THE UNCANNY VALLEY (2013)

In January 2016, I asked Superbolt Theatre about their play about robots, The Uncanny Valley. Several robot characters feature in the play; these robots are performed by human actors.

 

I interviewed Simon Maeder on 15 January 2016 and exchanged emails with Superbolt Theatre about their development of, and performance practices in relation to, The Uncanny Valley. The following arises from my conversations with Simon and company.

About The Uncanny Valley (2013) and Superbolt Theatre

 

The Uncanny Valley is a futuristic play about the relationship between a man and a robot. A meteorologist, Wilson, falls in love with a robot, but this is a love that the world cannot understand.

 

The company uses puppetry, powerful movement, and absurd humour to tell its electric love story.

 

Superbolt Theatre’s company members comprise Simon Maeder, Frode Gjerløw, and Maria Askew. They joined forces while training at the Lecoq school in Paris.

Having performed a show set in the present and the past, the company decided it was time to set a play in the future. For them, that future was robots and the result was The Uncanny Valley. Simon spoke to me about how he was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s short story, ‘I Sing the Body Electric’, which presents the scenario of a family selecting and buying a robot grandmother intended to take the place of the children’s mother, who has died. (Follow this link to take you to an excerpt from Bradbury’s 1962 The Twilight Series television episode of the same name.) For Simon, it was the familial setting that initially intrigued him: the idea of a robot impacting upon a family and its relationships. The company also knew that it wanted to create ‘an unconventional love story’ (Superbolt Theatre). Thus inspired, they developed the play through improvisations, motivated by the question: Can humans fall in love with robots and how would other people react? What is a (loving) relationship? 

LLP: Can you talk about the play’s robot characters: what sorts of characters they are, their identities, and the roles they perform in the narrative?

 

Superbolt Theatre: There are several robot characters in the show but only one robot protagonist. Robots from the future are the narrators, here to tell a very important story about their past, and our future. The main robot is Phoebe. She is a largely silent automaton that helps a socially awkward weatherman find confidence in himself and inspire real love.

 

My reflections:

Phoebe, the robot, is initially turned on when she is accidentally hit by a bolt of lightning. This dramatic act of God/Nature (delete as applicable) orientates the play within the frames and conventions of Frankenstein: mystery shrouds the genesis of life, even when that ‘life’ is predicated in materialist terms (i.e. Phoebe is a machine). This mysterious genesis also marks Phoebe, the robot, as being somehow special: she is the first of her kind and she gestures beyond the realms of science.

 

Within the story, the character, Phoebe, gives her human romantic counterpart, Wilson, confidence and, despite (or perhaps because of) her robotic differences, she is able to develop a positive romantic relationship with him. Phoebe the robot is logical, self-determining, and has an open character that does ‘not come with pre-existing social conventions or expectations’ that humans do (Maeder). Ultimately, Phoebe, like other human-like robots in films such as the Terminator series, Astro Boy, and Big Hero 6, gives up her ‘life’ in order to present the human, Wilson, with a future. The robot ‘dies’ for the benefit of the human (and possibly, by implication, humankind). 

LLP: What is a robot for you? Does a future with robots in it excite or scare you?

 

SM: For me it's any piece of machinery that works autonomously without constant human input. They might be humanoid or just a mechanical arm but I think something about a robot needs to be anthropomorphic. A future with robots excites me a lot! Although as Dan Harmon (a US TV writer) says, "A robot will be giving you a massage and you'll think, 'oh, it's just like what I do with my dog, oh no! Too late'". It's exciting but a little unnerving at the same time. 

 

LLP: Please talk about your experiences of developing, rehearsing, and performing the robots. How does performing a robot compare with performing a human? What are the challenges or interesting parts involved in this?

 

Superbolt Theatre: Developing the robot was a lot of fun. We did many different improvised exercises and scenes and slowly found what we enjoyed watching and what put us firmly on the wrong side of the 'uncanny valley'. These mainly came whenever our robot was subservient or low status. As soon as another character took a dominant role, rather than a curious, shy one, it became hard to watch. This was never more apparent than when approaching physical contact and sex. We wanted to write a love story and we quickly found that it had to be our robot that drove the physical side of the relationship forward. Perfecting the slight, fixed, robotic movements became a big part of the process (we are a physical theatre company after all) so we spent a lot of time on each scene, precising every single movement that was going to be made. Maria plays an excellent robot and even picked up an award in Edinburgh for her acting in that role. 

 

Louise LePage

With thanks to Simon Maeder and Superbolt Theatre