“We have to be weird and random and non-linear:” Joe Ward Munrow on Creativity, AI, and the Revolutionary Potential of Community

Posted on: 30 April 2024 by Kaya Purchase in Posts

Munrow’s latest play centres around the mythological leader of the Luddite revolution, but its themes are painfully relevant to our digital age

Fifteen years of writing plays haven’t quite demystified the spell of a good story for Joe Ward Munrow. Whilst his impressive repertoire is a testament to his understanding of the mechanics of good drama, he remains enchanted by that elusive element that transcends technique and makes the arts so irresistible. “It’s magic!” he professes, picking up a copy of Rosa Guy’s The Friends to illustrate his point. “This writer is dead and they’re writing about Caribbean girls in Harlem. But at the same time, it’s speaking so deeply to my feelings and my relationship to class, and you think, that’s mad, it’s magic.” It’s this sense of wonder that keeps Joe’s imagination so fertile, an imagination that has enabled him to conjure up such an original premise for his latest work, The Legend of Ned Ludd.

Although the play’s themes often preoccupy contemporary playwrights - capitalism, globalisation, class, technology – Munrow addresses them in a unique way. There are twenty-one scenes altogether, but each night, a machine randomly selects between certain scenes. For each performance, both the audience and actors have no idea which scenes will be chosen and there are 256 potential versions. “You could see [the play] on Tuesday and someone else will go and see it on Wednesday and there might be bits where you’re on the same page and there might be bits where you’re not,” says Joe. He hopes this will add an element of excitement and spontaneity, including the potential for error. “It’s so tricksy that it could go wrong [which] I think will excite an audience because it’s not pre-recorded, almost like free will.” But it’s more than just a gimmick. The mechanised format reflects the wider theme of how digital technology alters our understanding of narrative. “It must be so difficult for children nowadays to form a unifying narrative because if they sit in front of YouTube, they’re all in their own algorithms - whatever medium a narrative is going through, not everyone is going to receive it.”

Ned Ludd forces the audience to escape their echo chambers and listen to perspectives that they may prefer to ignore. It’s a global play set in a range of different countries and time periods, including 2015 China, 1990s Ecuador, 1840s France and contemporary Libya. Because of its international scope, the realities shared are not the most comfortable. In Ecuador, a balloon-seller admits he will never sell enough to make a decent wage. In China, two factory workers discuss the pointlessness of the novelty plastic crap they spend hours a day making to be shipped to the UK. Meanwhile, just as disposable, are the lungs of a Detroit mechanic, ravaged by years spent in a polluted factory. Tying these eclectic vignettes together is a monologue that confronts the audience: ‘You probably don’t want to think about all the ways that work is worked,’ before listing the multitude of ways that human pain is treated as a necessary by-product of capitalist production: sweatshops, slavery, ‘bent backs/ that can’t snap back.' For a play occupied with technology, the corporeal impacts of labour and trade are strikingly prevalent.

But isn’t this exactly the pain that Marx believed modern technology would free us from? “It seems like, if anything, the opposite has happened. We’ve got all this technology, but people seem to have to work harder to make ends meet. It doesn’t feel like technology is freeing us to live a more leisurely life, in some ways it feels like it’s making us fight for the scraps that are left over. A lot of people are terrified of AI.”

Joe included? “It seems quite existential. Some of these AI poems and scripts seem quite plausible, and that’s another group of people you’re just going to take out of the job market. It’s not necessarily about me. It’s more that it makes me think, well what’s the point of life if machines can do everything?”

This evokes a scene in the play where a painter-and-decorator shows his apprentice the difference between a wall painted by a professional and by an amateur. He wants to teach him ‘an appreciation of the difference between just doing the job and having a craft.’ “If you have a craft,” Joe explains, “you can see things that other people can’t and that in itself is a source of reward. It’s not just knowing stuff, it’s almost bodily or subconscious to have an awareness of what works and what doesn’t. It takes time and practice, it takes failure.” I like the way Joe describes human expertise as a sort of metaphysical intuition, as though learning a craft grants you magic powers. “You get into the arts because in some way you get hooked on the magic of it, the mystery of it and the scary thing is that AI is the opposite of that. It’s very much input, output, it’s like ‘okay, you want to watch a film that will make you laugh or cry, OK I can do that.’ No, I want to watch something where I don’t quite know what’s happening here.”

Joe’s hunger for surprise has led him to create something which defies expectations. How can the audience predict what will happen if the traditional formula for a play is abandoned in favour of random selection? By mirroring the chaos of real life, this play illuminates the futility of attempting to control or categorise life into easy manageable solutions and reminds us that unlike our social media feeds, real life is not designed to give us more of what we like. We have no control. This is of course, terrifying but it is also liberating, it’s potential for nuance and complexity a tonic for the categorical tribalism of social media. “I think the scary thing about social media is […] you’ll get on Twitter and say, for example, I am a playwright, who does funny one-liners, and these are my politics, and you end up becoming fossilised in one state that doesn’t allow change. It’s capitalisation of the self. Capitalism only works if it is uniform. The interesting thing about Ned Ludd is it won’t necessarily do what you expect. It might do, but next time it might not, because it's not a uniform product.”

So, is this how we prevent AI from engulfing the arts? By being as non-conformist and experimental as possible? “Yeah, I think we have to be weird and random and non-linear. It’s worth thinking about Cubism. When photographs came out everyone went “Shit!” but then they thought, capturing an image perfectly, we can’t do that, so we need to start doing stuff a bit offkey. This play is like that, it’s breaking off narratives, it’s not operating in a linear way, it’s something that perhaps an algorithm hasn’t seen before. So, maybe we have to do stuff that machines can’t do. I don’t know if that’s possible but maybe it’s something to aim for.”

There are, for the sake of coherency, some scenes which will be consistently shown every night, unaffected by the selecting device. All of these scenes are about the Luddite revolution of 1811 when Nottinghamshire textile workers, pushed to the brink by the threat of losing their jobs, smashed up the looms designed to replace them. These ancestors of technological scepticism form the roots of the play’s many disparate branches. The play’s core then, is revolution. Does Joe think the future of revolution could lie in theatre?

He seems sceptical. “I don’t know how we get out of theatre in this country being tied to class. Considering that theatre is just stories and stories are for everyone, we’ve got a mad divide. My hope as a playwright is that maybe there will be a new surge of interest in the arts because at some point I think we’ll become sick of our screens. Or they’ll become the norm and maybe live theatre, live music, and live art will become counterculture in a way that it hasn’t been for years. Maybe this thing of just sitting next to other people and experiencing something at the same time will be novel. The nice thing about the theatre is that there’s a community of people who are all there at the same time and in some ways, that would be the answer to some of our problems, just paying less attention to social media and global corporations and just talking to each other. That would be revolutionary.”

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