Simon Colton, research leader at The MetaMakers Institute, Professor in Digital Games Technologies at Falmouth University and and Profesor in Computational Creativity at Goldsmiths, University of London, is one of the scientist behind the software with creative responsibility for the Beyond the Fence musical.

Beyond the Fence is a musical conceived by computer and substantially crafted by computer.  It is modelled on a statistical study of the ‘recipe for success’ in hit musicals. This ground-breaking process is being filmed for a Sky Arts TV series titled ‘Computer Says Show’, chronicling this unique experiment (to be broadcast in spring 2016). In collaboration with leading experts in music, computation and the science of human creativity, composer Benjamin Till and his husband, writer and actor, Nathan Taylor, the award winning team behind ‘Our Gay Wedding: The Musical’ (Channel 4), will bring a whole range of computer-generated material to life, presiding over the creation of an emotionally powerful and exciting West End show which is at the same time the grandest of experiments. That experiment has been designed and co-ordinated by Dr Catherine Gale, who also produces and directs the series.


The creatif process began with a predictive, big data analysis of success in musical theatre, conducted by Dr James Robert Lloyd, Dr Alex Davies and Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter (Cambridge University). They interrogated everything from cast size, to backdrop, emotional structure to the importance of someone falling love, dying (or both!) – in more and less successful shows – to create a set of constraints to which the musical had to conform, to theoretically optimise chances of success.

Next, the team visited what’s known as the What-If Machine at Goldsmiths, University of London. With Prof Simon Colton, Dr Maria Teresa Llano and Dr Rose Hepworth at the helm, the machine generated multiple central premises, featuring key characters, for the new show.  The team selected this as the starting point and the original idea for the musical:

What if a wounded soldier had to learn how to understand a child in order to find true love? 

The research leading to the development of the What-If Machine has received funding from the European Union. This is a three year European initiative involving teams at five sites, which started in October 2013:

Goldsmiths College, University of London:
Simon Colton :: Jeremy Gow ::
Teresa Llano :: Rose Hepworth :: Catherine Bellamy

University of Cambridge:
Stephen Clark :: Mark Granroth-Wilding

University College, Dublin:
Tony Veale:: Alessandro Valitutti

Institute Jožef Stefan, Ljubljana
Nada Lavrač :: Martin Žnidaršič

Universidade Complutense de Madrid:
Pablo Gervás :: Carlos León

The aim behind of What-If Machine project is to build a software system able to invent, evaluate and present fictional ideas with real cultural value for artefacts such as stories, jokes, films, paintings and advertisements. The London and Madrid teams have been involved in the creative process of the musical.

A plot structure for the musical was also generated computationally, thanks to work led by Dr Pablo Gervás (Complutense University of Madrid).  A brand new analysis of musical theatre narratives enabled him to adapt an existing story telling computer system, called PropperWryter, to turn its hand to musicals and build the core narrative arc of the new show.

Taken together, all of the above enabled the precinct for the emerging story to be identified: Greenham Common.  The team then wrote a book and lyrics (with the assistance of some other computational tools) that fitted all these constraints.

Finally, the music material has been provided by Dr Nick Collins (Durham University), who has created a computer composition system based on a machine listening analysis of musical theatre music, conducted by Dr Bob Sturm (QMUL) and Dr Tillman Weyde (City University). Additional computer music material will be generated using the FlowComposer system created by Dr Pierre Roy and Dr Francois Pachet (Sony CSL, Paris).

Beyond the Fence: The first West End musical conceived and crafted by computer