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Wexner show casts robots as thespians

Courtesy of Tsukasa Aoki

The Wexner Center for the Arts is looking to change gears this weekend when it presents its first-ever robot theater performance. And while some might consider the use of robots as thespians innovative, others say it’s merely “cute.”
Chuck Helm, director of performing arts at the Wexner Center, compared the robot performers to Hello Kitty.
“They’re cute, they’re sweet, they’re very differential,” Helm said. “These robots are more like what they call ‘cute culture’ in Japan.”
The Seinendan Theater Company and Osaka University Robot Theater Project are slated to present an android-human theater performance of “Sayonara” and a robot-human theater performance of “I, Worker” 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday in the Wexner Center’s Performance Space.
Both performances will be presented each night and will be performed by a mixed cast of robots or androids and humans in Japanese with English subtitles.
“The plays are roughly a half an hour a piece and that’s partly due to the limit of the batteries that run the robot,” Helm said.
“I, Worker” centers on two domestic robots or robot maids.
“(It has) to do with kind of the contrast between their attitudes about work and life with the people who own them,” Helm said.
“Sayonara” includes an android cast member, which has more human characteristics than a robot. The play was recently altered to reference a tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011.
“They changed it so that this android has had some technical problems, but they’re going to have it retooled so that it can go and work in a damaged nuclear power plant,” Helm said. “It’s a way of referencing that situation, sort of the fate of the android versus the fate of the people.”
Sponsored by OSU’s College of Engineering and the East Asian Studies Center, the theater project formed from a partnership between playwright and director Oriza Hirata, who is the founder of Seinendan, and technical adviser Hiroshi Ishiguro, a researcher on robotics and director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University.
David Williams, dean of the College of Engineering, said in an email that the college’s involvement in the theater project is a “natural partnership for engineering.”
“The human-machine interface is a critical part of engineering research in many areas and nothing illustrates this better than robots,” Williams said. “I see robots as a natural part of the acting continuum.”
Helm said the project was appealing to the Wexner Center because of the show’s Japanese roots and how that tied into the mission of the Wexner Center’s to bring in international acts. The robots, he said, were somewhat of a plus.
“The Japanese have always been very sophisticated about how they develop robotics and artificial intelligence. But they really view … them with kind of human characteristics,” Helm said. “The audience’s empathy for the robots and the androids and what they go through is actually sort of the surprise element of this show.”
Helm added he thinks the project has the potential to draw in an assorted crowd, such as theater and engineering majors and East Asian studies students.
Yash Kulshrestha, a fourth-year in electrical and computer engineering, said as FIRST Robotics at Ohio State president, he’s looking to attend the performance with the student organization.
The organization mentors high school students in building a robot for an annual competition. Kulshrestha has been involved with the group and robots since his first year at OSU and said he’s not as familiar with robots being used in theater.
“It kind of just shows you where we’re headed – the levels of automation that we have around,” Kulshrestha said. “I’m not sure if they are going to stick around (in theater). I kind of enjoy not everything to be inhuman … I would not like to see robots overtake art.”
Helm seemed optimistic that robots would be taking the stage for some time though.
“It’s a developing trend,” he said. “As robots become more common, they’ll find their way into all kinds of areas of life and that includes into the arts.”
Tickets for the performance are available through the Wexner Center box office or at the Wexner Center’s website. They are priced at $10 for students, $16 for Wexner Center members and $18 for the general public.


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