The King of Broadway: Robotics in Theatres

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The King of Broadway: Robotics in Theatres

Some sights I have witnessed while studying technology I never thought could exist. I’ve seen A robot Spiderman fly through the air at Disneyland. I’ve seen a man disabled in a mountaineering accident turn himself into a Cyborg. But if someone had said, “Do you want to see King Kong on a Broadway stage?” I’d say “If he’s not singing with the voice of Brian Blessed, I’ll feel cheated”.

King Kong does not sing. He roars. And My God, How he Roars.

King Kong the Musical opened in 2018 and featured as its headliner a 25ft tall Kong, part puppet, part animatronic, all Mind-blowing. And this gives my inner Theatre geek a chance to sing – and belt – the praises of an often-overlooked sub-genre of technology – Tech in Theatre.

A Robot Cast Member

In 2017 a Robot became an actor. Spilikin featured A “Robothespian”; a moving, talking animatronic built by Engineered Arts, usually intended for Trade shows and presentations. The play concerns the widow of a robot engineer who keeps company with the mechanical replica of her husband. But as Alzheimer’s slowly takes over her mind, she starts to confuse the robot for the real thing.

robotics in theatres
“…2 B R 0 2 B?…”
Photo from

From his projected face to the life-like hand gestures, it is clear that Robothesp is meant to be a cast member, not a prop. One co-star even described it as “Affectionate”. However it had to occupy the stage for nearly the whole performance as moving it around is a difficult task, even with a custom-built wheelchair, due to the reems of power and data cables. And it is true that Robothesp was not interacting with the actors, rather all his sound and movement queues were pre-programmed and later triggered. Nailing the timing every night so that the exchange of lines flowed naturally would have challenged any actor! It also means that the robot gives the exact same performance every time, with no personality save that of the Voice-Artists’.

In 2018 a “Pre-curser” to King Kong was literally released into arenas worldwide. Walking With Dinosaurs, based on the BBC Documentary, featured life-size dinosaurs that moved with the aid of robotics. Larger dinos such as the mama T rex had three operators, using what’s known as Voodoo controls. These rigs are like dexterous gaming controllers, directing every movement, from violent tail swipes to a simple eye blink. Various roars, growls and squeals were pre-recorded and synced to a small keyboard and triggered by a 2nd handler. The smaller guys such as the raptors and the oddly adorable baby T rex were full scale body suits worn by the performer. Don’t try to get one for Halloween, those suits are Heavy, and require special training before use.

 “When you’re good to Mama…mama might still eat you.”
Picture from

Master of Puppets

All this is bringing us back to Kong. The 2000lb Behemoth renders audiences speechless the moment he stomps on stage. Created by the same people behind Walking with Dinosaurs, over a dozen puppeteers move his limbs and control his walking. Up to 5 operators use the Voodoo controls to change Kong’s facial expression and neck movements and his ferocious roars, grunts and mournful howls are made by an actor with a voice modulator.

It’s Good to be Da King.”
Photo from

As the performance isn’t pre-recorded, they can interact with the rest of the cast, keeping the energy alive throughout the show. The puppeteers just melt away. It’s as though someone saw Warhorse and thought “Yeah, it’s good…but needs more giant apes.

The Role of Artificial Intelligence

But if we need to come full circle, we now have a play written by an AI Algorithm. (See more here for the examples of AI produced art)
AI – when a robot writes a play celebrates the 100th anniversary of Karel Čapek’s play RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots, which first coined the word “Robot” to refer to an artificial humanoid. It is the brainchild of the Svanda Theatre Company in the Czech Republic and was a joint AI and human venture. The computer program, called GPT2, receives some basic plot elements, characters, and stage direction, as well as a starting line, and the algorithm builds from there. However, it appears that AI cannot write long exchanges of coherent dialogue and stay focused on the subject and cannot grasp subtext or emotion. It does understand basic plot formulation, but it seemed oddly preoccupied with themes of sex and violence.
Maybe they could put it to work writing for Soap operas.

This still makes more sense than Pinter’s No Man’s Land

The play itself features a Robot named Troy, who, in a plot akin to Frankenstein, finds himself alone after his creator’s death and so goes into the world to discover what humanity has to offer.

We’ve been pushing the boundaries of achievable movie effects for years and we’ve come to a standstill. As we’re now capable of photo-realistic CGI we know they can’t do any better without terraforming a planet or genetically modifying an actor (Don’t get ideas, Hollywood!) Movie effects are something we can take for granted. But in a live performance, you will see the same show as many times as you like, but never see the same thing twice. Stage illusions bring the show to life in a way movies never could.

If you take anything away from today’s discussion, I’d like it to be this. Sometimes it’s good to be larger than life. So as restrictions are starting to lift, treat yourselves to an evening at the theatre. You never know, you might watch a Robot earn its first Tony Award.

Love, the MELODRAMATIC!! Lucidica Bard

References: RoboThespian, a product of Engineered Arts Limited, is the world’s first commercially available mechanized actor. (© Engineered Arts)