How Actor//Android takes on sharing a stage with our cyborg overlords
When the rehearsal space features Lady Gaga echoing out into the hallways, and a Roomba in the corner (ominously) overlooking the interview, I was more than slightly confused about what exactly had been programmed in there. As it turned out, the brain of writer, producer, and actor Louise Jiang had creatively coded the character of Seven into existence, the star of her solo show staged at Basement Theatre this week, Actor//Android.
Seven is an android designed to seduce and destroy the performing arts industry, and thus the need for human performers. She executes her lines, auditions, the occasional human, and Gaga choreography sequences with robotic perfection. She machinates her way through the gig economy, and must maintain a certain level of success—under threat of being replaced by an updated, more productive design.
The opening night show was a celebration of Jiang’s talent and efforts. It’s not often an actor’s stiffness and lack of emotion are signs of a job well done, but in this case you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jiang was assembled on a factory line, to her credit. Even her improv was mechanical, and Seven’s mannerisms were flawlessly abhuman. The play satirises the pressures of the life of an actor, the incessant demands of young artisthood, and the industrialisation of the arts towards an automated future.
I was honoured to get to talk with Louise about her work, and her thoughts on the future of the industry that young artists will inhabit.
How would you describe the play?
The vibe of the show is Lady Gaga hatching out of the egg in the live ‘Born This Way’ performance at the Grammys, crossed with the character of Villanelle from ‘Killing Eve’, crossed with ‘Fleabag’, crossed with Michael Fassbender in ‘Prometheus’, and ‘2001 Space Odyssey’.
It’s a very timely play that can really only ever grow in relevance, but it was first written back in 2019. What were the early inspirations for creating it at that time and how has it developed since?
I think since 2019 this play has always started from a place of rage, and what I’m angry about has changed as I’ve gotten older and had more exposure to the industry. When I started making the show I wasn’t even in the industry yet, I was just on the outside looking in. So it’s changed a lot over time, which is frustrating but also the beautiful part of it as well. Because we could just make the same show over and over again, but it wouldn’t feel honest to what we want to say to the world right now. The message for the show as it exists currently is to ask ourselves as artists—why are we so obsessed with productivity?
You graduated from Toi Whakaari in 2021, so a fair amount of the early work on this show was going on while you were a student, looking in on the industry like you said. What was it like to be studying to enter the performing arts while creating a show that grapples with such existential ideas about the future of the industry?
It felt more cathartic than existential. One of the themes of the first development of the show was how the whole world feels like a bit of a machine—it felt like we were being pumped out of drama school and needing to hit these milestones. It felt as actors we were pretending we weren’t afraid, but I was afraid! There’s such an uncertainty in being an actor. So it felt good to steer those fears into the show and face them head on and make fun of them. It was more empowering than frightening. Point and laugh to confront it.
Even though the play is a satire, the idea of an AI actor does feel reminiscent of things like ChatGPT and AI art generators which can damage creatives like writers and visual artists. Do you think there’s potential for that technological advancement to spill into performing arts?
AI is taking over a lot of jobs these days, it’s very real. The thing that robots can’t do right now is generate their own creativity from nothing. But I would challenge that humans don’t either—don’t we all have to create from something? We take inspiration from all these images in our lives, it’s just more subconscious and less algorithmic. There’s a lot of references throughout the show, and all of those shared experiences and images, you could interpret as a kind of database.
The show’s been described as being for everyone who’s ever felt, ‘burnt out from working beyond their human limits’. What would you say to young people and especially young artists that feel disillusioned with the prospect of entering the industry because of how demanding it is?
What we’re chasing in the play is to show how this perfectly engineered android doesn’t get it right, despite having everything going for them. It’s showcasing one way of living as an artist, of being completely work-orientated, and asking young people entering the industry, “Is that how you want to live your life? Will you be happy?” It’s not saying to not try, but it’s asking people to acknowledge that they’re human, and not robots. It’s asking that if we love what we do, how do we change how we do it and how we approach it to avoid those things? How do we care for ourselves so we can continue making art?
How do you balance the want to be making art versus the need to make a living?
I think for me they might both be wants. I’m still finding my need. Money brings us security and happiness and other things that we need, but making a livelihood just happens to be the currency which we can achieve those things with. The system of needing money doesn’t really make sense with art. The attention economy doesn’t mesh with the nature of making art, or humanness. Our human processes take time, there’s no instant gratification just from being human. And we become more detached from that the more engrossed we become with the artificial.
You cover a lot of bases in the industry—you act across theatre, short film, and TV, as well as now writing and producing. Any advice to those who want to do what you do?
Reach out to creatives you admire, ask your mentors, go to open rehearsals, masterclasses, poetry readings. It’s such a collective, and that is the bedrock of how young artists can be supported—being able to see the older version of yourself and what you want to do in the future, breathing and alive. Actor//Android is a solo work but it definitely was not made solo, so engage with anyone and everyone. Watch as much as you can. Write and make and act badly to get it all out, bad art is better than no art. No one in the industry is able to sustain themselves by accident, it takes rigour and support. So know that I support you. Louise is right behind you, dear readers of Craccum, what have you got to lose?