No stranger to MTC, Roshelle Fong was part of our Women in Theatre Program in 2019 and last year was involved in the First Stage writers program. The latter is where the seed of her play Mykei was born, and before it is presented at this year’s Cybec Electric she provides fascinating insight into the story and inspiration behind it.
What made you start writing for the stage?
I suppose I first wrote for spoken word and performance art gigs, as a way of sharing my secrets and joining artistic communities. But I’ve always felt more comfortable articulating myself through satirical powerpoints, awkward physical comedy and mixed multimedia performances – that sort of thing. My go-to bit became acting without uttering much, if any, text on stage whilst a robotic voice-over oppressed my protagonist with all its isms.
These days I’m challenging myself to convey more non-verbal and non-Western states of knowing through the written word, which I’ve previously been scared to do. Part of this process has been finding my own style integrating digital storytelling and playwriting, and I’m experimenting with this through Mykei.
Can you tell us more about your Cybec Electric play Mykei?
I started working on Mykei as part of MTC’s First Stage writers program in 2021, and have since kept the titular robot dog character but shifted my story’s focus. Drawing on present-day tech like AI friend apps and Gmail’s autocomplete algorithms (designed to enhance the efficiency and positivity of our emails) Mykei asks: Can technology be used to help humans to live more authentically?
The play takes us to a not-too-distant, automation-rife future in Naarm (Melbourne). It is set in the rental home of Janelle Wong and her partner Harry Burnett, who are the living, breathing definition of ‘opposites attract’. Janelle is a tech journalist who wants to be deemed a good worker, partner and person, but is a people-pleaser who often self-censors. Harry used to manage a café before he got replaced by Mr Bean, a robot barista. Now he spends most days riding his moral high horse into the sunset. But when Janelle is tasked with reviewing Mykei, the latest AI therapy dog, and it starts making friendly suggestions to improve the couple’s relationship, their domestic bliss bubble quickly blows apart.
Mykei is a journey of self-realisation within an interracial relationship, with a multi-lingual, know-it-all robot dog at the centre of it all.
‘I want Mykei to encourage reflection around what AI–human partnerships can reveal and what roles they may have in addressing toxic behaviour and implementing social systems centred around cultural knowledge.’
Why this play and why now?
Mykei revolves around the pressures we put on ourselves as individuals and collectives to ‘be better’. It considers how privilege intersects with what it means to be ‘good’, and unpacks how incentivising, persuasion, shame and other behavior–change tactics can help and hinder day-to-day.
Equally, as AI beings strive to mimic our humanity and as we project our deepest fears and desires onto them, I want Mykei to encourage reflection around what AI–human partnerships can reveal and what roles they may have in addressing toxic behaviour and implementing social systems centred around cultural knowledge. For example, AI platforms have proven to be incredibly useful when it comes to preserving and translating languages, so the possibilities for them to continue encouraging and enhancing our connections to culture are aplenty.
Where do you find creative inspiration for your ideas and writing?
I get inspiration from the most mundane interactions at home to bizarre news headlines that keep rearing their heads. Sometimes it matters less what the initial inspiration is, though, and more how that idea illuminates a truth or hope I care deeply about. And sometimes those connections aren’t clear from the start, but if the patience to find out comes naturally, it must be worth it.
As for Mykei, I’ve always been fascinated by those mechanical toy dogs with soulless eyes and little pink tongues poking out, doing backflips. There was 100 per cent extra allure because I wasn’t allowed to have one. So when I heard Boston Dynamics’ robot dogs were the inspiration for killer rovers in a Black Mirror episode, I had to find out more.
The robotics company’s robot dog (‘Spot’ or ‘Digidog’) has been dancing, herding sheep and performing a bunch of ‘helpful’ tasks around the world. In 2020 it was deployed as a surveillance ground drone by the New York Police, and enforced social distancing in Singapore, and in 2021 it monitored power lines in Tarntanya (Adelaide) and was identified by NASA as a promising candidate for scouting caves on Mars.
I became curious about whether, if in the ‘right’ hands and given a socially conscious mission, Spot could be used to successfully combat apathy, bigotry, ignorance and more. And so the wormholes began.
What do you hope audiences feel or take away after hearing your play?
I’d love my audience to have some chuckles! Robots are often relegated to the ‘sinister’ basket, but my version of Mykei is more in the WALL-E camp when it comes to cuteness … an adorable floof-ball that doesn’t know its own absurdity.
Maybe they will also see themselves, even a fraction, in my protagonists Janelle and Harry. The couple put themselves and each other through a world of judgment and punishment, only to discover they’ve been skirting around their truths all along. It’s my hope that if folks feel more seen in our imperfections and moments of self-doubt, paranoia and inter-cultural confusion, we may be more inclined towards open and empathetic interactions with each other.
Cybec Electric 2022 runs from 3–5 March 2022 at Southbank Theatre.
Cybec Electric forms part of MTC’s ongoing commitment to the development of new Australian writing, and is only possible due to the support of the late Dr Roger Riordan AM and The Cybec Foundation.
Published on 18 February 2022