5 things a robot taught me about acting

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    Teaching robots how to act

Teaching robots how to act 02:00

By Matthew Gray, Special to CNN

Editor's Note: Matthew Gray is an Assistant Professor of Theater at the College of Arts, Media and Design at Northeastern University. He teamed up with social roboticist Heather Knight to teach her robot, Data, the art of acting and gestures. You can see more of  Heather and Matthew's training this Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on the CNN show The Next List.  

I’ve long aspired to put robots on stage, which is strange to say since the first appearance of a "robot" was on a stage.

The play, which was called "Rossum’s Universal Robots," by the Capek Brothers, introduced the word ‘robot’ into the lexicon in 1920. Ever since, that word -- and the themes of the play -- have been embraced by science.

But not by art. At least until recently.

    In late 2010, I became aware of Heather Knight’s work with her robot, Data. We spent a number of long conversations tracing out ways that robots could become viable performers. There were already some admirable forays into robot acting. However, they tended to consist of mainly dancing robots or robots being "cute." There was little work with gesture and emotion, except in robots that were being made to look as human as possible.‘The Uncanny Valley" -- the idea that robots creep people out if they look almost human but aren't quite believably human -- was something both Heather and I were set on avoiding. Instead, we thought perhaps you could teach a robot acting skills in the way you do a human actor.

    This caused trouble immediately. Firstly, many people still believe you cannot teach acting. To these staunch isolationists, acting is something you’re born with, and the skill that comes along with acting is only available to those who won the genetic lottery. As I have been teaching acting for close to 15 years now, I didn’t give those arguments much attention. Another fear expressed to Heather and I was that robots fundamentally could not work as actors because they had no emotional life. This is the point Heather and I wanted to confront head on. We did so by making a short film about a acting lessons for robots and humans.

    In the process, I was surprised to learn how similar our methods were.

    This is what I learned about the process of acting -- all from a robot:

    1. We both run on ‘code’

    Robots run on very specific instructions. This requires a kind of communication shorthand that becomes that particular robot’s code. Having acted myself, directed and taught actors, I can confidently say human actors also have their own unique codes when it comes to following instructions. Some actors are very physical and need to get up and play their scenes before talking about it; some other actors are very verbal, and need to discuss and debate before getting up and playing their scene. Some actors need visual cues to, like director’s acting out the scene for them, or examples of other actors’ work. Of course, all humans have all of these learning styles within them, but each favors their own specific code of conduct in the rehearsal room.

    Although I am not particularly adept at writing computer code myself, I know enough to understand that some coding languages are better for certain functions. For example, some languages are better at facilitating live camera feeds, while others are better for motion graphics. Just like a human actor, a robot’s operating code is usually able to execute many things -- but it can only do a few of them very well. That's what it's coded for. The same is often true for humans.

    2. We both are asked to degrade ourselves in public

    Actors -- robot and human -- are prone to bouts of public embarrassment as part of our craft.

    When I first learned of NAO robots (that's the model that Data, Knight's robot actor, is), these robots often were asked to dance in front of crowds -- shaking and strutting their stuff embarrassingly. The first actors I can remember from childhood stood in front of my entire school dressed as trees -- in brown and green leotards.

    Most live performance has the effect of belittling the performer.

    Robots onstage so far have been fairly extreme representations: either eager to destroy all humans, happily servile, or constantly breaking down in hilarious ways. It is equally as degrading for the robot, therefore, to be reduced to this unflattering distillation of robot-ness. At least humans have Hamlet, and a few other decent human representatives onstage.

    Robots increase their sophistication and abilities exponentially year by year, and yet we still insist on representing them as glorified electric garbage cans. If we were to show an audience more of a robot’s range, our adulation for that robot would undoubtedly result in better roles for robot actors.

    3. We both mess up. All the time

    One of the biggest misconceptions I had about robots was that they were able to repeat text and tasks ad infinitum. And they can … most of the time. But they will make mistakes. Humans are similar. Henry Ford’s production line showed us that even humans can repeat a task again and again, to the betterment of the product they are making. But, like the robot, the human can get it wrong.

    The same is true in acting. A seasoned and lauded actor can play a role like Medea night after night for months on end, and still flub a line or make a misstep onstage. I once met Robert Stephens after playing King Lear for close to five hours. He’d played the role for over 200 performances, but the night I saw him he forgot his lines and ended up cursing Goneril’s bottom, instead of reciting what Shakespeare wrote.

    Robots aren’t that different. During filming, Knight programmed Data with the line “Woe, woe, woe is me!” When we started the take, Data said “Woe, woe, woe is me -- exclamation point!” I have been in class where human student-actors will mistakenly read out loud the stage directions. And here was a robot not far removed from that, by articulating his own punctuation.

    4. We both need breaks. All the time

    Picture this: two cameras rolling, sound is ready, human actor has their lines learned, the light is starting to fade. We have to get the shot now. However, instead we are all informed that Data is a little “overheated” from all the demands of filming and we have to pause. Heather cracks open the head plate on Data and a fan is set up (by humans) to blow soothing air over Data’s cranium.

    It is comforting in a way to know that robots, too, cannot just grind out a performance take-after-take without needing to stop and take stock. It is also an interesting quirk that performance demands can turn even robots into little divas.

    5. Audiences endow us with their emotion more than the other way around

    The thing I emphasize more than anything else in my acting classes is to always remember that it is the audience must feel emotion during a performance. Not necessarily the performer. In fact, in my experience I find that when an actor feels particularly emotional during a performance, the audience feels a greater sense of distance from the play.

    In some ways, this works to the robot's advantage. Data's face is made of plastics, motors and sensors. But we infer it to be a face, like our own. That process of anthropomorphism is similar to what audiences do with human actors. They watch an actor born sometime in the last fifty years or so pretend to be an ancient mythological character from a different continent.

    And the audience ‘believes’ that actor to be the character. This works for both of us.

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