How to Co-Star with a Robot - Interview with Spillikin’s Helen Ryan, Jon Welch and Jude Munder

Pipeline Theatre’s Spillikin is the moving story of an Alzheimer’s sufferer who is kept company by a robot made and programmed by her robotics-obsessed husband. Tom Moyser spoke to Director and Writer Jon Welch, Co-designer Jude Munden and BAFTA-nominated lead actor Helen Ryan about Alzheimer’s, AI and hologram Hamlets. The robot was there too.

If the robot’s early I have to try and jump in, if it’s late I have to try and make up time and if it stops talking, as it did on first night, I say all the robot’s lines!

Tell me about the robot.

Jon: Well the person who made it is a guy called Will Jackson. He was an art school student who got involved in automata. He just sidetracked into robots and this sort of machine. He’s been making or designing this sort of thing for ten years. His line is that he’s spent ten years designing a piano and he was looking for somebody to write the music. That’s where we came in as a company. He’s never had this robot as a theatre actor, although it’s called RoboThespian. It’s the sort of thing you put in front of museums.

How long did he take to make this particular robot?

Jon: Well, it’s difficult. This is actually a prototype. It’s the first time he’s had that body with that projected head on top. So I would suggest years. Years and years and years. You see, you just make different versions one after the other. It’s an incremental thing.

Helen: And if you got into Will’s factory, there are five robots, unfinished robots…

Jon: …standing in a row. It’s like going into the set of Artificial Intelligence, AI, or that one with Will Smith [I, Robot], in a warehouse in Penryn, outside Falmouth, which is the last place you’d expect to find it.

Helen: One of them runs!

How do you expect an audience to react to a robot actor?

Jon: Well that’s the thing. One thing is not to turn it into a gimmick. It’s not a clown, it’s an actor in a play. So the play itself is about a lady played by Helen, who has Alzheimer’s. And the idea is that this robot has been invented by her husband in order to look after his wife after she’s got Alzheimer’s and after he’s dead. It’s an emotional link.

Helen: She doesn’t know though, to begin with. She just thinks he’s away at a conference. She doesn’t remember the funeral and that it’s not until later that she says ‘Why are you here?’

What’s the experience of acting opposite a robot actually like?

Helen: Terrifying. You can’t improvise. If the robot’s early I have to try and jump in, if it’s late I have to try and make up time and if it stops talking, as it did on first night, I say all the robot’s lines!

Is the timing pre-programmed or is it more like a puppet?

Jude: It’s more like a puppet. The timing isn’t pre-programmed because Jon cues it. So he’s anticipating and reading the situation and every small piece of dialogue is cued so that he can react to Helen and the situation. So no one show is the same as the previous one, although the robot will say exactly the same things.

Helen: The robot is incredibly responsive. Because it’s incredibly fast sometimes. We overlap and I interrupt him.

Jon: If she interrupts me I’ve got an interrupt cue and I press the next cue in order to stop the dialogue and play the interruption.

Helen: You may think ‘Oh it’s a robot!’ But it’s incredibly moving.

Is the robot emotive?

Jon: Yes. It’s not Hollywood so clearly we’re not trying to say he develops his own personality and a soul, or anything like that. He’s been programmed by someone who loves the person he’s programmed the robot to look after. So he’s invested his life, his memories, his feelings, everything. And he’s a very taciturn man in real life. This is like a love letter to his wife. This is his opportunity to say the things he should have said.

At this point, RoboThespian has started moving his head and arm, as if he can hear us. He is making a tender expression and looks interested in the conversation.

Helen: And at one point he says about being Raymond and she says, you’re not because he never says about that, he never says he loves me. He spends his life going to conferences. To begin with she’s very weary of the robot and then she ignores the robot and then she starts to grow fond of the robot and then she falls in love with the robot and then she keeps saying ‘Can I hold your hand?’ She kisses the robot at one point and then she hates the robot.

Jon: It’s a big journey. And he is a player in that journey. He sings as well because part of the Alzheimer’s care is getting people’s memories back through music. The play ends with him singing a song, just to keep her awake - keep her alive - because her Alzheimer’s by then is very severe.

Jude: And the other genesis of the piece is that Alan [Munden, Jude’s partner, the co-creative director of Pipeline Theatre, who also acts in the show]’s mum has severe Alzheimer’s so we’re very familiar first hand with that journey. In fact, that’s Alan’s mum in the poster here. [Jude shows me the poster.] That was taken before we cast Helen.

Jon: Artificial intelligence and robotics is becoming more and more researched - and also used - in the care of people. For example, kids with Asperger's, people with Alzheimer’s. A human has limited patience. And someone with Alzheimer’s is going to repeat the same question over and over again. A robot is just going to answer that question quite happily.

Does this happen in the UK?

Jon: They’ve done some tests in Sweden. They’ve used little furry, cute creatures as a means of people wanting to share their memories. Their short term memory is gone so they do like talking about their early life. Just talking to a toy, essentially.

Jude: That’s the basis of an awful lot of research in robotics departments at the moment is in to the possibilities for adult care. We’ve been working with those scientists as well. There’s someone called Kirstin Dautenhahn from Hertfordshire University and another guy called Tony Belpaeme from Plymouth. Kirsten had something called robot house, which is full of prototype devices being tested in those sort of circumstances.

Jon: And there’s a big ethical question. Is this OK? Should we do this to our old people? Should we just put them into a room with a robot and hope for the best?

In this play the robot is real to the world of the play, it’s real to where the robot would actually be. Can you imagine a theatre where that isn’t the case. Where you might have two, three, four robot actors doing Hamlet, for example?

Jon: You absolutely could get four of these guys, pre-programme everything and watch it happen. And it would be a massive experiment.

Jude: I think the most engaging thing is the relationship between the robot and the human. Take that away, and it would just be a gimmick.

So you think it would be limited?

Jon: I think so.

Is it worth trying?

Jon: I think so, yes. We’ve had [from audiences] that the interesting thing about this play is not the robot, it’s how it reflects the human.

Jude: That’s how we engage with the whole idea of AI. Our fear of it and our fascination with it is all about what it means to us as people.

Jon: Other people have had the opposite reaction. They have anthropomorphised it and felt sorry for it and thought ‘poor robot’.

Are there ideas to use a robot in another production?

Jon: Not immediately. Possibly in the future. For me, this was the most interesting use I could find for a robot in a narrative, writing sense. I don’t want to get hooked into the whole thing and become ‘the robot company’. I think there are limits to what you can do with a robot on stage. I think, yes, you could do Hamlet. But there is so much technology out there. You could do hologram Hamlet, you could put virtual actors on stage and have them do the lines from somewhere else, whatever. Whether or not it makes it more interesting, or why it makes it more interesting, is totally up for grabs.

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