It’s not often that you get the opportunity to see a play with a robotic cast member, which is why Spillikin by Pipeline Theatre really grabbed our attention.
Visiting Hull Truck Theatre as part of its UK tour, the show tells the story of Sally and Raymond, whose relationship overcomes everything from differences in personality, to the vow of “Till death do us part”. This posthumous faithfulness is achieved through Raymond uploading his memories into a mechanical companion, designed to keep his wife company after he’s gone.
Fascinated by the use of sophisticated technology to tell a heartfelt tale, we got in touch with Engineered Arts, the innovative company that makes it all possible. Gill Spencer, Financial Controller, was kind enough to tell us more about their pioneering RoboThespian model, and how it was adapted to play the role of Raymond.
First of all, where are your robots used and how are they applied?
They’re spread across multiple locations, especially museums and visitor attractions, such as NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. As for their application, this ranges from mechanical theatre to public interaction.
Can you tell us more about RoboThespian?
Rather than designing a new exhibit for each museum customer, we created RoboThespian so that its core programming can be tailored to specific requirements. The hardware modules, valves and motors are integrated with control software and internet connectivity, allowing easy modification.
It’s a very complex piece of machinery capable of advanced engagement with its environment, which proves particularly popular with educational institutions and research departments.
How did the collaboration with Pipeline Theatre come about?
Pipeline are also based in Cornwall and our companies were already in contact with each other. The collaboration came about naturally and was conceived mutually, with a robot designed for in-depth storytelling and live acting being an exciting undertaking for both sides.
We worked very closely with Pipeline to understand their needs and get insight into the creative process. Everything was then provided for programming, animation and subtle customisation. Our robots usually stand upright but this one has been modified to sit in a wheelchair, reflecting the character of Raymond. It’s an amazing partnership project that makes us all very proud.
What happens to robots once they’ve served their original purpose?
They’re usually upcycled and sent on their next journey. For example, Raymond could eventually end up in a museum or somewhere completely unexpected. We currently have over eighty robots in use across the UK and abroad, including the Copernicus Science Centre in Poland and national museums in Spain, Australia, Israel and Thailand. There is also one at The University of North Carolina, shared by the computer science and theatre departments.
And how about Raymond, is he doing well on tour?
He’s working perfectly and audiences adore him! His face is projected onto the surface of the head from within, allowing seamless movement and interaction. He’s so realistic that you may even forget he’s a robot.
It really is a great show and I’m sure that visitors to Hull Truck Theatre will love it from start to finish.
Spillikin runs at Hull Truck Theatre from Thursday 3 until Saturday 5 November at 8pm. Tickets are £13-£15 and can be booked by calling 01482 323638 or online at hulltruck.co.uk