Cover of The Dramatist Winter 2023
Finding the Art in Artificial Intelligence
Specimens of Fancy Turning by Edward J. Woolsey
Specimens of Fancy Turning by Edward J. Woolsey

On April 10, 2023, I interviewed Dramatists Guild member Fred Kempner regarding his use of Artificial Intelligence in his playwriting, including the use of an AI program to co-author one of his plays.


Daniel Guyton: When did you first get interested in artificial intelligence? What was it that drew you in?

Fred Kempner: Well, I had read a lot about it, where it was going and what some of the companies were looking to accomplish. And then, just by chance, I signed up for a 24-hour playwriting event in 2018. I was given a prop to use in my play, which was a computer motherboard, and I ended up writing a play about a robot that becomes sentient. That captured my idea of where I thought AI was going.

DG: And since then, you’ve written a number of plays that have to do with AI. How many plays do you think you’ve written on this topic?

FK: Ten, with a couple more in the works. I’ve been in the computer software development business for 30 years, so I’m very aware of the technology that’s behind it.

DG: Was artificial intelligence a part of your software development business?

FK: I was never directly involved in an AI project, but the subject has long been of interest to me. I’ve been following the efforts of Microsoft, Open AI, and Google, and trying to understand if they even care about anything except profits. 

DG: All right, now talk to me about ChatGPT, which is the co-author of one of your latest plays.

FK: I think the first thing to know is that it’s already been superseded by GPT-4. There were releases before that, but the one that was given a friendly user interface and released to the public was ChatGPT, which was version 3.5. It is capable of having a human-like conversation. I signed on to be an early user of the beta version and it was quite amazing. Its capabilities to carry on a conversation, to answer questions, to act as a search engine of sorts, and to give you full, even creative answers was startling, to say the least. So, that is what I got involved in very early on, and frankly, not that long ago. I mean, it was just released in October or November 2022. 

DG: And soon after that, you co-wrote a play with ChatGPT. What was that like for you?

FK: It was a fair amount of work. I had to provide the context for the responses that I wanted, so it’s all about how you prompt it. Prompting the AI is really becoming a science unto itself. You can go on YouTube and take classes and buy books about how to prompt ChatGPT to get the best responses. People who are very good at it call themselves “prompt engineers.” I didn’t have the benefit of those engineers when I was doing the play, so I was kind of learning as I was going along, and it was a bit of a challenge because I had to provide the context for each piece of dialogue. I promised myself that I was going to use the AI responses word for word. I wasn’t going to edit them. But, I ended up having to do a sort of edit in that I shortened some of the answers. Sometimes they were overly verbose and a bit redundant, so I took out parts, but I didn’t add to or change the wording.

DG: Did you find that some of the answers that you got were not useful to the play? Or did you use every answer that you got?

FK: I had to ask it several times and almost coach it for some of the answers. But I tried to be as brief in my prompts as possible, so it would be as authentic as it could be, within its domain. 

DG: What was the name of the play that you co-wrote with ChatGPT? 

FK: To Be or Not To Be.

DG: And what do you think about attribution and copyright issues? Could a playwright try to write an entire play with ChatGPT, for example, and attempt to claim full credit? What are we looking at here?

FK: I think legally you don’t have to formally acknowledge that AI wrote some of a play, but personally I felt it necessary to say right up front that this play was co-authored by Fred Kempner and ChatGPT. [Note from Business Affairs: There is no legal requirement to state to the public whether something was generated by AI.  However, the Copyright Office requires such knowledge and will not register a copyright for anything from AI.] 

Also, when you asked about whether it could write a whole play… The fact is that I’ve tried to have it do more than one character’s dialogue, and every once in a while it comes up with an interesting idea within the dialogue, but for the most part, it’s very bland and targeted to always finish with a happy resolution to whatever conflict you want it to create. You have to work really hard to make it accept a tragic ending, which is what I did in To Be Or Not To Be. For now at least, it is not a tool that will write a decent play from scratch. As far as I’m concerned, the dialogue is simply not good enough. But it can provide some good ideas. I mean, you can give it a prompt and say, “Invent three characters, put them in this situation, have them argue about this, and I want it to be three pages,” and it’ll do that. It’ll create the names; it’ll write the dialogue and a synopsis. At first, you might be amazed at what it comes up with, but when you read the dialogue and you look at it critically, it needs a lot of work. It’s mostly throwaway stuff.

DG: Can you give GPT-4 a topic and have it write a play in a manner similar to Shakespeare or David Mamet and it will mimic that style, or is that not there yet?

FK: It absolutely can and will do this. That’s what I did in the last scene. I prompted it to write the character’s speech within the context of the play, the way Shakespeare would write it. You can do that with almost any well-known writer. You can say, “Write in such and such a style.” You can say, “Write for a fifth grader” or “Write for a five-year old” or “An expert.”

DG: Could AI be used as a tool for helping the playwright generate ideas for their latest scripts?

FK: That’s exactly what it can do. It’s an intelligent and tireless assistant, so it can definitely come up with ideas, and I’ve used it in that regard. 

DG: I see. Well, is there anything else you would like to add?

FK: Yes. What I see is that the theatre can be a great source of education for people, and it’s not currently covering this topic, which is going to have a huge impact on our society. So, I would encourage writers to look at what AI can do, and how it might impact our culture, our biases, our work and start to use it as a subject matter for some drama, because I think the general public needs to be educated as soon as possible and from every angle possible.

Daniel Guyton
Daniel Guyton

is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter from Atlanta, GA. His stage plays have been produced nearly 600 times around the world, and he has been published in over 50 anthologies and solo publications. He is the Writing Development Coordinator for Merely Players Presents. He is also a member of the Dramatists Guild and the Writers Guild of America East.

Fred Kempner
Fred Kempner

spent 30 years managing large-scale software and hardware projects. He has written technical articles, screenplays, numerous short stories, several full-length plays, and over 25 short plays, half of which explore various aspects of artificial intelligence. He is active in the theatre community of Atlanta and a member of the Dramatists Guild.