Writing a play for a robot

Jon Welch from Pipeline Theatre writes about the creation of Spillikin – A Love Story.

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Spillikin – A Love Story. Photos by Steve Tanner

It’s not often, as a playwright, that one’s given an opportunity to write a play for an actual, state-of the-art robot. However, in 2014, Cornwall-based robot-maker extraordinaire Will Jackson, having seen our play Transports (which also later played in The Salberg at Salisbury Playhouse in 2016), took a chance with us and so we started the process of putting one of his astonishing creations on stage. His robots are life-sized, humanoid, and exhibited around the world at museums, Universities, Ted Talks, but this was the first time one of his robots was going to be in a real play, playing a ‘part’. His words to me were: “I’ve spent ten years designing a piano – now I need someone to write the music.” So, no pressure, then.

The immediate issues were, one: how to make it ‘theatrical’ (not having the special effects and narrative shortcuts available in film), and two: how to avoid the clichés – in fiction robots generally either become ‘human’, or kill everybody. What was the story going to be? Around the same time, our artistic co-director’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the idea of combining an endlessly patient robot-companion with someone embarking on an unknowable journey of forgetfulness and loss came into focus.

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Because this robot is so special, and looks so amazing, it became obvious that it would have to be a bespoke companion. So it became a love-story – a robot designed by a robot-maker (himself with not long to live), specifically for his ailing wife; an ersatz husband, uploaded with his memories and ‘personality’, a whirring, twinkling, singing, game-playing, memory-prompting love letter created to stick by her from beyond the grave, as her Alzheimer’s worsens.

As a writer, it’s a been a journey for me too; not just in terms of the robot, but in the contact I’ve made with human carers – selfless, good-humoured, unsung heroes. It’ll be a long time before a robot can replace any of them. Seeing them stubbornly continuing to honour the totality of a person’s life and humanity, even as it diminishes in front of them, has been humbling. This is why I felt that our story should also take in the couple when they first meet, their early awkward, teenage photo-steve-tanner4romance, at their silliest, a full future ahead of them, and in their prime. Alzheimer’s is a dark theme for a play. But as audiences have attested so far, there are laughs, and plenty of them, in amongst the tears.

 

I really hope you’ll come along and jump on the rollercoaster with us. Afterwards there’s a special ‘Q&A with a difference’, where you’ll be able to get up close and personal with the robot.

Spillikin – A Love Story is performed in The Salberg at Salisbury Playhouse on Friday 24 February 2017 at 7.45pm as part of Theatre Fest West. For tickets or more information please contact the Ticket Office on 01722 320333 or visit www.salisburyplayhouse.com.

Spillikin is a collaboration with Engineered Arts, makers of the ground-breaking, cutting edge Robothespian.

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