Ten Years of Robot Theatre Directed by Oriza Hirata

In Japan, the development of humanoid robots and their integration into human society has been in the forefront of research for decades. Robots are becoming a common sight in various settings. One of the biggest telecommunication companies introduced a social humanoid robot that is able to “read” the emotions from the facial expression and voice of its partner. This robot is now serial manufactured, welcoming customers at the shops, orienting foreigners at the airport arrival, as a preparation for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. For the graying generation, the everyday presence of service robots is increasing, and the tendency seems to be unavoidable. Most companies in the field focus on creating a friendly image of the human-robot interaction, emphasizing the advantages of having a robot companion in one’s life, and trying to eliminate the unease and fear connected to robots taking over the human labor, the threatening prospect of being replaced. In this situation, the number of robot/android theatre performances is increasing and becoming widely known. How can the robot performances contribute to our thinking about society and about theatre itself? One of the most persistent (stubborn?) stereotypes about theatre is that it is directly connected to live presence. What happens, when a human actor is performing with a robot?

One of the most renowned directors in the mid-generation of contemporary Japanese theatre-makers is Oriza Hirata (1962). Since founding the Seinendan Company in 1983, he has gained a strong international reputation as playwright and director, and the unique way of acting often called “quiet theatre.” More recently, the using of robot technology in his performances. Hirata’s robot theatre performances have become important not only because there are robots and humans in them, their primary importance lies in the fact that his shows go beyond being mere spectaculum of the robots. The performances are more than a spectacular entertainment of “look what a robot is able to do.” In Hirata’s performances, the robots play different characters, and he attempts to reflect on the fundamental issues of coexistence between human and robot through the means and tools of theatre as art.

Creating robot theatre performances has been a collaboration project between Oriza Hirata and Hiroshi Ishiguro, the leader of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at the Osaka University. Ishiguro’s primary research has been to develop humanoid robots from a profoundly humanist belief: “If you are able to give me a definition of human, I will happily design a robot matching that definition.” Through creating performances featuring robots, Hirata and Ishiguro don’t attempt to define what a robot is, but what human is: whether a “core,” an essential quality, by which it is possible to define “human,” exists. In this concept, the shape of the humanoid robot is considered as a shell. The activity of the robots is integrated into the performative event in three different ways: by software (by pre-recording the gesture sequences of a human actor), by pre-programming, or by remote control. The programming and timing of the gestures, facial expressions, and vocal utterances are done by Hirata–in his opinion, the programming of emotions refers both to the more narrow, theatrical sense and the wider, humanist approach to the question of (re-) producing emotions. “Is it possible to talk about spontaneous human emotions at all, or there are only socially pre-programmed and acquired reactions?”–asks Hirata in one of the post-performance talks.

The first performance of their collaboration, I, Worker was presented in 2008. The plot is set in the near future when the human and robot coexistence is already normal, and it depicts the daily routine of a married couple living with two service robots, Takeo and Momoko. Both of them are Robovie R3 type robots, they are different in color, with a distinctive sign that the “female” robot is wearing an apron. The most specific sign of gender is the clearly different female/male voice attributed to the robots.

The female robot, Momoko plays an essential role in the family through her work,  but the male robot, Takeo, suffers from depression and lack of motivation, and it is unable to work. Considering that the etymology of the word “robot” originates from “work,” created by the Czech writer Capek in the early 20th century, the non-working robot is a contradiction termini, a contradiction that is one of the central topics of the play. The dialogues discuss the limits of a robot’s capacities compared to human (eating, giving birth). The flow of the twenty minutes long performance is a quartet with exquisite timing, which utilizes all the combinations of its four elements. While the (human) acting is mostly subdued, reserved, quiet, offering the illusion of casual and directness, in a way of acting that has become a “trademark” of Hirata’s performances, the robots’ gestures and movements are (understandably) much less detailed. In the minimalist space, the spectator’s attention is directed towards the four actors, two of them are human, two of them are robots). When the audience enters, the actor is lying on the stage, silently reading a newspaper, the robot is standing downstage, facing the audience, sometimes blinking, its hand sometimes moves a little. The actor’s gaze is “hidden,” directed to the magazine he is reading, the spectators are mostly looking at the robot. And the robot is looking at the spectators. Or is it? Who is looking at us, and who we are looking at in this particular moment?

Probably the best known and the most widely discussed performance of robot theatre series is Sayonara from 2010. The half an hour long performance is a minimalist duet between the actress (Bryerly Long) and the android Geminoid F about a young woman with a terminal illness, whose father bought her a female android companion to keep her company. In order to keep the woman comfort, the android recites poems. As a response to the Fukushima disaster, Hirata created a second version of the performance in 2012, adding a coda to the original piece. In the coda, the android is assigned a new role after the young woman passed away: it is carried to the exclusion zones of the radiation to recite poems to the victims. The coda of the second version adds a new layer to the human-robot relationship: the act of mourning after the catastrophe, the shift from the human-nonhuman towards a posthuman landscape. Even though they are different in their approach, the topics as the necessity of grieving and the (im-) possibility of healing create a link between this show and the traditional noh theatre and also to the contemporaries of Japanese theatre directors such as Toshiki Okada. Trauma, grief, and survival were in the center of Hirata’s latest international collaboration featuring the Robovie R3 robot, the Stilles Meer at the Hamburg Opera, composed by Toshio Hosokawa in 2016.

As an international collaboration in 2014, Hirata directed the robot theatre project La Métamorphose, with the Repliee S1 android in the role of Gregoire Samsa. In this play, Hirata sets Kafka’s story in a near future and a French small town, where one morning Gregoire Samsa wakes up to discover that he has transformed. Not into an insect, but into an android. The organic “other” becomes an inorganic one in Hirata’s adaptation. Instead of showing the intensified physical disgust, which is so strongly present in Kafka’s original work, the theme of “anything can happen” and the importance of facing the given situation are emphasized in Hirata’s version. The android was designed by Hiroshi Ishiguro, the stage operation was by Takenobu Chikaraishi. La Métamorphose, being a Japanese and French co-production, considers the differences between the traditions of social interaction in the case of the most emphatic gestures in the performances: the Mother (Irène Jacob) holds the android Gregoire’s hand, and the Father (Jérôme Kircher) leans his forehead to the android’s head. These moments also emphasize the direct proximity between the human and the android, the physical contact between skin and shell. In this divided closeness, only the voice that connects the two layers of reality: the voice and movement of the android “originally belongs” to Thierry Vuu Huu, the actor who plays the role of the Tenant.

The stage design of the performance reflects the conceptual shift from insect to android: the set is an outline, a white cooler, airier, white-contoured outline of a room, with the android Gregoire’s in his bed being center stage. The inorganic lifelessness of the android is further emphasized by the living plant next to his bed, and as the daily care for the “new” Gregoire gradually becomes burdensome (if not impossible) for the family members, they turn to the plant to water it as a substitute activity. The absolute focal point of the stage is the neutral, white face of the android, which equally evokes the humanoid features of contemporary robotics and traditional noh masks.

The robot can have a technical failure, but theoretically, it can’t fail by itself, nor can it make mistakes (this must be with reservations). Contingency, the occasionality of mistake and failure still seems to be the terrain of the performer’s human condition. As the robots appearing in Hirata’s shows don’t have artificial intelligence, they are not able to solve unexpected situations; therefore lack the ability of improvisational cooperation and creative activity. It means that the performative process is a one-way action: the robot executes the programmed sequence, the actor adapts, adjusts, reacts (and makes mistakes). Of course, this distinction is less sharp in those cases when the robot is “real-time” remote controlled. Hirata gives the same instructions to the human and robot actors, mostly focusing on the duration of pause, the exact timing, and tempo of the utterance, avoiding psychological didascalia. The plays and acting can be described as “quiet” theatre, with its often overlapping lines of dialogue, the soft, sometimes hardly audible voice, the meticulously composed and timed speech that has the impression of spontaneity. How does the “Mother: Irène Jacob” relate to the “Grégoire Samsa: Repliee S1 (android)” statement in the cast? What can we say about the robot’s acting? It certainly makes us reconsider our assumptions on talent, gift, or sense for acting. This question was further emphasized when the Geminoid F android appearing in the movie version of Sayonara (directed by Koji Fukada) was nominated for the best actress award at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2015. Even if it didn’t win eventually, the nomination itself allows us to reflect on the relation between character and acting, and on what qualities make any acting “successful.”

“I think it’s me”- says Gregoire, the android. “My son is a robot, he is French, even if he is not a French make” and “do I have the right to decide who is human and who is not” – says the Father. The fundamental questions raised and discussed by the characters aim towards the rational processing of an unexpectedly occurred radical change, thus creating a slow-paced “essay theatre” with an optimistic ending: the family opts for the coexistence with the android and the acceptance of the unchangeable circumstances. The sentence “I think it’s me” from the android Gregoire, with Ishiguro’s concept of a shell, reflects on one of the fundamental sentences of Western philosophy, “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I exist”) by Descartes. In the context of the French philosopher’s ideas of humans and animals, natural elements operating as machines, the android Gregoire’s words raise again the question of the need for profound security (how can one relate to the other? how is it possible to make statements concerning one’s own existence?) But the meaning of the famous sentence shifts with the context and the “person” who utters them: from confidently stating cogito ergo sum, it has become a hesitant and insecure “I think it’s me”–uttered by an android, in the voice of a human, in a theatre play.

Even though theatre is often associated with liveness and physical presence, it is essential to put this assumption into perspective and realize that nonhuman agents (animals, objects, things, images) have been playing a more important role in theatre than the anthropocentric approach suggests. Replacing, representing, indicating the human presence with nonhuman agents on stage has a long tradition. Amongst other types of nonhuman technology, Hirata’s robot/android theatre performances are closely related to puppets. The main difference between the more traditional forms of puppet theatre and Hirata’s way is that in Hirata’s case the animator and the animated object (robot/android) is more distant in terms of space and time than in the case of other puppet theatres. In terms of theatre history, Hirata’s robot theatre performances are equally linked to the traditional forms of Japanese theatre, mainly bunraku and noh, Craig’s vision of the “übermarionette” from the early twentieth century, the experiments of the Bauhaus–and to Descartes. The importance of his robot theatre lies in their self-reflective act of questioning our relationship to our own presence and to the Other, with which/whom we share the space.

I, Worker premiered ten years ago. A lot has happened in the field since then. Looking at the performances now, it is a similar feeling as watching the documents of  pioneering futurism: reminders of a past future. Hirata’s robot theatre performances have motivated not only the theatre but also the scientific community as well, with major university labs conducting experimental projects looking into the possibilities of combining robotics with performing arts. In Hirata’s own extraordinary workload, however, robot theatre is just one segment, as besides relocating his company Seinendan from Tokyo to a small spa village called Kinosaki, where he is establishing an international art center and festival, he is actively teaching, writing, giving workshops for high school students and children.

So then, what’s next for the robot theatre? We’ll see.

Watching them performing, it is striking that we can’t look in the eye of the robot. We can look at the eye of the robot.

However, instead of thinking of this as a presence deficit, it is more promising to regard it as an opportunity to challenge and reconsider our own perceptions.

This research was supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, as a part of the author’s JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship project Reconsidering The Performer’s Presence: Non-Human And Neo-Human Aspects Of Contemporary Japanese Theatre, conducted at Waseda University between 2015-2017.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.

This post was written by Krisztina Rosner.

The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.