Thanks to Disney, we felt compassion for a little Earthbot named Wall-E in his quest to find love. But if we took away the Hollywood magic and dropped Wall-E onto a live theater stage, would we become as invested emotionally in his mechanical tribulations?
Wexner Center for the Arts patrons will get to explore just such a scenario when playwright Oriza Hirata brings his robot theater to Columbus.
The two one-act plays from the Seinendan Theater Company + Osaka University Robot Theater Project — the 20-minute Sayonara and the 30-minute I, Worker — pair flesh-and-blood actors with two types of automatons to explore the value of humanity. Both plays, spoken in Japanese with English surtitles, will be showcased at the Wexner Center Performance Space from Jan. 31-Feb. 2 at 8 p.m. each evening.
In Sayonara, a Geminoid F model android converses about life and death with its human female master, who has a terminal illness. Hirata recently reworked Sayonara to include a storyline that invokes Japan’s nuclear reactor disaster following a terrible tsunami. The android breaks down, is rebuilt and then is sent to enact repairs at the facility.
The automated thespian is constructed to look and act human. Cameras track the facial expressions of the android’s voice actor backstage and Geminoid F responds accordingly. Generally a $120,000 construct, the android was built for a tenth of that cost using fewer motors — only those needed to deliver a convincing acting performance.
In previous interviews, the actress who plays opposite the android said it feels like she is acting alone on the stage in spite of the construct’s realism.
In I, Worker, a pair of 3-foot-tall domestic robots known as Wakamarus — each with a 10,000-word vocabulary and $14,000 price tag — do their duties for a married couple diligently. But one of the robots loses its will to work, creating a conundrum for its human owners. The play explores the value of work to humans, and the robot itself, when it can no longer do what it was solely meant to do.
“Japan has long been a leader in developing sophisticated robots and redesigning their evolving relationships with humans,” said Chuck Helm, director of performing arts at the Wexner Center. “It’s no surprise that this longstanding fascination in Japan has resulted in robots taking the stage in a unique collaboration such as this. What may be a surprise to audiences is the human side that the robot and android characters have been imbued with in these plays that makes them so touching and poignant.”
This is the Wexner Center’s first theatrical production that involves robots or androids, and it is a joint sponsorship between the Wex, the College of Engineering and the East Asian Studies Center.
The combined show (I, Worker took the stage in 2008) has been around since 2010, but this is its first visit to the US and includes a six-city tour, including stops in Manhattan; Philadelphia; Burlington, Vt.; Pittsburgh and Toronto.
The production’s length is relatively short for live theater, but that’s because it directly correlates to how long the batteries last in the robots and android.
“This was a new area between theater and a robotics lab, so if they did something more developed, it would be interesting,” Helm said. “Maybe they’ll make better batteries down the line and can do a longer production. With all these innovations, you get the first steps and then you get things more developed than that, so I’m open to seeing more. If we find audiences are responsive to this, you always want the opportunity to reconnect them.”
As part of their stop in Columbus, the company’s artists and robotic engineers will host a master class discussion about their work at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 1. Attendees must attend opening night in order to join the class.
“We do this with all our visiting dance and theater artists so they can interact with students at OSU and members of the community, and we think we’ll have a substantial turnout,” Helm said. “There are two high schools in town who are doing their own robot theater productions that will be there as well as folks from our sponsorship partners the East Asian Studies Center and the College of Engineering.
“The theater company will do a more in-depth show and tell with the robots and open it up to questions from an engineering perspective, a cultural perspective in Japan and a theater perspective. Any time we can do cross-disciplinary learning, that’s the best prospect in my view.”
Tickets, which can be purchased at tickets.wexarts.org or by calling 292-3535, are $16 for Wexner Center members, $18 for the general public and $10 for students.