A The figure sits alone on stage, wearing a comfortable sweater and pants, one leg crossed over the other. He slowly moves his hands and turns his head. But this unique performer in Uncanny Valley, by the Rimini Protokoll theater company, is not human. This is a realistic animatronic model by German writer Thomas Melle.
Show director Stefan Kaegi had seen animatronics used in museums, where he found there wasn’t enough time for what he calls the ’empathy mechanism’ to kick in . But he wondered what would happen if the robot became an interpreter, “someone you start to identify with”.
His idea was to create a monologue for a robot that looked as human as possible – not perfect, but average and fragile. Evi Bauer, who worked on the design of the robot, suggested that the best way to create something irregular and flawed was to find a human subject and make a copy of it. The question was who?
Melle had recently published The World at My Back, a philosophical exploration of her bipolar disorder that Kaegi found intriguing. Melle, in turn, liked the idea of being turned into a robot.
The costume department of Munich’s Kammerspiele theater company took a silicone cast of Melle’s head – a particularly claustrophobic process documented in the production – and then there were, Kaegi says, “scary moments” for Melle encountering his robotic doppelganger. The result is undeniably disconcerting. Even though its inner workings are visible through a gap in the back of the robot’s head, its movements are delicate and somehow tender.
Science fiction often shows us that technology takes over, but Kaegi needed to program every movement of the Melle robot: “I wasn’t working with an artificial intelligence. I was working with a very stupid machine. But then, he says, all theater is an exercise in programming, from lighting to sound. People too are largely pre-programmed into how we behave, including our routines and small talk. The show asks how free we really are: “To what extent have we become dependent not only on technical devices, but also on the algorithms that help us make decisions?”
The word “robot” was introduced into the English language by a play: RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a 1920 drama by Czech writer Karel Čapek. And in the 100 years that followed, they became a staple of film and television. From Star Trek: The Next Generation to Battlestar Galactica, Ex-Machina to The Terminator, robots in popular culture are usually there, Kaegi observes, to play on our fears of technology takeover or as a way to explore. our own humanity.
Despite — or perhaps because of — their non-humanity, show makers have explored the theatrical potential of robots in many ways. Serbian choreographer Dragana Bulut’s Future Fortune has dancers interacting with a humanoid robot, and Japanese director Oriza Hirata’s Robot Theater Project uses robot performers alongside human actors, juxtaposing superficially cute but unaffected robots with expressive human bodies. Last year, to mark the centenary of RUR, a team of Czech scientists and playwrights created a new computer-written play. (The result featured a lot of repetitive dialogue and a preoccupation with sex.)
But games that feature robots are thinner to the ground. Spillikin, by Pipeline theater, explored the relationship between a woman with Alzheimer’s disease and her caregiver robot; Interference, a trio of speculative plays presented by the National Theater of Scotland in 2019, also featured a story about an android carer.
Tim Foley’s Electric Rosary, which opens at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in April, is set in a convent whose nuns welcome a robotic sister into their order. The idea for the piece came to Foley during a visit to a monastery with his father, where he saw the aging monks using quad bikes. He imagined a scenario where the nuns bring a robot to do the cooking and cleaning but he “starts to get something out of it”. This robot is designed to learn by example, so Foley not only explores the behavior of other characters, but “the agency and humanity that the robots themselves develop.”
Like Kaegi, Foley is interested in models and programming. One of his inspirations was a book about mathematical sequences and the loops that underlie things. One could argue, he says, that the recitation of the Rosary is a similar type of loop.
One of the reasons robots don’t appear on stage as often as they do on screen, suggests Foley, is practicality. Without access to CGI, you either have to create a robot – as in Spillikin – or have an actor play one. Each presents different challenges. For Electric Rosary, they opted for the latter approach. There will be no attempt to make the performer look like a robot with masks. Instead, says Foley, “it is through speech and movement that she will show her artificial way. But as time passes and she adapts to the demands, she will begin to emulate what it is to be human and then potentially master it.”
Foley’s robot is ultimately a dramatic catalyst – a way to explore the nature of faith. “If the idea is that we are built by a higher power,” asks Foley, “then are we a form of artificial intelligence? If we are made in the image of God and a robot is made in ours, is there a hierarchy here? Or will we be equal in the eyes of God?