What do robots and hipsters have in common? If you’re playwright Ira Cooper, they are the inspirations for his play Artisanal Intelligence which gets a remount at the Havana Theatre this month.
“Artisanal Intelligence is my tribute to both something that is seen as a stereotype as well as something that is part of my identity, which is the hipster,” says Cooper by phone.
But while Cooper says that his play may lampoon the hipster subculture, the intention is not to make fun of it. “Rather than being cruel about it or creating a caricature, the audience is in on the joke as a co-conspirator as opposed to it being about us versus them,” he says.
While the hipster may be the jumping-off point for his play, Cooper also explores the growing science around artificial intelligence (AI) and our fears as to what that might mean in the future.
“We have this idea that is perpetuated by very smart people that technology will someday destroy us all,” he says. “But what if a robot achieves sentience and just wants to do their own thing, get a job and start their own lives and have a family?”
In Artisanal Intelligence, Cooper blends the hipster and AI through Barry, a next-generation robot sold as a customer service representative. As the ideal hipster, Barry knows a lot about beer, coffee, records and has even built his bicycle from scratch. “Without wanting to give away too much, as Barry gains more knowledge, he isn’t so much interested in those things anymore,” explains Cooper.
The idea of exploring AI comes from Cooper’s own experiences and what he saw while spending time working as a teacher overseas.
“Like many of us, I worked in customer service, and I’m noticing the job market shrinking with things like self-checkout machines,” he says. “And in China, there are a lot more machines doing people’s work. And this worried me a bit.”
Rather than looking at AI and robots as cool new gadgets, Cooper sees them as a means to an end. With AI taking over the jobs of real people, he worries how it will ultimately affect the job market.
“With large corporations okay with replacing real people with robots, how will it affect those who are struggling just to get a low paying customer service position?” he says.
But while Artisanal Intelligence may deal with serious issues, it is balanced by humour and a desire to make theatre more approachable. It is also somewhat of a departure from Cooper’s previous plays.
“I had been writing shows that were usually very convoluted, very heady shows with a lot of dialogue, and I wanted to create a show that was accessible for theatregoers and non-theatre goers,” he says.
Cooper believes that during these challenging times we are currently facing, there is room for goofiness and silliness. “I want to give people that catharsis, that freedom to be silly and to smile and laugh,” he says.
But Cooper says he has no expectations as to what someone will walk away thinking about after seeing Artisanal Intelligence.
“I’ve seen audiences feel bad for Barry, or questions AI or simply walk away thinking it was a funny show,” he says. “Usually, my shows engage people in ways where I’m pushing people to make a change or do something actionable, but in this show, I’m more interested in people having fun and enjoying themselves.”
Also helping to make the show more accessible comes with the show’s entire run as relaxed performances. “The lights never fully dim, and people are told if they feel they need to stretch or need to whisper something, or leave the theatre and come back, that’s totally okay,” says Cooper. “We just want to make it accessible to everyone.”
Cooper also wants audiences to take a chance on small independent theatre. “Because it’s in those chances, in those moments of creative innovation and magic, where you’ll find something really, really, really special.”
Artisanal Intelligence plays the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Dr, Vancouver) January 14-18. Visit spectheatre.com for tickets and information.