge is in making the AI an integral and valued part of the scene rather than a ‘problem’ to get around. Last year Piotr and I coached a session on our techniques at Improbable’s brilliant Global International Improv Symposium, and it was fascinating to see how even really experienced and seasoned improvisers struggled with and were excited by such challenges, just like us!

In the show the improvisers have to wear headphones to sometimes say the lines they are fed from the AI technology – how hard is this to do?

I like how this relates to a lot of the improv training/teaching I’ve done – this conceit is asking you to multitask and overload your brain to the point that all you can do is concentrate on the improv! Not only are you responding to your ‘human’ scene partner, but at the same time receiving and computing the AI lines and then trying to deliver them with human emotion. This is particularly amazing when the line is so random that it make you want to cry with laughter?! That happens to me a lot.

At its best, it helps you to achieve a bit of a flow state where you can really get in to the world of the scene, and at its worst, you are doing such an excessive amount of time-filling object work that you look like you’re a mime artist on the verge of a breakdown….


Photo Credit: Natalya Micic

When you are in a scene doing this are you focused more on the words being fed into your ear or the way you deliver them on stage?

As above really – a bit of both, because I think that you have to be aware of all it! I tend to focus on both my scene partner, and my emotional interpretation of/reaction to the lines. On that point, like with any improv it’s important to also note that we have agency – the system is very carefully trained to screen out dubious content, but like humans, it is not yet always perfect in the lines that it generates! Considering the pace of line delivery is also really key, and linking it to action is even better (and harder!).

What have been some of your favourite shows you have done so far with Improbotics?

I loved our multilingual improv shows that we recently did at the Voila Europe festival! Firstly it was just magical to hear so many different languages spoken on stage, and then to experiment with that to really explore communication/misunderstanding. Adding an additional layer of AI shenanigans to the mix was super challenging and really exciting!

What is the most challenging thing about being part of a show like this?

All the challenges are exciting ones – the heightened risk, the capacity for technology to fail, the attempt to get a balance between continuing to experiment with form and nailing down a concrete show. Then there are the more standard improv challenges, like gelling as a troupe and ensuring that if we took all the tech away, we’d still have a decent show! I’m excited to see that all developing, and grateful for getting to work with amazing people, including some of my very closest friends who have joined the cast – we find that the more trust and listening there is on stage in this form, the better!

What do you think the future of technology and improv is?

I’m not massively technical (apart from a fondness for operating a lighting board!) so I don’t really know, but I definitely know someone who will (hi, Piotr!). Just when we think that we’ve reached peak technical experimentation, Piotr or indeed Boyd will bring another fantastic idea or development in to the mix, and I am VERY much here for that!

And as for the future of improv…’s human.

I hope.

Don’t tell A.L.E.X, though.

More next week….


Improbotics are headlining our next Phoenix Remix Live! on March the 10th! To reserve tickets then click the image below. 

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