With its server message title, and a plot “about a boy who’s best friend is a robot”, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Polka Theatre’s Error 404 is another exploration of technology and young people.
But you’d be wrong, as Daniel Bye, creator and performer of the one man show, explains. “We’re using technology as a vehicle for exploring other ideas,” he says. Although some of the scenes play out on the internet, “at no point am I asking people to think about whether or not it’s a good thing… that seems like a meaningless question to me, like asking if books are good or bad. Books are good in principle, Mein Kampf is bad. I think it’s the same with the internet.”
But is technology changing the way we think, I ask him, is it reducing our attention spans? Are the kids of today doomed? “Show me a generation who didn’t say that about the generation before it. I’m sure it is fundamentally changing us, the way the book changed us when mass literacy came along. I’m also sure that in ancient Greece there were people saying, ‘kids these days…'”
Refreshingly then, Error 404 doesn’t patronise its young audience, and avoids the well-worn moral debates surrounding children and technology. Instead, Bye is interested in posing more universal questions “of humanness, consciousness, what’s real and not real”. At its core is a story of friendship, but also of loss, since the boy’s “human best friend has died at the beginning of the show”. It was important, Bye explains, that a sense of grief and the boy’s struggle to understand this feeling underscored the play, adding depth to abstract questions of what it means to be “alive, or a person, or a human, depending on which term you want to give the most dignity”.
According to the show’s creator, children between the ages of eight and ten are the ideal people with whom to have such conversations. “There’s something that happens around that age, when you’re suddenly capable of abstract thought. You start to speculate about these hypothetical questions, and that’s a really exciting moment.” When it came to creating the show for Polka Theatre, Bye was understandably keen to work with real children, to talk to “the people who might reasonably represent the audience,” and create the piece in close collaboration with them.
It was this working method which lead him to spend a year as a philosopher in residence at a Wimbledon primary school. “I’d work with the children in small groups, and tell them a short story, then ask them some questions. The stories that were most generative of passionate disagreement, excitement, of real interest, formed the backbone of what’s actually in the show.”
Bye gives me a demonstration, telling me a short story about a criminal (I’m asked to supply his name and crimes) who is given a brain rewiring by scientists. When he wakes up he no longer wants to behave criminally, and the question is, is he still the same person? This, according to Bye, was more effective than name-dropping dead philosophers. “I didn’t go around saying, ‘it’s funny you should mention that, that’s what Emmanuel Kant thinks!’ I would sometimes introduce terminology if it was useful. But it rarely is useful when you’re eight. Epistemology is quite hard to say, and the fact that the show explores questions of epistemology and ontology doesn’t really hook you as an eight year old does it?”
To ensure that the story does keep young audiences hooked, the show has plenty of tricks up its sleeve. The tale is told interactively, with the storytelling narrator ( who is, in Bye’s words, “a more eccentric version of me, the espresso version of my americano personality”) changing the story each night. The audience will be asked to supply crucial plot details, including the names of the main character and his robot friend, and the play’s soundscape will be created live on stage. Asked what he wants his audience to take away from Error 404, Bye is clear − he wants to make your children think. “The questions we’re posing won’t be answered by the end of the show, and I hope kids will spend the rest of the day being really annoying about them. I want them tugging on their parents’ sleeves asking, ‘but why?’ for the whole day. I apologize in advance to any parents, uncles, aunts, big brothers or sisters who come to see it.”
Error 404 is at the Polka Theatre 4-29 March.
For more information visit their website.