By Aleksandra Sidorova
SUNY Plattsburgh’s theatre department hosted a 24-Hour Play Festival Oct. 21, which required participants to write and produce an original play in the specified time limit. One of the four plays, “Night Shift,” featured writing generated by the text-based artificial intelligence software ChatGPT.
The host of the festival, Associate Professor of Theatre Shawna Mefferd Kelty, declined an interview, as did Kaleb Pecoraro, the student who used ChatGPT.
“We needed a solution to involve as many students as possible,” Pecoraro wrote in an email. “24-hour play festivals are great places to experiment and that’s what we did.”
At these kinds of festivals, students have to work in groups to produce a play, from writing to directing and acting, within the given time limit based on a prompt. Hours in, one of the four writers dropped out of the festival. Pecoraro explained in his email that with no backup playwright, the organizers asked him to step in as the assistant production manager and generate a script with AI.
“At no time did we hide the fact that this was written by AI,” Pecoraro wrote.
Nicholas Alkobi, another group’s writer, said other festival participants were neutral on the decision.
“It didn’t really bother us. We just wanted to see how it went,” Alkobi said.
Alkobi said “Night Shift” was “surprisingly funny.”
“I don’t know if I like it, though,” Alkobi said.
Aivarey Sala, a third-year theatre student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has participated in several 24-hour play festivals hosted by their campus’ student-led AMPLIFY Initiative, and has seen students drop out. Sala has acted, directed and written, and said writing was the most difficult task to accomplish in the “time crunch.”
“It’s hard,” Sala said. “We’ve had students drop out in the past last-minute, and I can’t even complain. I get it, it’s a lot.”
Generative AI has been a point of discussion both on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus and the writing industry as a whole. Hollywood screenwriters were on strike for 148 days this year, partly due to concerns of AI taking their jobs. There are different ideas about what the writing process should be like.
“I’m torn, like everybody else,” said Assistant Professor Lauren Zito, who teaches video production at SUNY Plattsburgh. “I see [AI’s] usefulness, but I also see where it just becomes content and we have no authenticity, and where the end result is way more important than the process. And who knows if the end result is any good?”
Typically, Sala said, the writers participating in AMPLIFY’s “plays in a day” festivals gather for a sleepover and collaborate, reviewing each other’s work as they go.
Alkobi said he worked on his own script until 2 a.m. after receiving his prompt at 6 p.m. the previous evening. Even then, Alkobi’s work didn’t end there. He worked together with his group’s director and actors up until the performance.
“I refuse to use [ChatGPT], personally, because I have a bunch of ideas for different films and shows and books written down, and I want that to come from pure emotion,” Alkobi said. “You can ask for help, obviously, but don’t use it to do your work for you.”
Zito said that part of the scriptwriting process is constant reworking, which ChatGPT eliminates.
“A really good script starts one way — even under 24 hours — and it gets evolved and it changes with different points of view and different revisions, and then the actors get it and they treat it a little differently, and it becomes something new. So you have that wonderful evolution,” Zito said. “There is no evolution here, it’s just being sort of spit out.”
Although AI can help skip some steps within the writing process, Alkobi said the director and actors still add personal flair to the script when they work with it, which gets reflected in the performance.
“Even though it was written by ChatGPT, the actors and the director could have gone in another direction,” Alkobi said. “It’s different from an essay because that’s not the final product. The final product is what you show to everybody, and even then, sometimes, that’s not final, because movies always have director’s cuts and all that.”
Zito noted that ChatGPT does not create anything new and instead repurposes work already out in the world. Sala said AI scripts can be funny, but for the reason that they can’t quite replicate what a human can produce.
“There’s just something so different and unique about a human’s raw work,” Sala said.
How 24-hour play festival organizers treat ChatGPT also depends on the individual festival’s purpose and goals.
There is no room for AI in AMPLIFY’s plays because its use contradicts the initiative’s mission statement of amplifying underrepresented voices in theatre. Sometimes, writers drop or submit drafts late, but the student organizers have always found a way around it, usually by having a backup writer step in or reorganizing the groups.
Daniel Spector, associate arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, said that only first-year theatre students participate in NYU’s 24-hour play festivals, held within the first week of school. It is about 300 students’ only chance to be part of a production in their first year of college. When Spector and his colleagues organize the festival, they put student involvement and collaboration at the forefront.
“My goal is to make sure the students do something. So if that means make a script by ChatGPT, that’s what we’re doing to get them on stage. It’s an educational institution. No one’s getting paid, no one’s paying royalties, and if that solves this problem of students otherwise not being able to participate, I say, great,” Spector said. “Also, we just don’t know enough about this technology yet. That’s why universities and Hollywood, among others, of course, are scrambling to figure out, what does this mean in the first place? What does it do? Shouldn’t the university be a place where we experiment with it and ask those questions, even if it’s to eventually conclude we never want this in our program ever again?”
However, if Spector were presenting a play with an AI-generated script, he said he would take a moment to announce the fact to the audience before the performance.
“As long as you announce that to the audience and make it part of the fun, which would probably be for most, if not all the people in the audience, the first time they’ve heard a play generated by ChatGPT,” Spector said. “Part of the fun for the audience is hearing that for the first time and coming to their own conclusions or at least formulating their own questions about what does this mean to have a work of art generated by AI.”
The conversation surrounding the use of AI is ongoing. Alkobi, Pecoraro, Sala, Spector and Zito all expressed that academia, especially in disciplines that require creativity, is an environment that allows for experimentation.
“Theatre is a space where ideas will always be challenged, and beliefs will always be challenged,” Sala said. “It will always be a spot where you can try something, and even if I don’t agree with it, I got to, in a sense, respect the try.”