Getting a realistic range of emotions from any actor can be a challenge at the best of times. But getting this emotional range from something that can’t even feel emotions is even harder. This is what we were tasked with when creating a full-size humanoid robot actor to star in the play Spillikin.

As is the case with many of the world’s great ideas, this idea sprang forth over a drink when Engineered Arts founder Will met with the owner of Pipeline Theatre over a drop of the South West’s finest in the retreat of a rural Cornish pub.

From there, the creative worlds of theatre and robotics collided to give way to a truly innovative stage play.

Learning lines the robot way

It’s a tale as old as time itself – a dying man transfers his mind into a robot so that in some fragmented way he is able to care for his wife, who has alzheimers, after he dies. Okay, maybe it’s only a tale as old as Spillikin itself, but what unfurls is a touching story that emotively draws on themes of love, illness, and the tragedies of life. 

There was no greater actor, living or otherwise, that was better for the role than our state-of-the-art RoboThespian. 

Everything that the RoboThespian says and does in the play had to be pre-programed. This includes all of its movements, whether it was facial expressions and eye movements, or moving its fingers to hold its wife’s hand. 

There were thousands of separate cues that needed to be triggered in order to get the robot to perform. This meant that its acting prowess was the same in every performance, as each time the cue was triggered, RoboThespian would deliver the line or action in a dynamite performance that his counterparts like Robocop or Terminator could only dream of. 

The play went far beyond the excitement of having a robot perform on stage. It offered a depth of insight to real-world themes in a unique way.

Alan Munden, Artistic Director and Designer for Pipeline Theatre, says ‘Making work about what you know or desire to better understand, I think lends it integrity. My mother has Alzheimer’s. I am frightened when I try to imagine her experience, but intrigued and excited to manifest it on stage, and wish I had the patience of a robot.’

Getting ready for dress rehearsals

RoboThespian has been honing its acting skills for 12 years and has been developed and refined constantly throughout this time. It is now in its fourth iteration and we have continually improved the mechanical, electronic, and software elements to ensure RoboThespian is at the very forefront of innovation.

Much like a table read for flesh and bone actors to work out the kinks in a script and get to know their character better, RoboThespian’s rehearsals have come in the form of over 100 different exhibitions in public spaces worldwide.

This wealth of experience gave Spillikin’s custom-made RoboThespian all the tools it needed to deliver a powerhouse performance. 

Perfecting the performance

As with most projects in robotics, Spillikin wasn’t without its challenges to overcome. For example, frequently manhandling the robot to move it on and off stage was no easy feat.

To combat this we built RoboThespian its own wheelchair so it could be easily wheeled on and off stage. The cables ran out of the back and seamlessly connected it to power and communications, serving as a kind of robot umbilical cord.

Once these hurdles had been overcome and acting skills had been perfected, the curtain came up for RoboThespian’s first performance.

The show was well received and garnered many five-star reviews, with the British Theatre Guide describing it as “perfectly constructed and superbly acted.” RoboThespian trod the boards across the UK, including some well received performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

After the performances, RoboThespian took part in a live Q&A session, with director Jon Welch using our innovative Tinman software<link to Tinman page> – the telepresence mode that allows people to speak through robots. This showed audiences an entirely new level of human-robot interaction in a way never before seen.

The craft of acting is a difficult one to master, but with RoboThespian the sky’s the limit.

Trying to enthral an audience and propel your brand? Get in touch to see how one of our RoboThespians can do both.