Heddatron puts robots onstage

Sideshow Theatre Company gets help from the Chicago Area Robotics Group to construct its mechanical actors for Elizabeth Meriwether’s play.
Heddatron
Photograph: Peter Coombs Heddatron's robot cast members
By Kris Vire |
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The link between theater and robots goes way back: The term robot itself was popularized by Karel Capek’s 1921 sci-fi play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The artificial beings in Capek’s play, though, like most onstage automatons since, were designed to be portrayed by human actors. Actual bots playing characters are a much rarer phenomenon.

But just as IBM supercomputer Watson whupped human Jeopardy! champs last week, real robots are taking the stage at Steppenwolf’s Garage in Sideshow Theatre Company’s production of Heddatron. New York playwright Elizabeth Meriwether’s fanciful 2006 take on Hedda Gabler is populated by robots that kidnap a Michigan housewife and force her to reenact Ibsen’s play.

Heddatron was first produced by Les Freres Corbusier, the New York troupe responsible for such outré plays as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant. “It sounded sort of like a joke,” recalls Sideshow artistic director Jonathan L. Green of reading the New York reviews that Walt McGough, Sideshow’s literary manager, forwarded to him. Green was intrigued, but “it seems preposterously expensive, so we just put it in our back pocket.”

When Steppenwolf put out the call last spring for proposals for the second annual Garage Rep, Green returned to Meriwether’s play. “We started to question whether or not we could pull this thing off,” he says. “Before bringing the script to the rest of the company, I knew I had to have at least some semblance of an idea of how to get the show done.”

A little Googling brought Green to the Chicago Area Robotics Group (chibots.org), a club of engineers and enthusiasts. “I e-mailed their president and tried to sound as responsible as I could,” Green says. “He responded the next day and asked if we’d do a presentation.”

Eight members of Chibots volunteered to engineer the electronics and mechanics for Heddatron’s ten nonhuman characters, while the body designs are by David Hyman, Bruce Phillips and Lisi Stoessel. “These are guys who’ve been doing the weirdest robotic crap for years and years,” Green says of the Chibots crew. “Not only do they know how to do things, they’re excited to try new stuff they’ve heard about or read about.”

Eddy Wright and Stuart Hecht led the team of eight Chibots volunteers; Wright’s business, Wright Hobbies Robotics (wrighthobbies.net), also signed on as a corporate sponsor, donating the robots’ custom controllers. “I designed them myself. A standard R.C. controller wasn’t going to work,” Wright says. “If you think about what they did in 2006 and what we’re doing now, it’s a whole new generation of robots and control.”

“The only thing required of the robots in the script is they be able to move around and talk. My best-case scenario was that we’d have metal sculptures duct-taped to R.C. cars and we’d play their voices through the main speakers,” Green says. Instead, he’s ended up with some remarkably sophisticated mechanical actors. “These robots have custom-built platforms and software; there are hundreds of thousands of soldering points. It’s far more than I dreamed of.”

A few days into previews, the Heddatron bots have proven to be reliable performers. “We went into tech assuming the robots were going to be horrible, that everything was going to break—that’s not a judgment on the engineers; it’s just something so foreign to us that we were assuming the worst,” Green says, but there’s been nary a hitch. “They haven’t run amok yet.”

The robots’ physical range and the timing of their lines are controlled by their human operators offstage, so “there is a little bit of flexibility in what they can do. It’s not like they have tracks on the floor that they follow,” Green adds. “If something does happen during a performance where we have to stop the show, we’ve actually prerecorded quote-unquote ad libs from the robots, so they can tell jokes while we hold.”

[node:169985 link=Heddatron;] is now in previews as part of Garage Rep, which opens Sunday 27.

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