Making theater with a robot presents unique challenges. Sure, people get sick, and people get cranky. But you can bargain with people. You can’t bargain with a robot when its arms have shut down.
Such were the problems faced by Gob Squad in rehearsals for its newest project, My Square Lady. For the past two years, the lauded German-British performance collective has been crafting an opera starring a robot. This robot has two arms, two legs and one eyes. He’s about the size of an eight-year-old, and his name is Myon.
“We have one scene where Myon tries to conduct,” says Gob Squad member Sean Patten. “One day we tried that, and his arms overheated. And when he goes into overheat mode, he just shuts down. So his arms stopped. And when his arms stop, the whole orchestra stops.”
That, Patten notes, could also happen in front of an audience.
In some ways, this is par for the course for Gob Squad, whose performances thrive on improvisation and the unpredictability of audience interaction. But robotics is uncharted territory for the group. So is opera—Patten admits he’d never even seen one before beginning this project.
As the name suggests, My Square Lady is a riff on My Fair Lady. But don’t expect a Cockney robot transforming into a society-lady robot—instead, the musical serves as a jumping-off point to examine emotion and education. Patten says Gob Squad first became interested in artificial intelligence after watching a group of robots play football during Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften in Berlin.
“They actually couldn’t play football that well, but the people watching really wanted them to succeed,” he says. “For ages, these robots kept missing the goal, and finally, after half an hour, the ball went in, and everyone was all, ‘Yes!’ It was fascinating to watch people watching robots, and to see how as soon you put two legs, two arms and a head on a machine, people connect to it and empathize with it.”
Around the same time, Berlin’s Komische Oper approached Gob Squad about a potential collaboration. From there, all it took was a volunteer from Humboldt University’s Neurobotics Research Lab. Enter Myon, a humanoid robot in a sleek white shell. Myon isn’t some pre-programmed or joystick-operated cyborg. He’s autonomous, meaning he reacts to activity—sound, light, movement—around him. This autonomy was a huge appeal for Gob Squad, which was more interested in exploring emotions than in teaching a machine to play the violin.
“One of the main differences between robots and humans is that we have emotions,” Patten says. “Opera is filled with overdramatic emotions: People are always dying and falling in love and betraying each other. So why don’t we take all the means of disposal at the opera house, and teach this one little robot about emotions—about what it is to be human?”
As research, Myon—with his human helpers—conducted interviews with Komische Oper employees, including singers, conductors, accountants, lighting designers and canteen staff. These interviews were recorded—Myon’s single eye is a video camera—and will factor into the final production.
Patten describes the show as constant construction and deconstruction. For much of it, three Gob Squad members and seven Komische Oper singers sit at a long table, Last Supper-style, discussing existential questions and giving Myon lessons in joy, passion and sorrow. Occasionally, there comes a point when words no longer suffice, and that’s when elaborate sets slide onstage and people break into song. Into arias and classical tunes, yes, but also into religious songs and pop ditties, and Patten takes a turn at Fame’s “I Sing The Body Electric." The 10 main performers aren’t alone onstage: With the orchestra and choir, My Square Lady features more than 100 people.
And Myon? “He’s mostly just sitting there passively,” Patten says. “He’s taking stuff in. But in the absence of him doing much, you’re able to project all kinds of emotions onto him.”
Still, he adds: “Anyone who comes in expecting the all-singing, all-dancing Terminator is going to be very disappointed.”
MY SQUARE LADY
Jun 21, 19:00, Jun 25, 19:30, Jul 5, 19:00 | Komische Oper, Behrenstr. 55-57, Mitte, U-Bhf Französische Str.
[Note: A shorter version of this story ran in the June 2015 issue of Exberliner.]