Between The Lines: The Chinese Room

Pictured: Michael West. Photo by Daniel Rader

BETWEEN THE LINES – THE CHINESE ROOM: A weekly look at the creative process through a literary lens.

Director James Macdonald, writer Michael West, and actor Carson Elrod met with WTF Literary Assistant Sam French to talk about The Chinese Room, the theme of robots in the theatre, and what makes humans human.


[Sam French] Michael, there is such an expansive range of ideas and themes and technologies at work in your play.  It all had to start somewhere. So I’m curious, what was the first spark?

[Michael West] I was asked to write a play attached to a science theme. The idea was it could be anything but it had to explore something to do with science, a fascinating and vast subject. There aren’t many science plays that are of interest to me, so that was a problem, and I thought, what about science fiction? I couldn’t think of any science fiction plays. I thought: what is it about science fiction that lends itself so perfectly to cinema, for example, but not to theatre? Does this have to do with green screen? A physical manifestation of the future can be done digitally, so cinema is good for that.  But that’s slightly harder with theatre. Theatre is really about the past, an art of memory, and about hauntings. Theatre is really good at the “green screen of the mind.” Theatre enables people to think things are happening. That was the beginning of the idea: could we do a low-tech, sci-fi play that is somehow set in the future, but is actually backwards-facing, and about the past and memory? That question led me to the idea of artificial intelligence.

[SF] At the time, how much did you know about robots and artificial intelligence?

[MW] I didn’t know anything about robots, but they can be anything! The great thing about writing robots is that you’re really writing about humans. Robots are the projection of us. They are fantasy versions of who we think we are, and projections of our anxieties about identity and autonomy. It would be very hard to do complicated, prosthetic machines on stage, but, I thought: what if robots were good enough to look like humans? That was the template, like with Pygmalion or with Frankenstein.

[SF] James, when did you first come on board?

[James Macdonald] We did a workshop of the play, exploring it with a group of actors, discussing it, and finally reading it to an audience.

[SF] What stood out to you at the end of the reading?

[JM]  I thought, “This play works. Let’s put it on.”

[SF] In doing some research, I learned that the word “robot” actually comes from a 1920 Czech play called, “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” There is an historic and interesting legacy between robots and the theatre!

Pictured: Literary Assistant Sam French (L) speaking to director James Macdonald (R). Photo by Daniel Rader.

[MW] The funny thing is that another word for robot is “actor.” Actors and robots can change voices and become different people! Actors and robots retell memories and fantasies!

[SF] Carson, let’s talk about your character, Daniel. In a profile in The New York Times you said something beautiful.  You said that that when you create a role you “dance off in your own imagination factory.”

[Carson Elrod] The “imagination factory” is actually two locations. There’s home, where I’m walking around in circles, learning lines, and building the psychological architecture for why these characters do what they do. And the other location is the rehearsal room, where I get to be present with my fellow artists. That’s when all of the homework supports live, real-time, playful human interaction. Working on this play, I’m a human being imagining what a robot, who has no imagination, might do at any moment. Actors are a part of one of the oldest narrative traditions– showing people what it means to be human. In a play about robots, we have a rare opportunity to punctuate what it is that makes us special by showing us what we’re not.

[MW] One of the key themes in the play is the relationship between memory and forgetting, and the ways in which the technology of memory is analogous to what human memory actually is. But, they don’t quite work the same way. Human memory is about what is erased and forgotten. I found that very interesting to think about, again, back to the idea of what makes us, us. Our memories are the most precious things. We see a loved one suffering with dementia and we could say “oh, they’re losing their mind,” but what we really mean is “they’re losing their sense of self. They’re losing the things – the memories — that make them, them.”

[JM] We all seem to now have this easy belief: the brain is like a computer. We all use that analogy all the time, and it is wrong.

[MW] We always use current technology to describe the brain. For a time, people described the human brain in terms of the steam engine.

[JM] There was a time when people used to say “the brain is like an abacus.”

[MW] We use whatever we can to explain the universe and its vastness, as well as the smallest spaces of the mind.

[SF] It’s thrilling to have you all here in Williamstown – I know Carson, you were last here in 2008 to do a production of David Ives’ A Flea In Her Ear, directed by John Rando. Can you talk a bit about your experience here, then and now?

[CE] I have a lot of fantastic memories. There are a lot of people I met that summer who I still consider to be among my best friends. It’s fun to be here. The Festival is a really beautiful opportunity for artists to be unplugged, from New York City, from themselves and to spend some time in the country. In short, it’s nice to be back!

[SF] Michael and James, this is your first time at the festival. First impressions?

[JM] It’s a gorgeous place!

[MW] We get thunderstorms and we get the sun. It is miles away from anywhere I’ve been. My overwhelming sense is that it’s an incredibly insane and incredible thing to do, to create a festival out here.  But, I am thrilled to take part.