“Just black marks on a white page”

I have recently been tentatively testing ‘Rivescript’ – a coding language that is commonly used to create chat bots. Rivescript works on a basic set of rules (+ – ! = etc.) that allow the user to receive a potentially quite intricate and detailed set of responses from a bot that is quite capable of expelling its personality should the creator allow for it. My primary interest in playing with this language, is in the potential to build an algorithmic script. I am keen to see whether a user of the Rivescript chat bot might begin the process of creating a performance piece with its seemingly autonomous bot.


The beginnings of narrative can exist in many everyday phenomena, as mundane as some may be. Perhaps what narrative can really rely on, is the ability for one set of circumstances to inadvertently and curiously influence another. The protagonist can emerge from a number of different scenarios.

To give a more explicit example, I had an unusual experience just today in which I was the naive victim of a daylight robbery. I won’t expel too much energy on the intimate details: How the person outside the station so desperately needed some money after losing their bank card, and how I reluctantly said I would retrieve some only to be informed moments later by another stranger that I had just been scammed as they had been the week before. The beginnings of a surreal encounter began to form in my mind when I was ‘fortunate enough’ to meet this thief again only an hour later when returning to the station. On recognising me straight away, they knew I wouldn’t be fooled twice. They said they’d lost my money, which I guessed was inevitable, but it was then in the whole charade of them putting on a brave face when pretending to call the bank to have it transferred, and how I stood there contemplating if and how I could get it back at all.

The point of this digression: In an almost needy attempt to console myself for being so gullible that day, I began to question what this relationship was that was beginning to form curiously in that moment with my mugger – chatting so amicably yet so deviously with each other about what we did, where we had come from, both knowing we were telling each other blatant lies. What other narrative trajectories evolve from these points? I considered the plots for a number of peculiar stories on my train journey home:

  1. The protagonist is the victim of a daylight robbery, by these circumstances he also ends up being the initial thief’s ultimate scammer – the one who becomes their ‘friend’ and ultimate downfall.
  2. The protagonist strikes up a professional working relationship with their thief in which they use the mugger as a source of research for design experiments – again, perhaps their eventual peril.

It was all speculation. I find these imagined scenarios tantalisingly horrifying. I am also very aware that these should remain in the confines of fiction, because I have no desire to befriend a potentially dangerous criminal (instead I reported them to the police).

Through this I was reminded of the work I had been doing with Rivescript. Trying to play with that interconnected language of things; human-object relationships made physical through networks and exchanges; considering how chat bots might begin to simulate strange and surreal interactions with their users. I was brought back to a quote I had read recently by theatre director and playwright David Mamet.

His 1997 book ‘True and false: Heresy and common sense for the actor’ was recommended by a Director friend of mine as one of the most important pieces of writing on performance practice. The quote as follows I first found quite cynical:

“The play is a fantasy, it is not a history…There is no character, there are just black marks on a white page – it is a line of dialogue”.¹

As someone who was processed through the rigorous analytics of English Literature A level education, I at first struggled to comprehend this statement. Surely the art of writing must bleed from the subtle metaphors and nuanced descriptors of dialogue first and foremost? But I can appreciate that Mamet is saying something important about the role of the actor, and performance, at its core, being the deliverance of the line as written regardless of ‘the situation’ and ‘lay[ing] claim to emotions which are false’.¹

This made me consider however, that with the powers of an algorithm like Rivescript, it can become easy to animate these ‘black marks on a white page’ in new ways. Engaged in any unexpected scenario in the chaos of the world beyond the stage, and entwined within the ‘Internet of Things’, what else may have the potential to take on the role of actor? To strike up new dialogue with other ‘actors’ in situations of the everyday turned into peculiar and perverse encounters like I experienced today at the train station.

In a sense it is nothing new. The Internet of Things is allowing a whole host of objects to communicate via human-object networks. They calculate and reenact decisions on our behalf and gradually perpetuate their confined regurgitation of humanity. But I think what is beginning to fascinate me most about a programme like Rivescript in this context, is its potential to deliver a series of seemingly random human-esque responses. It can give life to eerie uncanny entities. The illusion of character (If Mamet insists there is no such thing) and perhaps with more practice, will start to even influence plot and interaction itself within situations of the everyday. These algorithms have the potential to become the alluring and devious protagonists.




¹Mamet, D.  (1997) ‘True and false: Heresy and common sense for the actor’, Faber and Faber Limited, Bloomsbury House: London, pp. 60; pp. 26

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s