To Kill A Machine, Catrin Fflur Huws

April 20, 2015 by

It all begins in 1950. Alan Turing wrote an article titled Computing Machinery and Intelligence, which was published in a journal called Mind (Turing, A.M. (1950). Computing machinery and intelligence. Mind, 59, 433-460.). In this article, In order to decide whether machines can think, Alan Turing describes a hypothetical experiment called the imitation game:

“It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart front the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman.”

Sixty one years later, in the autumn of 2011, I visited Bletchley Park, a museum housed in the former Government Code and Cipher School, where Alan Turing worked from 1939-1943. The walls of the museum outline Alan Turing’s story, including the fact that in 1952 he was convicted of gross indecency and given injections of oestrogen as an alternative to imprisonment.

If sexual attraction or love is one’s Interrogator can it determine whether the object of one’s affections is a man or a woman? If one’s Interrogator is a hormone specialist, can it determine whether a man who has been given female hormones is a man or a woman? If the purpose of those hormones is to eradicate ‘incorrect’ emotions, is a person then a man or a machine?

Those questions lay dormant for two months, until my fellow playwrights on Sherman Cymru’s Spread the Word project laid down a gauntlet for me. This was the play, they knew, that I really, really wanted to write.

There were many points where it nearly didn’t happen. I felt sure by the end of December that my resolve would go. I forced myself through a new year’s resolution and a constant reminder from Bloody-Minded Catrin to Fatalistic Catrin that I would be a disappointment to myself and others if I didn’t submit something to the Spread the Word tutors by the deadline. And somehow I did. Somehow. Don’t ask me how. I’d love to be able to find that degree of resolve more frequently.

There were some difficult scenes. Writing someone else’s love scene is very voyeuristic – especially when the people involved really existed. I was very embarrassed. I ended up writing that scene in a café, on the basis that if people are going to get it on in public, they have to expect that they’ll be seen.

I was stunned when Sian Summers and Sarah Woods chose my piece to be performed as a script in hand reading at Aberystwyth Arts Centre in Spring 2012, directed by Gilly Adams. Delighted I think, (eventually) but mainly stunned. That initial rehearsal process got rid of a lot of dead wood – there were scenes in there then that I cringe at now.

And that’s where it was supposed to end. It seemed like such a waste – especially as 2012 was the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth, and suddenly he was everywhere, and I wanted to shout “but I’ve written a play about him, I’ve written a play about him.”

Fortunately I shouted at the right person. Sandra Bendelow’s newly formed Scriptography Productions was looking for a project, and To Kill a Machine (or TKAM as it is affectionately known) was taken on.

My vision for it was modest – some would say short-sighted. I dreamt of one night only in the function room of a pub, with amateur actor friends as performers. Sandra saw what it could be, and so the pilot project was developed within the framework of Aberystwyth Arts  Centre’s Open Platform Scheme. Computer scientists at Aberystwyth University became interested, and an extract was performed at the Mid Wales Branch of the British Computing Society’s Alan Turing Centenary celebrations.

Once Angharad Lee and the original performance cast were on board, the play really developed its wings. Angharad brought out the best of the play, transforming it from a script into a very visual and dynamic piece of theatre. The tree of knowledge, with Alan’s life hanging from it and the way she put the words of a play into a context where those words would be spoken made the script into a play.

A play develops a lot in the rigorous testing process that it undergoes with a group of actors. Despite the short time frame for the rehearsals, the actors put in a whole array of nuances that had been buried so deeply in the script that even I was unaware of them. Gwydion Rhys and Gareth John Bale brought out the contrast and balance in Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman’s working relationship – Alan’s complexity and Gordon’s clarity. Ceri Owain Murphy and Stephen Marzella brought out the prurience of society’s interest in a person’s sexuality, while the interaction between Gwydion and Thomas Middler portrayed the tenderness and confusion of adolescent friendship.

The three pilot performances, in Aberystwyth, Cardiff and Swansea were nothing less than magical. Terrifying. Magical. Terrifying. Magical. Again, it might have ended there, but the success of the performances, and the overwhelming support – from theatre goers, computer scientists, mathematicians, friends, strangers led Angharad, Sandra, Gwydion, Ceri, Gareth, Stephen, Thomas and me unanimously to the same conclusion: if we did that in such a short time and one such a minute budget, just think what it could be as a full production! It’s taken two years of making small steps forward, but now, with two grants from Arts Council Wales, as well as the amazing support from people all over the world who donated to the Kickstarter Campaign, TKAM is ready to go out into the world. We’ve got a new cast in Rick Yale and Francois Pandolfo, and two familiar faces, as Gwydion Rhys is Alan Turing once more, and Robert Harper who played The Interrogator in the original reading return. We’re on tour, and we’re going to Edinburgh. Alan Turing, we hope it does you justice!

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