ChatGPT unscripted

ChatGPT unscripted March 3, 2024

Some 20-ish years ago, I played “Mr. Applegate” in a community theater production of Damn Yankees.

Yeah, it was community theater, but it was a good show. Our “Joe Hardy” wound up on Broadway!

If you don’t know the story, Damn Yankees is a re-telling of the Faust legend centered around the miserable Washington Senators teams of the 1950s.* Applegate is the Mephistopheles/Satan character. The devil is always a fiendishly great part, but it also had its challenges — such as “the cigarette trick.”

The script for Damn Yankees includes this stage direction: (Applegate plucks a lit cigarette out of thin air.)

The script doesn’t tell you how you’re supposed to do this. But it instructs you to do it several times.

This trick is not, in itself, terribly confounding. Plucking a lit cigarette out of thin air isn’t much different from plucking a quarter out of your nephew’s ear. It’s slightly harder, I suppose, given that you can’t accidentally break a quarter or burn yourself with it, but it’s the same basic trick.

The tricky bit was figuring out how to pluck a still-lit cigarette out of thin air after you’d already been on stage for 10 minutes. The one time the script called for me to walk out on stage and then “pluck a lit cigarette out of thin air” was easy. But figuring out how to hide the thing — and the smoke — for 10 minutes and then having it still be lit when I finally produced it 10 minutes later was something I couldn’t manage.

Wound up spending way too much money at the magic shop down on South Street and settling for a bit where Applegate plucked an unlit cigarette out of thin air, then lit it by snapping his fingers. The audience loved that, but to this day I still wonder how Ray Walston and Jerry Lewis and all the other Applegates pulled off the actual trick as written in those stage directions. **

I was reminded of that when I came across the deranged stage directions in this script-like monstrosity:

Willy McDuff: (as the bubble-catching frenzy continues) Remember, in the Garden of Enchantment, every moment is a chance for magic, every corner hides a story, and every bubble… (catches a bubble) holds a dream.

(He opens his hand, and the bubble gently pops, releasing a small, twinkling light that ascends into the rafters, leaving the audience in awe.)

That’s from “Willy’s Chocolate Experience” — the scammy train-wreck of an interactive theater event that collapsed the day it opened last month in Scotland: “Glasgow Willy Wonka experience called a ‘farce’ as tickets refunded.”

Police were called to a venue in Glasgow last weekend after furious families who had spent hundreds of pounds on the Willy’s Chocolate Experience complained about the “awful” event that left children in tears and was abruptly cancelled midway through.

The event organizer, House of Illuminati, which charged up to £35 for tickets, promised an “immersive experience” based on the Warner Bros film Wonka, which stars Timothée Chalamet as the young chocolate entrepreneur and was an instant hit with children and grownups over the festive period.

The event publicity promised giant mushrooms, candy canes and chocolate fountains, along with special audio and visual effects, all narrated by dancing Oompa-Loompas – the tiny, orange men who power Wonka’s chocolate factory in the Roald Dahl book which inspired the prequel film.

But instead, when eager families turned up to the address in Whiteinch, an industrial area of Glasgow, they discovered a sparsely decorated warehouse with a scattering of plastic props, a small bouncy castle, and some backdrops pinned against the walls.

The BBC followed up on this now-infamous debacle, “Willy Wonka experience: How did the viral sensation go so wrong?

Advertising for “Willy’s Chocolate Experience” (left) seems to have oversold the reality of it (right).

The details are incredible — like the way an event that promised children a “world of chocolate” and “a celebration of chocolate in all its delightful forms” wound up giving each child, instead, a small cup of lemonade and two or three jellybeans. Those things are … not chocolate. They’re not even chocolate-adjacent.

The “House of Illuminati” turns out to be one shady guy, a man named Billy Coull. This wasn’t his first money-grubbing bait-and-switch production:

Another venture Mr. Coull is linked with is a now defunct website called Empowercity which shared knowledge that could “enable even average Joe start and grow a widely profitable business.”

Mr Coull has not responded to a BBC request to tell his side of the story of the Wonka event, but a trawl of internet sources reveals he may be a very busy man.

Last summer an author with the same name self-published 17 novels that were listed on Amazon, with one of them — Operation Inoculation — described as a “conspiratorial journey into vaccination truths.”

The author’s biographical information describes him as an “enigmatic wordsmith from the bustling streets of Glasgow” and a “rising star of the literary world.”

It continues: “With each stroke of his pen, Billy Coull crafts narratives that blur the lines between reality and fiction, leaving readers enthralled by the unpredictable twists and turns that lie ahead.”

Coull’s AI-generated “books” are still there on Amazon — a collection of incoherent, unreadable pamphlet-length texts with barely comprehensible blurbs that leave little doubt they are the product of the auto-fill plagiarism bots now touted by tech-bro versions of Billy Coull as “artificial intelligence.” This AI-spew doesn’t even seem to have been skimmed or copy-edited by humans before getting posted on Amazon, resulting in titles like “Unveiling the A Conspiratorial Journey into Vaccination Truths Deep State Conspiracy.”

Coull is now the second-most hated man in Scotland, so I doubt he’s going to sell enough of those “books” to pay all of the refunds being demanded for his chocolate-free “Chocolate Experience.”

It also doesn’t seem like the local actors hired for this debacle will be getting paid what they were promised.

Kirsty Paterson and Jenny Fogarty were hired to play Oompa Loompas at the now infamous Willy Wonka Chocolate Experience in Glasgow last weekend, but admitted they “had no idea what they were walking into”.

… Paterson, 29, who has been branded the “sad Oompa Loompa” on social media has been shocked by the reaction.

… She said: “We turned up on the Friday — bearing in mind we had already signed a contract by this point — we looked at the scene and it was just bizarre.”

The experience had been advertised as a Wonka wonderland, using images generated using artificial intelligence.

Instead, the women found a “few pieces of cloth hanging up” and a venue that was “really poorly put together.”

“I thought they were going to have people working through the night to make it look better but that was not the case,” Kirsty said. …

Fellow Oompa Loompa Jenny Fogarty, 25, is a production designer and small business owner, originally from Dublin but now living in Glasgow.

She added: “We just decided to do the best we could, given the circumstances.

“We are experienced working with children so we were just trying to make it as fun as possible for them.

“It was really difficult, there was children coming in with birthday badges, some dressed up as little Willy Wonkas, they were just so excited coming in and we had to be like ‘sorry this is it.’”

That’s also what Coull’s House of Illuminati told his cast, who wound up getting paid about half of what those signed contracts had said.

Gizmodo’s Thomas Germain got a hold of the “Full AI-Generated Script From the Willy Wonka Disaster,” which includes “ChatGPT hallucinations, frightening characters, and weirdly, no chocolate.”

This deliriously weird script-like thing was originally titled “Wonkidoodles at McDuff’s Chocolate Factory.” It includes some odd touches that you wouldn’t usually expect to find in a script — such as frequent descriptions of the audiences reaction. This is in there as a stage direction: “(Audience is visibly amused, some are leaning in, fully engaged in McDuff’s charismatic presence.)”

Neither Coull nor his bots seem to have understood the difference between AI-generated artwork and words and an actual live production. The script includes — and relies on — elaborate special effects and theatrical magic that the production doesn’t seem to have even attempted:

Willy McDuff: (chuckling) Careful there! Our garden stones are known to be quite the sweet tooths! Now, dear guests, feel free to explore, but beware of the Giggle Grass—it’s been known to induce spontaneous laughter!

(Audience members are encouraged to move around and interact with the set pieces, including the Giggle Grass, which, when stepped on, triggers hidden speakers to play laughter sounds.)

Wonkidoodle 2: (handing out a peculiarly shaped candy) Try this! It’s our latest creation: the Whizzbang Whirlygig! Just be sure you’re not standing upside down when you eat it, or you might find yourself floating!

No Giggle Grass. No “peculiarly shaped candy.” No conventionally shaped candy, either.

And then there’s stuff like this:

Willy McDuff: (gathering everyone’s attention) Now, I must ask, has anyone seen the elusive Bubble Bloom? It’s a rare flower that blooms just once every blue moon and fills the air with shimmering bubbles!

(The stage crew discreetly activates bubble machines, filling the area with bubbles, causing excitement and wonder among the audience.)

Wonkidoodle 2: (pretending to catch bubbles) Quick! Each bubble holds a whisper of enchantment—catch one, and make a wish!

That bit should have been do-able — if the script calls for a bubble machine, then the production should probably have rented a bubble machine.

But other parts of the script seem impossible. Read this bit again and imagine being the actor hired for a weekend gig and being handed this on that Friday night:

Willy McDuff: (as the bubble-catching frenzy continues) Remember, in the Garden of Enchantment, every moment is a chance for magic, every corner hides a story, and every bubble… (catches a bubble) holds a dream.

(He opens his hand, and the bubble gently pops, releasing a small, twinkling light that ascends into the rafters, leaving the audience in awe.)

I mean, at least the Damn Yankees script didn’t say “Applegate plucks a lit cigarette out of thin air — leaving the audience in awe.”

I suppose we can all take some comfort from this story in that it shows us that, for all the hype about so-called “AI,” it doesn’t seem like SkyNet is going to take over any time soon.

* This was in Delaware County, so we invited Senators/Delco legend Mickey Vernon to come. Alas, the seven-time All-Star and two-time batting champion was unable to make it because our big spring musical ran the same time as spring training and Vernon still traveled to Florida for that every year.

** I’m still proud of one change we made in the original script and recommend it to anyone else considering staging this classic chestnut. Applegate’s big character number, “The Good Old Days,” includes this stanza:

I see Indians dragging
An empty covered wagon
When scalping the settlers was the latest craze

I didn’t think that accurately captured Applegate’s sentiments about that period of American history, so I substituted this:

I see settlers with flintlocks
Bearing blankets with smallpox
When slaught’ring the Natives was the latest craze …

You’re welcome to use that version. I think it’s more true to the character.

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