The unusual cast of this Copernicus Science Centre production are technologically advanced humanoid robots whose movements are powered by compressed air. The mechanical figures gather a wide audience to engineered recitals of Stanisław Lem and Hans Christian Andersen in the world's first Robotic Theatre.
These human-sized fully programmable robots run on algorithms and code - a form of artificial intelligence. Their automated moves and fixed gestures make them docile students of theatre. They never forget their lines and are never late. Emotive LED lighting in its outer shell replaces the need to be clad in costumes. The LCD bug-eyed creatures express feelings through words and emoticons. RoboThespian is an artist from the Copernicus Science Centre in Poland, the shores of the Vistula river. They were cast in 2010 and since then have tirelessly performed twelve shows for ages 4 and up from Tuesday to Sunday.
The Director of the Copernicus Centre, Robert Firmhofer comments,
When we were preparing for the grand opening we didn't know we were the only ones in the world doing this. You can observe the mechanisms of functioning of the robots: hear the running engines for example. But their voices are recordings of actors.
The Square from Flatland and four dimensional Antigone
The professional robotic actors were created by England-based Engineered Arts. It took six months to program the voice-overs by Polish actors (Piotr Fronczewski, Marian Opania, Wiktor Zborowski, Marta Lipińska, Jarosław Boberek, and Krzysztof Kowalewski). With a mere switch of a button they are programmed to deliver spine-chilling depictions entirely in English. Their debut performance was a staging of Polish sci-fi author Stanisław Lem's Mortal Engines, where the newcomers faced their hardest task - playing themselves. - Lem was an obvious choice but we're not going to stay solely in the realm of science fiction - says Paweł Kolanowski, director and set designer of the Robotic Theatre. - I want the robo-actors to stage classics. Sophocles' Antigone would be perfect because there is unity of time, place, and action.
For the time being the Robotic Theatre is staging The Secret Of An Empty Wardrobe or The Ghosts Of The Fourth Dimension, a work of the popular science genre based on motifs from Edwin A. Abbott's 19th century Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions; as well as Prince Ferrix and Princess Crystal based on a short story by Stanisław Lem. Soon to appear in the repertoire is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's Father Knows Best. Here, the robotic actors play humans and although they move on a specially developed stage, they manage to take the audience to a more serene setting in the countryside. The background display of clay animation contrasts with their hard, metallic exteriors. The sonic experiments and unique tones coming from the speakers are the work of a five-piece orchestra of toys and small instruments appropriately called Small Instruments.
There's a lot of interest in the Robotic Theatre. The 20 minute long performances are always fully booked so people are always queuing to get one of the 50 seats. Reporting on RoboThespian, Jan Belezina wrote for gizmag.com,
If you need a captivating story-teller, just hire a professional voice-over artist once and then leave RoboThespian to deliver the same powerful act over and over again. The robot seems ideal for science education purposes, partly because it's engaging and very cost-effective (no cigarette or lunch breaks), and partly because in a decade or two, the robotics industry is likely to become as significant as the automotive industry. RoboThespian's task of entertaining and educating today's schoolchildren in science museums may one day turn out to have played a very important role.
Robo-actors are a stylistically light and visually attractive invention. They talk about multi-dimensional worlds, geometry and seem to have a good understanding of space. Controlled via an online interface thanks to which you can see from a robot's-eye view, they can mimic the movements of someone in the audience. It can also recognise faces and track people in a crowd. RoboThespians have been around for a while now. "The project started in January 2005 and the goal was to supply a troupe of robotic actors to perform at the "Mechanical Theatre" at the Eden Project in Cornwall" Belezina writes .
It seems that the humanities have infiltrated the sciences or perhaps the other way around. The creators take a stance on the expressed human fear of being replaced by a machine stating that,
Modern life is defined by humanity's love-hate relationship with its own technological creations. It's in our nature to see life, personality and intention where none exists. RoboThespian™ exploits this desire; it is an anthropomorphic machine, a dot on the graph that starts with automata, and will end when we are no longer able to distinguish the living from the mechanised.
The Copernicus Science Centre is located in Warsaw.
Author: Ania Legierska, translation and edits: Mai Jones Jeromski 18/04/2014
Additional sources: Gizmag, Engineered Arts UK