Voice Recognition Software and an artistic epiphany

Last night I discovered that my OS has built-in voice recognition capability. I tested it briefly with the laptop’s limited onboard mike and found it worked, but was hard to use. I decided to go buy an actual microphone headset and put it to real use.

I bought a basic $20 model and was delighted to find that it worked much more easily with the laptop’s VR system. There are still clunky obstacles to negotiate (I need to learn the commands and the VR system needs to get used to my voice, which it has the capability to learn), but now I can use a headset to dictate my thoughts onto a word processor in lieu of typing as well as navigate my system to some extent.

I also realize that voice recognition software work can be a form of training. We tend to separate how we create in writing from how we create on our feet. Part of that is that writing is done mentally and transcribed through typing, while we use different faculties to speak. This has been my biggest challenge in creating material. I write material that feels clear and easy from a writing point of view, but is very clunky and doesn’t quite work when spoken aloud. This is a challenge I have faced even when developing plays and monologues. As a reader, you develop one idea. And then you try to physicalize and verbalize it and what you get is dramatically different from how you previously envisioned it.

This leads to an epiphany: We separate the process of assembling material from how we produce performance. We could actually streamline the two processes completely together if we think outside the box.

As a baseball blogger named DrDetecto once said, “The X’s and O’s always move differently once the ball is snapped.” This means a football team draws up a play that appears on paper to be effective. They run it in practice and discover the players can’t run or block exactly the way the play is designed. A live defense running its strategy, with players following their instincts, produces variables the play is not designed to address.

Likewise, a polished written piece becomes something much different once on its feet. The current process of playwrighting, however, is a separate and distinct activity to producing a play. The stage play is written and honed by the writer first before it’s brought to life at full speed in rehearsal and performance (often by completely separate cast of performers and directors). It may receive a reading while in progress, and may receive a handful of edits during production if the playwright is involved. But the playwrighting process is otherwise a separate one: This fragments the creative process of making theatre.

To present a piece as written, I can practice it until I speak it textually and contextually verbatim. But I must shut a part of myself off creatively in order to achieve that objective. I have to eschew impulse and instinct to instead honor the intent of the text. I could work from instinct and impulse, get the contextual gist of the text and wing it, paraphrasing as needed as I follow my instinct and impulse. The end result may be more true to life, but may also lose a lot of the written context as I eschew memory of the text as written for following divergent nuance.

What happens if we combined the act of playwrighting and production? Various Seattle groups have tried this to a limited extent, usually in a more abstract fashion.  But I have seen some more integrative and narratively committed examples: Much of the Satori Group’s work is developed in a more integrative fashion, with playwrighting being a product of ensemble generated work. Market Theater residents Unexpected Productions produced a noir themed version of the Wizard of Oz, Scarecrow For Hire, back in 2010: Playwright Tony Beeman used the scenic improvisation of his cast to develop the final script. And Jenna Bean Veatch’s Sideshow was the product of a year of improvisation and development by her core cast.

I’m not arguing this type of work is perfect and superior. Satori’s had their share of whiffs, Scarecrow had its qualities and drawbacks, as did Sideshow. But the process and its risks led to work we would have never seen had it been conventionally composed in the maker’s own privacy and separately produced later. And, most of all, they successfully challenged the notion of a fundamental or essential process for producing theatre by producing theatre in a completely different way.

On its surface, voice recognition software is a different way to write. But a closer look shows it offers way more possibilities than a different medium for writing. It offers a chance to bridge the gap between writing and performing. In turn, it’s a metaphor for the possibilities that exist in performance art. Can artists find bridges of their own, or are they content to stay on their islands?

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