Robot makes stage debut in play about lust, science

In an exciting development for robot thespians of the world, a play by novelist and playwright David Lodge features a bot in a walk-on (roll-on) role.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
2 min read

Arthur onstage
Arthur was built specifically for a production at Octagon Theatre Bolton. University of Bolton

"Secret Thoughts," a play by British novelist and playwright David Lodge, is introducing audiences to a hot new actor--Arthur the robot.

Arthur comes onstage for about 20 seconds, scans the room, and collides with furniture in the production, which is described as "science against art, and morality against indulgence." In it, Ralph, a married, groundbreaking cognitive scientist, meets Helen, a recently bereaved novelist, and "sparks fly" (presumably not from the robot short-circuiting).

It's really just a walk-on (roll-on) part for the remote-controlled bot, who's made mostly of fiberglass. But it leads to a pivotal conversation between the characters about the emotional intelligence of robots. And, of course, it marks another exciting step forward for aspiring robot thespians everywhere.

Arthur the robot
Laura Durham with her robot, Arthur, during the building process. University of Bolton

The world premiere of "Secret Thoughts" will show through June 4 at the U.K.'s Octagon Theatre Bolton located in Lancashire in Northern England.

"At the Octagon, we have the facilities to make theatrical sets, costumes, and props, but a modern, sleek robot was a bit beyond our reach," Oliver Seviour, the play's production manager, said in a release.

So the Octagon decided to turn to students at the nearby University of Bolton for casting help. The theater sponsored a bot designing and building competition, and first-year special-effects student Laura Durham took the prize for her creation, which can move backward, forward, and sideways. The upper half can rotate to scan the room, as called for in the script.

"The build was quite complex, and we had our fair share of problems along the way," said Durham. It took her and her team--tutor Simon Wiggins, fellow student Jack Myers, and technician Dave Lewtas--four weeks to build Arthur and help it train for its nonspeaking role (it communicates with help from its battery-powered LED light).

Arthur joins the ranks of such famed robot actors as Wakamuru, a humanoid from Mitsubishi Heavy Industry that in 2008 appeared onstage in Japan alongside real-life actors in a play hailed as a first in robot-human artistic collaboration. Since then, in at least one other example of robot and human artistry coming together, Yamaha's HRP-4C girlbot has shared the stage with a group of singing/dancing human counterparts.

With the field for robot performers getting ever more crowded, Arthur might want to consider hiring an agent.

Secret Thoughts
Kate Coogan, Rob Edwards, and Arthur the robot star in "Secret Thoughts" at the Octagon Theatre Bolton. Ian Tilton