Director Hersh Ellis tells us about AI play Disruption running at Park Theatre
Disruption is the story of Nick, an ultra successful tech entrepreneur, who reemerges in his old school friends lives, asking them to invest in his new company, which is developing an AI algorithm that can use our data to know what will make us truly happy. However, Nick’s friends aren’t only his potential investors, but his unknowing Guinea pigs. It’s a play that asks who knows us best: ourselves, the people closest to us, or the trail of data we leave in our wakes.
When did you get involved with the project?
I was introduced to Andrew in 2019 by our producer when he asked me to direct the first reading of a very early draft of the piece. Not only was it a substantially different play back then, but 2019 was a substantially different era. In the first R&D so much time was spent explaining the potential of AI to the company, many of whom had a total disbelief that machine learning based algorithms could ever develop anything resembling intuition. As years have passed, it’s been eerie to watch the conversation catch up to the point that no one seems to doubt the possibility of an algorithm like the one explored in the play.
What sort of research did you do into AI?
Somewhat serendipitously, when I was first approached about the piece, I’d just finished reading Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus”, which I recommended to Andrew, and Harari’s theory‘s of the future of algorithms and the harnessing of data hugely inspired the evolution of the AI in the play. I think Harari is one of the most important thinkers we have on the subject and I find myself regularly going back to all three of his books for this piece.
In general I’m a pretty intense non-fiction reader, so I set myself an overly ambitious reading list that I got through like half of it at best. The book I’ve been recommending to anyone looking for a basic overview is “Surviving AI” by Calum Chance.
What’s been interesting, is that in the last few months the world has been so inundated by new writing on AI, I’ve actually found it very difficult to keep up because I’ve been so busy with mounting the production.
How do you feel about the future of AI, especially with regards to the arts?
I like to think of myself as someone who can hold contrasting ideas in my head at the same time, so one day I’ll read something about an AI that can diagnose cancers years before human doctors and I’m really optimistic, then I read about the potential for AI powered robot armies and I want to go hide in a cave.
The arts are an interesting one. I think we’re a ways away from an AI being able to write anything that even resembles originality, but I don’t doubt that it’s coming. It probably won’t happen while the most advanced models for generative AI are still large language prediction models like ChatGBT that are inherently derivative, so creatives with unique voices can sleep well for the time being.
I’m really fascinated that automation is threatening creative careers and white collar work (I think ChatGPT passed the bar in California?) for the first time in the way that automation has threatened jobs that have been considered working class occupations for centuries now. As scary as it is, there’s something that’s weirdly equalizing about it.
How are rehearsals going?
Rehearsals are going great! We are in tech at the moment, so my brain is very much thinking about the play in the most logistical sense.
We’re, hopefully, creating a visually epic production, so I think everyone’s just excited to watch what we’ve been building for weeks come together on such a grand scale, even though the days are long and intense.
It’s a play about the world of tech, so we set out to make something that’s almost obnoxiously chic, so for a room full of essentially former awkward theater kids, to be part of something that’s such a vibe is really thrilling.
Whats next for you?
Oh god, really!? I’m in tech. I haven’t even thought about what I’m eating for lunch.
But other than that, there’s lots of hope and planning for “Disruption” to have a future life. We’re all hoping it’s well received so those plans can start in motion!
I’m also developing my first feature film as writer/ director. I probably shouldn’t say much more than that it’s about PTSD amongst drone pilots for the US Air Force. I’m working with our “Disruption” producers on it. Our attention will move to that once we’ve recovered from this behemoth.
There’s a few theatre projects in the works as well. I’m most excited about a musical about the life of Debbie Friedman, the Joni Mitchell of Jewish folk-rock. As someone who grew up in the progressive Jewish movement, it’s exciting to explore my own heritage in a piece of theatre.
Disruption runs at Park Theatre 7 July – 5 August 2023 more info and tickets here