Behind the Scenes: Robotic acting

  • Tsukasa Aoki photo
    A scene from robot-human theater production “I, Worker.”
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From the January 31, 2013 edition

One of the actors in Japan’s Seinendan Theater Company presentation of “Sayonara” is an android. It looks so much like an actual human being, the company often doesn’t use photos of it in promotional materials for the stage production so as not to confuse audiences.

They call her Geminoid F. She is only two years old but looks not a stunning day over 25. In “Sayonara,” she interacts with a human actress as they discuss their thoughts on life and death.

One of the highlights of the play is feeling the audience react with delight at how realistic the android looks, said Takenobu Chikaraishi, the robots’ keeper while on the six-city tour. Chikaraishi is a researcher from Osaka University who worked on the team that built Geminoid F, led by heralded robot designer Hiroshi Ishiguro.

Chikaraishi also maintains the technology backstage during the show, where a (real!) actress’ head and body movements are recorded by a camera and mimicked by the android on stage and whose voice is recorded by a microphone to make it as if Geminoid F is speaking.

Being the professional scientist that he is, Chikaraishi said it’s not hard for him to remember that Geminoid F does not, in fact, have a beating heart. A helpful reminder: She travels with all the other cargo, packed in a box fully assembled and sitting in a chair, her arms tied to the armrests so she doesn’t move around during the flight. The big box she’s packed in rides alongside the robots that act in the other Seinendan Theater Company play “I, Worker.”

Despite the android and robot characters’ immortality, their presence in a dramatic theater setting helps highlight the humanity — for better or worse — of the other, flesh-and-blood characters and, ostensibly, the audience.

For example, part of the “Sayonara” plot involves the release of radioactivity at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the 2011 tsunami. While considering the pain technology can bring us, audience members are simultaneously reminded of the groundbreaking things it has done as well… like making an android acting in a play.