A review of My Square Lady by Gob Squad at Komische Oper Berlin- Louise LePage

My Square Lady by Gob Squad at Komische Oper Berlin on Sunday 5th July 2015

My square lady_Gob squad_Komische Oper

(photo courtesy of iko freese / drama-berlin.de)

On Sunday 5th July 2015, I went to see an ‘opera’ in Berlin, inspired by My Fair Lady, the musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalian, which presents a story about a young woman’s education to become a full human being (from a certain patriarchal, Western, and classist point of view!). In this production, the individual being educated is Myon (pronounced: Miew-on), a diminutive humanoid robot about the size of a 7 year-old child (1.25m tall and weighing 15kg). Its technological makers (who belong to the Neurorobotics Research Laboratory at Humboldt University in Berlin) are developing Myon’s intelligence and understanding, of a sort; meanwhile its theatrical directors/devisors – the performance collective, Gob Squad – have sought to educate Myon to express himself as human. Sharon Smith, one of Gob Squad’s members, told me that although the robot started out as a theatrical conceit, it became much more than this as the group began to ask: ‘Can she feel, think, and appear as if she’s emoting?’

The slippages apparent in the references to Myon above – between Myon as a ‘he’ versus a ‘she’, and between Myon as an entity capable of emotion versus one that is incapable of it – are crucial to the production, which asks the audience to reflect upon what it means to be human. It also asks related questions about performance, agency, and self. It contemplates, for example:

What is memory?

How do we remember things?

How do photographs work?

What is free will?

Who is responsible for Myon’s behaviour? Who is in charge here? (Answer: the stage manager!)

When you act, what is more important: to show or feel emotion? 

My Sqaure Lady 2

(photo courtesy of iko freese / drama-berlin.de)

In answering this last question, several of the opera singers spoke, during the show, about how they did both: feel and show the emotions of their characters; however, one of the singers insisted that he just showed, but did not himself feel, emotion during his performances. Does it matter that the performer (human or robot) does not feel things, so long as his expression is indicative of feeling and makes the audience feel? Whatever the answer to this question, it would appear to indicate that the gap between Myon and the singer is closer in some ways than we might think. Should we consider Myon a performer?

One of the most remarkable features of this performance was the use of the projection screen hanging above the stage, which showed Myon’s first-person perspective – both his recorded and his live point of view of the world. We saw projected the individuals he met in his past, and those he encounters live on the stage. Myon is central to our access to these people and experiences – he is its subjective mediator. The precise technological form of this direct audience address prompts us to wonder what it feels like to be Myon. What identity is indicated by these peoples’ attitude to him? What is it like to be Myon? Certainly, this first-person view seems to posit a subjectivity: these filmed experiences are kinds of memories and, collectively, they prompt us to wonder if they might be sufficient to compose a conscious person. Is Myon the sum total of these autobiographical experiences? (Is this what a human individual is?) And is Myon learning from these experiences?

My Sqaure Lady

(photo courtesy of iko freese / drama-berlin.de)

Sarah Thom, another member of the Gob Squad collective, had the following to say about the nature of Myon in the after-show talk:

[My Square Lady] makes it clear that Myon is the product of a team of people. It’s interesting to see Myon as a projection screen of all that’s been put into him and thereby see what it is to be human. What I see isn’t this plastic form but the human behind it, which reflects back to me. This is a very human experience.

 

For further information about the production and about Gob Squad, you can visit: http://www.gobsquad.com/projects/my-square-lady.

You can also find details about the production from the Komische Oper Berlin’s webpages: https://english.komische-oper-berlin.de/schedule/my-square-lady/.

Note about my research arising from my trip to Berlin to see My Square Lady:

I am in ongoing communication with the members of Gob Squad and my interviews with them will be published in due course, as will a fuller account of this fascinating production (including its implications for performance and our understanding of human beings and robots as we arrive at the cusp of what Hans Moravec has called ‘The Age of Robots’). I also plan to discuss My Square Lady further in my forthcoming book, Beyond Character: A Posthuman Drama. Meanwhile, a chapter on robot performers is forthcoming: ‘“Thinking Something Makes It So”: Performing Robots, the Workings of Mimesis, and the Importance of Character’, in the book, Twenty-First Century Drama (to be published by Palgrave in 2016). This chapter looks at the place of drama and, in particular, naturalism, in establishing audience belief and empathy for humanoid robots.

 

Louise LePage

9 July 2015

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