Devising a Robot Street Ceilidh

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HELENA: I first saw my first Robot at home. The town counsel bought them for! – I mean engaged them for work.
DOMIN: Bought them, dear Miss Glory. Robots are bought and sold.
HELENA: These were employed as street sweepers. I saw them sweeping. They were so strange and quiet.
– Karel Čapek, R.U.R. (Rossums Universal Robots), translated by Paul Selver & Nigel Playfair, (Dover, 2001)

In 1920 when Czech writer Karel Čapek was searching for a word to describe his Golem-like creations in his new play, his brother Joseph apparently coined the name ‘Robot’. The word is thought to have been an amalgamation of two existing Czech terms, ‘robota’ which means ‘drudgery’ or ‘servitude’ and ‘robotnik’ which denotes a peasant or serf. Inspired by Čapek’s R.U.R. (Rossums Universal Robots), a play that sees biological Robots uprising and destroying their creators and ultimately the human race, I created Public Service Robots.

On Sunday 17th May 2015 a gang of Robots will be deployed on the streets of Shawlands as part of the Southside Fringe Festival. Public Service Robots is a science fiction guisers performance that investigates the way in which Čapek’s hieroglyphic Robots might inhabit contemporary space and imagines the moments before Robot rebellion.

The performance begins with the Robots appearing as street sweepers as in the play (above). This is pre-programmed forced labour and we can sense the oppression controlling them through repetitive movement and body language. The Robots then awaken from their programming and fight against the oppression that is pushing them down. They come together and show their unified strength and burgeoning sense of cultural identity through a communal folk dance. The idea of Robots first expressing revolt through communal dance came after spending a season dancing with the Mersey Morris Men in Wirral. There is an idea that Morris dancing derived from Moorish dances that were danced to show strength and unity of a threatened culture (so says Billy Bragg, so it must be true!).

Public Service Robots explores themes of servitude and rebellion and the notion of robot culture and soul. When experienced individually the robots are uncanny, provoking unease and igniting the imagination. When seen in a group the Robots become unnerving and present a world of simulacra and mass-produced workers.

I have been working with a group of young people from local theatre group Theatre at Queens to co-create this version of the performance for the Southside Fringe. We have had two successful one-hour sessions so far, with one more next week before we perform. This is not much time to devise a performance but I feel the time restrictions add a sense of chaos and contingency that allow the performance to be directly lived and experienced by those involved rather than merely re-presented. In the first session we focused on movement and body language. I introduced Lecoq’s ideas about pulling and pushing forces and also Boal’s notions on how muscular structures might be formed from repetitive work. We worked together to imagine our bodies as both strong efficient robots and oppressed workers. What was pushing and pulling us? How does this show in our muscular structure? The performers took these ideas on board really well and by the end of the session were moving around the space like oppressed machines. Step, step, sweep; step, step, sweep; step, step, sweep. During the next session we devised the Robot dance. Using ideas from different folk traditions such as Morris, Sword, and Ceilidh, we invented our own set of figures to be danced using brushes and wearing custom made robo-bell pads! Our new moves included ‘The Wheel’, ‘Axe Fall’ and ‘The Gate’. The final session will take place next week when we will put everything together in full costume. I’m looking forward to seeing what we’ve worked on so far come together.

This version of Public Service Robots was made possible by the School of Culture and Creative Arts Creative Practices Fund. I was awarded funding to help towards developing my Robot costumes and to cover the costs of producing the performance for Southside Fringe. It is great that the fund is there to help make these things happen.

If you’re reading this before Sunday 17th May then get yourself over to the Southside and check out the performance. The Robots will be at Shawlands Arcade at 2pm, then will move down Pollockshaws Rd to the top of Langside Ave (next to Queens Park) for 2:45pm and then finishing opposite Shimla Pinks on Pollockshaws Rd at 3:30pm.

Written by Bob Moyler, MLitt Theatre Practices

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