Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Daniel Nicholas: Eugene

By | Published on Friday 5 November 2021

When I first heard about ‘Eugene’ – when it had a short run at the 2021 Edinburgh Fringe – I was immediately intrigued by the idea of it and made sure it got a mention in our Three To See recommendations that week.

The idea of a slightly futuristic and comedic TED-talk-ish, technology-enhanced theatre piece certainly appealed. So, of course, I was delighted to discover that it’s on tour and heading for Camden People’s Theatre this week, and immediately resolved to find out more about it.

The creative force behind ‘Eugene’ is Daniel Nicholas, who wrote and also performs the show. I spoke to him about what to expect from it, and to get some background on Daniel himself.

CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from ‘Eugene’ in terms of genre? How would you describe it to potential audience members?
DN It’s a sci-fi theatre show that leans more into comedy than serious. There are interactive elements in it, but only in the passive sense, no-one is asked to come on stage or anything! I’ve described it as ‘A TED Talk by the Terminator, presented by Steve Jobs’, which I think is pretty accurate. Although I’ve never seen ‘Terminator’ – I know I know, shame on me! – so ‘Terminator’ fans – Termafans? – might have an issue with that reference.

CM: Can you tell us about the technology used in the show and how that affects the audience’s experience? What is The Difference Engine and what does it do?
DN: Yes! So The Difference Engine is this brilliant software made by Coventry-based theatre company Talking Birds. It’s captioning software primarily for deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Basically as an audience member you log in to The Difference Engine wi-fi through an app or browser on your phone – or tablet if you’re a maverick – and then you can see subtitles of the performers’ dialogue.

In this show that is an option, but also one of the characters – Eugene, the world’s first superhuman AI – also directly talks to audience members through their phones throughout the show. Usually giving snide comments about Hugh, its inventor and the character I play on stage.

At a point near the start it will ask the audience a question, and depending on whether the audience answers yes or no, a different version of Eugene will talk to the audience, meaning two separate but entwined stories are happening throughout. This all culminates with me on stage performing two different endings at the same time; what ending the audience gets depends on what option they picked at the start.

CM: What’s is ‘Eugene’ all about? What story does the show tell?
DN: It’s set in the not too distant future. Hugh – an Elon Musk type figure with a similar amount of notoriety – is, after years of bad press, launching Eugene, the first superhuman artificial intelligence, who is the answer to all the world’s problems, specifically climate change. Over the course of the launch, however, things don’t quite go to plan.

CM: What themes does the show explore?
DN: ‘Eugene’ looks at technology and asks people to think about what would happen if we gave technology more power over us. We are currently in a time of smartphones and Alexas, and there’s talk of driverless cars: how far are we going to go before we’re serving the tech rather than it serving us? It’s also about the ego and hubris of man, and looks at the lengths people might go to, to make themselves look good and also save our planet.

CM: What was the inspiration for the show?
DN: I think it was when I first heard about The Difference Engine and that multiple channels was an option: the notion of being able to broadcast different text to different phones, to have people experience different things in the same room, while sitting next to each other.

I sat on that idea for a while, and then in the summer of 2018 I went freelance and thought about making a go of it. It’s been a long process so I’m really excited to be here showing it to people.

CM: Can we talk about you, now? How would you describe what you do? I’ve seen you described as a comedian, but this show seems to go beyond what one might describe as comedy…?
DN: Oh man that’s quite a question. I think on my website it says comedian / writer / theatremaker and producer. So I’m any one of those on any day of the week, or depending on how full the moon is. Maybe performer is a catch all?

Primarily I do stand up, and have done for a while. This is my first theatre show, which has been great and given me a lot more freedom to explore and think about things that I wouldn’t usually do, whilst retaining all that funny knowledge and performance craft I’ve learnt over the years.

CM: How did you end up performing? Was this what you always wanted to do?
DN: Yes, I’ve always loved performing, and have been doing that since I was kid. I was involved in local am dram and youth theatre, and always wanted to be an actor, and then – when I went to uni – I started doing stand up, and now get by doing both.

CM: How did lockdown affect you? How did you get through it?
DN: Ah it was tough not seeing my family, but I live in a house share and there were five of us – including my partner who stayed with me in lockdown; “it’ll only be for three weeks” I said – so it felt quite social and not lonely.

Although there wasn’t a lot to do, the days got filled. I think my housemates and I watched about five seasons of ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ and I did a lot of running – 10k every other day – I know, such a Brag Pitt! – and I played a lot of video games.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
DN: I think to be able to continue making different types of performance work – comedy and theatre – and make a living off it feels a big enough ambition to have. I just want to keep learning and getting better at what I do. And also go skydiving.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
DN: We’ll be doing ‘Eugene’ again as part of next year’s Vault Festival, as well as a national tour.

I’ll also be doing a work in progress performance of the stand up show I was working on before the pandemic at Nottingham Comedy Festival later this month and Leicester Comedy Festival in February. It’s all about different generations and their different attitudes to one another.

And, of course, I’ll be working on research and development into my next project, which I think will again incorporate access tools in a creative way.

Eugene’ is on at Camden People’s Theatre on 9 Nov. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

LINKS: | | |