The last few weeks we have been talking about different areas of Improbotics – from the creation to actually being one of the improvisers who perform in the shows. There are many teams around the world that perform under this name, one in Canada, one in Sweden and the latest edition being the brand new team set up in Antwerp, Belgium. I caught up with Ben Verhoeven to talk all about performing in English and Flemmish as well as how their debut show went earlier this month!
Hello Ben tell us a little bit about yourself?
So, I’m a human named Ben Verhoeven and I am from Antwerp, Belgium. I have been interested in both theatre/language and science for a long time. But for a long time it felt like I had to choose between them.
How did you get into improv and the world of AI?
I made my start in improvisational theater about 10 years ago, taking courses from the Belgian Improvisation League which is the oldest improv troupe in Flanders. Before improv, I had been doing theatre and musical since I was 8. It was my theatre teacher that introduced me to improv as she was an improviser herself. Over the past years I co-founded my own troupe Swaajp in Antwerp with an associated School of Improv as well, became co-director of Werewolves – the Improv Show that has performed at several festivals, joined improv musical group Commotie, started a trio called Prism, won the Flemish longform competition Kemphanen twice, taught improv in several countries in Europe and as far as New Zealand and India, and became an improv teacher at the Mechelen arts academy.
AI only came on my mind during my master studies. I did a bachelor degree in English and Theatre Studies at the University of Antwerp and wanted something more scientific after that so I did a master in computational psycholinguistics. I got really interested in language technology and was invited to do a PhD in computational linguistics, which happens to be super related to artificial intelligence as part of our aim is to make computers understand language.
After my PhD, in October 2018 I became a freelance science communicator, improviser and trainer in my own company ERLNMYR (cfr. the erlenmeyer flask in chemistry).
Tell us about the rest of the team involved in the show?
The Flemish cast and creatives of Improbotics are a happy bunch of super talented people.
For the cast, I approached other freelance improvisers to join me in this project. These are all people that I admire for their wonderful improvisation skills. I love seeing them on stage and now I really enjoy playing together with them. I’m also proud to present a gender equal cast, it consists of: Kelly Agathos, Alain Rinckhout, Ann Claes, Rishi Panchasara, Charlotte De Metsenaere, Ben Hartwig, Magali Minet, Gilles Delvaulx, Jona Den Aantrekker, and myself.
But I also want to mention the other creatives of the show, because I could really count on amazing work and supp ort of my scenographer Robin Decoster, costume designer Lotte Cools, script writer and dramaturg Imre Spoor, technology savants Thomas Winters (chatbot) and Sebastiaan Jansen (robot), and technician Jesse Steurs.
I feel this is also the right place to acknowledge the financial support of the department of Science and Innovation of the Flemish government.
You have joined the family of Improbotics how did that happen?
I attended the Impro Amsterdam festival in January 2019 where Improbotics London and Stockholm performed together as a late night show and loved it! It totally connected to my background in language technology. I also took Piotr and Jenny’s workshop about playing with the AI at the festival and was very intrigued. The next day I sat down with them to discuss what would be possible for a collaboration and the idea for Improbotics Flanders was born.
You are located in Belgium – is your show performed in English or Flemish?
Both actually! We anticipate most of our shows to be in Dutch, however we will offer it in English as well, in particular for companies but also for schools’ cross-curricular objectives, i.e. combining different school subjects – in this case language, technology and theatre.
How have the rehearsals been going? How do you prepare for a show?
We started rehearsals in September 2019 with a weekend workshop by Piotr Mirowski and Kory Mathewson, the originators of Human Machine and Improbotics. We’ve rehearsed sporadically ever since, mostly training on the specifics of performing with the AI chatbot. All three roles – cyborg, improviser and operator – have their own specific difficulties that need to be practiced. The last rehearsals before the premiere also focused on stage and microphone hygiene, the scripted interaction between host and cyborg, and all the tech cues.
What are the plans for the rest of 2020 for the show?
The first bookings have been coming in and we received a lot of media attention for the premiere, so I expect more to come. Without being specific (the bookings are not finalised yet), there are some educational organisations, a science festival and a technology festival interested as well as a few schools.
What are your favourite things about performing as Improbotics?
I really enjoy putting all of my improv skills to work in order to make improvising with the chatbot/robot work better: really yes-anding whatever the chatbot says and allowing the story to take those twists and turns that the chatbot initiates (“there are no mistakes”), also as a cyborg being controlled by the chatbot to use all acting skills including object work, emotional choices including sounds, allowing silences to speak for themselves. On top of that, I love that we have this professional setup with a beautiful scenography and costume design and that I get to perform with incredibly talented improvisers.
What is the most challenging?
Not to get into your head. There’s a lot of things to think about but we should continue being playful and keep our minds open. Especially for me as the producer, I need to leave those thoughts behind me when improvising.
What is the future of improv and technology ?
Further integration and exploration! I’m looking forward to see what we and other teams can still come up with.
If people want to follow the Belgium improbotics on social media where can they find you