Improgineering: improv and engineering come together on stage

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EPFL students on stage at the Arsenic © Simon Henein, EPFL

EPFL students on stage at the Arsenic © Simon Henein, EPFL

On 16 and 23 May, 24 students from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) will treat the public to some improv at the Arsenic Theater as part of their final project for the course "Collective creation: improv-arts & engineering."

"Collective creation: improv-arts & engineering" was developed by Professor Simon Henein in cooperation with the Arsenic Theater (Centre d’art scénique contemporain) in Lausanne. The year-long course, which was launched in September 2017, is part of EPFL’s Social and Human Sciences (SHS) program. It introduces Master’s students from all sections to improv techniques used in the performing arts (theater, music and dance) and explores how these techniques can be applied to engineering design. The 24 students taking the class will stage their final project on 16 May in a dress rehearsal and on 23 May in their final presentation before a board of examiners. Both events are open to the public.

Each improv performance will feature technical artifacts made ahead of time by the students. "This requirement creates tension between the creative processes involved in engineering and those inherent in improv," says Professor Henein. "The aim is to highlight where they overlap and how they differ." One example is the "stage machine" that one group of students came up with. Drawing on artificial intelligence and deep learning, the machine picks up sounds produced during the performance and turns them into images, and vice versa. The resulting layers of real-time visual and sound effects are part of the improv performance and evolve in step with it.

Teaming up with the Arsenic

Professor Henein worked with the Arsenic Theater in Lausanne to develop this course. Around a dozen scheduled artists and artists in residence supervised the students and provided them with creative support. The Arsenic also gave Henein and his class access to its studios throughout the course, which meant that the students could truly immerse themselves in the theater.

Engineering and improv

"Beyond engineering, I get the sense that people have a pressing need to understand their place in the world," says Patrick de Rham, director of the Arsenic. "And with the emergence of artificial intelligence - machines that perform as well as or better than humans - I think we have to reconnect with our typically human trait of intuition, that part of ourselves that is subjective and sensitive rather than mechanical. It’s what makes two people come up with two different ideas and lets them think outside the box, and this is what drives society forward."

Professor Henein adds: "Collectively, our creative potential is huge - much greater than that of each one of us individually - but to fully tap into it, we have to be able to create together. That’s why this class delves so deeply into this skill, which will be crucial in the students’ future careers. We look at intuition, expression, listening, trust and self-reflection. The students are exposed to a wide range of approaches to the creative process, from the hard sciences to engineering and stage performance. All these influences will play a part in their professional work."

Course description

"Collective creation: improv-arts & engineering" combines workshops, which explore improvisation through the theater, music, dance and performance art, and lectures, which address the history of creativity in the sciences, approaches to collective engineering design, dramaturgy and the sociology of improvisation. The course is the brainchild of Professor Henein, who runs the Instant-Lab at Microcity, EPFL’s Microengineering Institute, and has practiced improv for the past 15 years. It is open to all first-year Master’s students at EPFL. The classes are run in three-period blocks every week throughout the school year. The course will run again in September 2018.

A booklet of proceedings documenting the course’s first year is currently being prepared. Excerpts can be viewed here:

Practical information

Public presentations: Improgineering

Dress rehearsal on 16 May 2018 at 7:30pm and final presentation on 23 May at 7:30pm, at the Arsenic Theater, Rue de Genève 57, Lausanne. Both events are open to the public and free of charge, although seat reservations are required.

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