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The Robot Theater: Live and Impersonal

By Matthew C. Stone

In 2007, German artist Heiner Goebbels premiered “Stifters Dinge,” an 80-minute performance piece inspired by the writings of Romantic author Adalbert Stifter. The show is primarily grounded in a haunting sonic landscape: a score for piano quintet interspersed with a pastiche of pre-recorded spoken texts. This tapestry of sound is visually complemented by five pianos fused in a sculptural arrangement that moves through a dense environment of fog and video projections during the show. Equal parts theater, installation, and concert, “Stifters Dinge” defies any conventional classifications. Beyond that, it confounds the very notion of a performance, insofar as it requires no performers.

The absence of performers is an essential feature of “Stifters Dinge.” Goebbels’ intent was to create a mechanical performance that unfolds with no human catalyst—in his words, “a no-man show.” The pianos are engineered to play themselves, and the lighting, sound, and projection cues are programmed and timed to the score. The whole event transpires as a fully mechanized sequence that forgoes the need for human input.

Admittedly, “Stifters Dinge” is a groundbreaking accomplishment. But for most actors and directors, conventional wisdom dictates that physical human beings are the essence of drama; theater is the art of one flesh-and-blood performer actively responding to another on stage. Yet Goebbels’s work implies that the performer is no longer a requisite element of live performance. “Stifters Dinge” posits a theater in which machine entirely supplants man.

The tension between theater and technology is by no means a new concern; in 1968, Polish director Jerzy Grotowski deemed technological advancements totally superfluous to theater in his treatise “Towards a Poor Theatre.” He disowned all theatrical technology in one fell swoop: “No matter how much theatre expands and exploits its mechanical resources, it will remain technologically inferior to television and film,” he writes. “Consequently, I propose poverty in the theatre.” Grotowski was a purist: to him, theatre was simply the raw experience of humans reacting to each other on stage—anything more would be a tawdry embellishment, turning out “hybrid-spectacles…without backbone or integrity.”

To that end, Grotowski would most likely object to “Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera,” a new opera by composer Tod Machover that opened at the American Repertory Theater last weekend. Much like “Stifters Dinge,” this opera complicates the relationship of performer and performance; baritone James Maddalena sings the lead role of Simon Powers, but spends most of his time sequestered offstage while a chorus of singing robots takes center stage instead.

In the second scene of the opera, Simon Powers transfers his consciousness into a computerized system. He proceeds to withdraw from the stage, and spends the remainder of the show cloistered in the orchestra pit where microphones and motion sensors capture his physical and vocal actions. As he performs, the entire stage design reacts to his every gesture: his physical impulses actively alter a massive display of LED lights, surround sound, and robotic systems. These technologies are a remarkable phenomenon that Machover has deemed “a disembodied performance.”

The question, then, becomes whether this integration of technology and live performance bastardizes the theatrical form. It may seem as if Goebbels’s innovation and Grotowski’s theatrical poverty are irreconcilable; however, Machover’s notion of “disembodied performance” could be a point of reconciliation. Much like Goebbels, Machover fully embraces technology—but rather than abnegating the performer, Machover mechanizes in order to close the gap between the signers and the technology. His notion of “disembodied performance” completely redefines the interface between performer and technology. Maddalena is never displaced by his robotic counterparts; on the contrary, the robots amplify every nuance of his performance.

Grotowski’s concerns aside, the live performer is anything but obsolete. “Stifters Dinge” is an innovative work of performance art that defies genre, but it hardly presages an age when performers will be quaint relics of the past. Furthermore, “Death and the Powers” suggests new ways of putting technology at the service of the performing arts. In a recent interview, Machover said, “I’ve been interested since the beginning of my career in using technology to enhance performance, to enhance artistic experience, and to do it in a way that’s not just humanly interesting but kind of brings human beings to the forefront.”

Machover demonstrates that live performance and technology are fully amenable; he embraces technology specifically to highlight live performance. “Death and the Powers” simply proves that performing artists should rest assured that their craft still lies at the heart of theater, music, and opera—even if their robotic counterparts occasionally steal the limelight.

—Columnist Matthew C. Stone can be reached at

mcstone@fas.harvard.edu.

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