Ben Norris is the writer of Autopilot, a brand new play currently at the Pleasance Courtyard at the Edinburgh Fringe. Ben is known for writing the monologues, and originating the role of The Poet, in the Olivier Award nominated The Choir of Man, as well as starring as Ben Archer in the long running Radio 4 drama, The Archers.
Ben’s debut solo show The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family, won the 2015 IdeasTap Underbelly Award in Edinburgh before touring internationally, and Ben has been honing his craft since childhood, “I got into drama and writing when I was at school,” says Ben, “I was quite a mischievous child to put it mildly, and got into a lot of trouble because I didn’t really have any kind of purpose or sense of direction.”
Ben was in year 9 before the school opened a drama department, “these two wonderful teachers obviously saw something in me, in the energy that I had.”
“Telling stories, connecting with other people, making people laugh, making people feel things. That was really exciting. It was also very liberating to find a way to continue to be the centre of attention, but without getting in trouble,” laughs Ben.
Ben says that’s when everything changed, “it got me interested in writing as well, because I started to read more plays and poems. My English teachers also saw something changing in me and lent in to support.”
Ben started writing songs, but admits to not being as good a musician as expected, “I was definitely better at the lyrics, so that’s where my love of writing poetry came from, and that naturally developed to theatre.”
Autopilot will be the first play that Ben has written, but not appeared in, “It’s a two-hander and it’s a love story above all else, because what isn’t,” says Ben, “but it’s also about self-driving cars, and autonomy, and class, and power. These two characters, who are from very different backgrounds, meet when they’re jointly commissioned to work on a public transport mapping project.”
“The play charts the course of their relationship in non-chronological order,” explains Ben, “and also explores the ethics of autonomous AI, both in and of themselves, and also as a metaphor for how we live our lives and how we manage our relationships.”
Ben has researched the play meticulously, and can describe in frightening detail the central ethical questions at the heart of self-driving car design, “it’s what is known in philosophy as The Trolley Problem, meaning if there’s going to be an inevitable collision, and the car has to choose between saving one set of people, the passengers or the pedestrians, who does it choose and what criteria does it make that decision with?”
“I became obsessed with this question, because of course, there’s no right answer really, and I think that’s a really fruitful place to write from, and to make drama from.”
“So, the play uses that to explore when we’re not the most important people in our own lives, and the sacrifices that we make; our own Trolley Problems, decisions we have to make every day that at the time don’t feel like we’re being selfish, but maybe are.”
Ben says the choice to have the play unfold in non-chronological order is also based on the world of AI, “like AI we’re learning all the time, and I wanted the non-chronological order of the play to reflect the way that we gather information.”
In thinking about the way Autopilot would be performed, Ben was inspired by other two-handers like Lungs and Constellations, “I liked the idea of it being all about these two people, there’s no set, there’s no props. It’s just the actors, and there’s a real athleticism in the performance, it means we really connect with these people.”
At the time of this interview, Autopilot is nearing the end of rehearsals, “I’ve been trying not to go into rehearsals all the time, because I’ve not wanted to be that writer who sits in the corner intervening,” laughs Ben, “but there are some moments that are really different to how I imagined them, there’s some moments that are exactly how I imagined them, and there’s a joy in both of those things, but it’s a real privilege to have such a talented group of people who I really respect, and like.
Like so many Fringe shows this year, Autopilot was due to run in 2020, but Ben says the delay turned out to be a blessing in disguise, “I completely rewrote the play in February last year, and I made some discoveries that I think the enforced stillness of the pandemic engendered, and I’m not sure I’d have made those discoveries if I hadn’t had that time.”
But after that forced delay, Ben is thrilled to finally be bringing Autopilot to Edinburgh Fringe, “There’s nothing else like it, I’m just looking forward to being surrounded by all of the colour and the noise, and all of the different things people are passionate about. Because people’s passion is infectious, right? And I find myself going to watch things at Fringe that I ordinarily probably would never see, and I’m really pleased that Autopilot is going to be a tiny little part of the cacophony.”
Autopilot, written by Ben Norris is at Pleasance Courtyard 3rd – 29th August (not 15th or 23rd August).