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Simon Tait’s Mews – No.1

This is the first in a series of posts from the journalist Simon Tait. He will be musing on all things mechanical once a month.

How closely related are mechanical theatre and the latest generation of robots? Is the connection the art, the mechanics, the humour? Is the difference computer technology? Well, if we’re talking about Cabaret and the extraordinary creature called RoboThespian, the differences may be obvious but the relationship is pretty damn close.

The moving, talking, singing, acting, sort-of-dancing RoboThespian, or RT, whose eyelids even close over his moving eyeballs as he speaks, has been developed in Cornwall by Engineered Arts whose director is Will Jackson; Will is the son/sister/uncle of CMT triumvirate of Sue Jackson, Sarah and Max Alexander, and while RT himself may blink dubiously at the notion of consanguinity with, say, Paul Spooner’s classic The Barecats, we humans can’t argue with history.

Will had studied 3D design before finding himself in the film industry making advertising movies, RT’s earliest ancestor, believe it or not, is the furry pink rabbit of the Duracel ad. He went to New York where his textile designer partner Tracy had work, but he found Madison Ave well paid but, well, dull, and they moved on to Australia for a couple of years, working on animation. He began building his own machines, specifically unique slot machines, working with CMT’s own godfather Tim Hunkin, and some of Will’s creations are still part of Tim’s Under the Pier collection at Southwold. Together they worked on the Science Museum’s The Secret Life of the Home – Will has a knack of getting to what children really need to know, and developed the cut-in-half-toilet to show exactly where the poo goes.

Then came Cornwall’s Eden Project, the ‘biomes’ which constitute more than a green theme park for which he and Paul Spooner, another CMT favourite, created figures that would show what the world would be without plants. Apart from anything else, we would have no clothes, and the figures duly lose theirs – much the fury of some, including a devout Methodist who judged the male figure’s penis to be too erect.

At Glasgow’s Science Centre things started to get eerie when he used robotic creations to explain the human body – how Dolly the Sheep was cloned, what happened to Laika, the first spacedog, and how to transplant the heart of a Barbie Doll.

robo1Up to now, though, Will’s figures were strictly mechanical with a bit of film animation thrown in, but four years ago Engineered Arts began a new Eden commission, about genetic modification, and the only way to do it was with a programmable figure: enter RT1. He took a bow at the Kinetica show at Spitalfields where CMT had some of its most spectacular pieces and drew gasps of disbelief as Will’s vaguely human forms (modestly clad in y-fronts) swayed and moved their arms, fingers and heads.

That was pretty crude, as Will says. RT2 is now touring the world in various forms – in Jedda he speaks Arabic – the size of an average man with bones of aluminium, his face and body are made of thermoplastic resin, and his sparklingly intelligent eyes are LCD displays.

In another connection with theatre, Engineered Arts is creating the figures for a 16-minute play for the Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw, three robots which will perform a dramatisation of a story by Stanislaw Lem (author of Solaris). Will’s RTs are now academic wonders, with RT2 now a resident of the Carnegie Science Center at Pittsburgh. Voices are still, of course, human, fed through the computer programme that controls RT – there are actors specialising in creating robots’ voices – but RT is developing all the time, and playwright David Tushingham is working on a possible script for robot actors.

RT3 is on the way, and in 18 months or so will be the first properly walking RT, and with computer technology combing with chemical developments to create skin and hair, and the mechanical genius of Will Jackson and his Engineered Arts team, there are no limits to the possibilities. ‘There are scientific robots that can do things that look nothing like our image of a robot,’ Will says, ‘but what interests me is how we can make RobThespian as human as possible, with smooth movement and facial expression’. And while RTs are on view in exhibitions and conferences around the world now, you can have our own, and for £50,000 Will can make a bespoke one pretty closely related to the customer – an RT-U you might say…



Milan thrills
Both setts of the family are in Milan this week for a spot of ecsitement – they’re at the annual conference of the European Network of Science Centres and Museums (Ecsite, get it?) where Cabaret has five or six large automata, and Engineered Arts have got a big exhibition area with two robots. Will and Sarah are both speaking though, in accordance with a good up-bringing, hopefully not at the same time…

Cabaret space
Remember the days before it went global when Cabaret was in its little subterranean corner in Covent Garden. Happy, innocent times, but lurking there the other day I noticed the space it used to occupy is empty. They’ve long out-grown it, of course, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a permanent presence in London again? Sue and Sarah would probably grasp their throats in horror at the thought, but I just see a couple of Spooners, the odd Hunkin or two and perhaps a Newstead or two in the Olivier foyer, or the bar of the O2, or even beside the restaurant area at the new King’s Place concert hall at King’s Cross. How about it?

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  1. Sergio Pinese says:

    Oh Simon,
    you are speaking out of my heart with the idea to have CMT again in Covent Garden. I am sure it was no easy time for Sue and Sarah and it wouldn’t be the same as it was years ago.
    But when CMT moved to Covent Garden I was 27 years old and had no idea about automata and the related beauties which were shown in London. It would be some sort of revival of “good” old times.
    But I would love much more to see an exhibition of CMT where many unknown, forgotten, old and new pieces are shown and makers and collectors and friends gather to meet and talk and enjoy this strange art/craft/toys. CMT become more physical again (e.g. with an exhibition in Cornwall). I would immediately book the flight to see it.
    Best regards,
    Sergio Pinese

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