How to Play a Robot?

Posted on Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Author: Jacob Berkowitz

Jacob Berkowitz

Writer in Residence, ISSP, uOttawa
Author and Performer

Originally published in the Globe and Mail on August 28, 2021

This summer on the first day of the workshop reading of my latest play, veteran Ottawa actor Paul Rainville asked me: How do I play a robot? He was referring to his character, Adam, the husband and father in The Anniversary. It’s a near-future tale about three adult children who return to the family home to celebrate their parent’s thirtieth anniversary. Key detail: Adam’s a robot.

On first impression, the answer to the actor’s question might seem obvious. Afterall, who hasn’t seen dozens of fictional depictions of robots, from superhuman gunslingers in the Westworld TV series to clunky metallic C-3PO of Star Wars movie fame. Just give your speech a slightly metallic Siri-esque pacing and edge, or add some mechanical physical twitch and the audience knows you’re a robot.

But on the centenary of the invention of the term robot—a word born in the theatre—the answer of how to act like a robot is more complex than ever. Exploring the question with the cast took us deep into why robots are the perfect narrative foil for helping us see what it means to be human—and why theatre forces us to question the nature of our creations.

As a playwright, you don’t fully know what you’ve conjured until you hear the script read aloud. It’s when actors voice and embody the characters that they “come to life”, a phrase that I think is important to consider in a play with a character who happens to be robot. And this is the thing. The Anniversary isn’t a play about a robot, it’s a play with a very advanced humanoid social robot, in the same way that there’s a human mother and three human children. 

The question of how to play a robot isn’t one I’d initially considered because I’d planned to cast a real robot. The Anniversary was inspired when, several years ago, I met the remarkable humanoid robotic actor, Robothespian. It (or is that he/she or they?) was performing on a little podium in an atrium at the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, ON, a building in which questions of the nature of Nature, of what is possible, are the work du jour.

I was fascinated by the way people responded to Robothespian. A small group would walk into the atrium and someone would point, say Oh, cool, there’s a robot! Activated by movement, Robothespian’s head pivoted up, eyes widened, cheeks warmed red, and the robot spoke a greeting. I watched confusion pass over previously confident visitors’ faces. And then, inevitably, they responded as anyone of us does to a greeting from another person. Because, I witnessed, our social responses are hardwired, whether triggered by an artificial human or one like us.

It proved too expensive (for now) to cast Robothespian, so, with encouragement from my creative collaborator, University of Ottawa theatre professor Kevin Orr, I pivoted to a human actor as Adam, and wrote the script from this perspective. I’m very glad I did. It forced me and the cast to grapple with how with the current rise of social robots we experience the intimate and subtle tango between technological and social change that defines post-modern culture. 

Indeed this technosocial dance began on stage. The term robot debuted a century ago when Czech playwright Karel Čapek premiered in Prague on 25 January 1921. Robot was coined by Čapek’s brother from the Czech term robota, an earlier system of serfdom in which tenants paid rent via a system of forced labour akin to slavery. The word hit Broadway in 1922 with the first English-language performance of RUR, the play’s commonly used abbreviated name.

Čapek’s play is a blunt social commentary echoing the widespread rise of violent workers’ rights movements at the time, from the 1918 Bolshevik Revolution to the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. The robots in RUR are intelligent, but feelingless, artificial biological beings created as a vast, disposable industrial slave workforce. In appearance, they are almost identical to their human masters, dressed similarly, visually distinguished by brass numbers on their chests—an eerie foreshadowing of the Nazi’s yellow star for Jews. In the playwright’s notes, Čapek instructed that the robots “movements and speech are laconic,” the terse comments of exhausted workers. However, in the end, the robots evolve a sense of self, revolt and demand to be treated as equal fellow beings. 

This insistence on being treated as persons is a remarkable semantic bridge between the theatre, the later invention of real robots and ultimately today’s boundary blurring between us and our technologies. The word person has its roots in persona, Latin for an actor’s mask or character in a play and now synonymous with an individual human being. Thus there is a wonderful layered, question-inducing complexity in a person playing a robot who appears as a person. 

Yet, with all this back story I hadn’t answered the question, so actor Paul Rainville asked How was Adam programmed? I found this very helpful because it forced us to discuss individual agency and self-determination. Adam, I said, is more than his programming—he is an emergent personality. Which brings us to the intersection of human consciousness and whether there will ever be such a thing as not just artificial intelligence (AI) but artificial consciousness. 

In theatre, at least, there already is. So the actor wasn’t really playing a robot, he was playing a character (yet another term coined in the theatre, appearing in print in 1600 for the first time in a play by English playwright Ben Jonson.) And as a character, a person, it’s clear how an actor plays a robot—with the same empathy, care and attention to dialogue, relationships and actions as in any other role. The key to becoming Adam wasn’t to think about robotness but about Adam’s character as a father, husband, and, yes, a robot—not in any stereotypical sense but as Adam emerges in the text.

In the workshop, I saw that just like Karel Čapek’s RUR, mine is a robot-inspired emancipation play. Each family member is trying to be free to be themselves in a complex, very modern family—everyone, including Adam. In this universal desire for individuation we all see a core part of our human nature. And, I believe, when the theatre darkens for plays like The Anniversary, we glimpse the light of our future relationships with the others we now call robots.

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