Can computers write hit musicals? At this London theater, we'll soon find out

'Beyond the Fence' promises to be the world's first (mostly) machine-generated musical show

Computers are increasingly pushing the bounds that have long separated them from humans, but so far their theatrical capabilities have remained largely untested. That may soon change, however, thanks to a new production slated to debut early next year at London's Arts Theatre.

"Beyond the Fence" is not only "a powerful new musical about hope, defiance, unity and love," in its creators' words, but also an experimental production that was born as a collaboration among humans and computers.

The goal is "to see what’s possible," said Cat Gale, producer and director with Wingspan Productions, which designed and coordinated the experiment. "As it’s never been done before, we didn’t know what to expect, and in terms of an audience response to the show itself, we won’t until it opens."

Commissioned by the UK's Sky Arts TV channel, whose forthcoming "Computer Says Show" series will chronicle the experiment, Beyond the Fence was initially designed based on a study of the factors shared in common by hit musicals. Conducted by researchers from the Machine Learning Group at Cambridge University, the study included high-level production and narrative factors, emotional structure, backdrop and "flow" along with more fine-grained thematic elements.

Composer Benjamin Till, writer and actor Nathan Taylor and director Luke Sheppard are all working on the production, but they're factoring in numerous other machine-generated elements as well.

For instance, the University of London's What-If Machine project generated several potential central premises for the story. "What if a wounded soldier had to learn how to understand a child in order to find true love?" was the one ultimately selected.

Plot structure was generated computationally as well thanks to the efforts of Pablo Gervás, an associate professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, who used his PropperWryter storytelling software to build narrative.

Music comes from computer music researcher and composer Nick Collins of Durham University, whose computer composition system -- dubbed Android Lloyd Webber -- is based on a machine listening analysis of musical theater music. Additional computer music material will be generated using a system called FlowComposer.

Most of the software tools used required repurposing for musical theater, Gale said via email. A musical premise generator had to be added to the What-If Machine, for instance. PropperWryter was developed further to generate musical theater plot structures.

"All the developments were informed by new analysis of musical theater works," she explained.

Put it all together, and you get what its creators call the first show in the world conceived and substantially crafted by computer.

Set in September 1982, Beyond the Fence tells the story of a mother and daughter living together at the Greenham Common peace camp that was established in 1981 in Berkshire, England, to protest nuclear weapons. The show is scheduled to run from Feb. 22 through March 5, 2016.

"Both the musical and the documentaries should stimulate discussion around ideas of computer and human creativity, our relationship with technology, and our ideas about what makes a successful work of art," Gale said. "All exciting ideas, and hopefully a great opportunity to entertain, educate and inspire people into finding out more."

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