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Bot Party — Improv and Robots During Fusebox

Arthur Simone is an actor, artist and co-founder of Austin’s ColdTowne Theater. He graduated in Theatre from Oberlin College and studied improvisation at Chicago’s Improv Olympic. Notable live performances have included improv with a dog, Carla Goodman’s Failure: a Big Stupid Mess, Rubber Repertory’s Jubilee and his one-man show Dear Frailty, which earned him an award as Best Actor in Austin. As a film and television actor, he’s appeared in everything from Big Momma’s House 2 to Parkland. Arthur has been a sometime fixture on the annual East Austin Studio Tour and has been a finalist for the Hunting Art Prize.

Bot Party is an ongoing conversation between improviser Arthur Simone and social roboticist Heather Knight. Advances in robot technology have been traditionally limited to manufacturing or military applications, but new generations of interpersonal bots are being adapted for use in medicine, housekeeping and soccer. In this meeting of theatre and tech in a shared space, machines designed solely for utility can be re-purposed for a very human uselessness that approaches play.

We sat down with Arthur to discuss his latest project! Read more about it here.

One of the things you’re best known for is being the first person to improvise with a dog. What have you learned about improv doing this show? Have you been able to apply any of those lessons to your upcoming performance? Are you worried this is going to be your lasting contribution to the art form?
Most comedic improvisers know how to work a crowd, and performing Buddy Daddy (improv with beagle/dachshund Robin Goodfellow) took that to some interesting levels. I found that many people came expecting or hoping to see dog tricks or scenes about dogs, but that’s not what it was about. Anyone who’s ever met Robin knows he has no interest in any such thing, and that’s what made the show work. The dog was given every incentive to do whatever he felt like, whether it was lapping up water from his bowl, soliciting an audience member for a pet, following a strange smell or responding in the moment to an interesting sound.

Teaching Robin to roll over, play dead, beg or fetch was never in the cards, so I used it as a gift and ran with it. There are only so many jokes you can make about characters fetching things before you get bored with the same performers doing them, no matter how unfairly cute they are. What gave the audience such a baseline of empathy with Robin was his complete ability to live and react in the moment, which made my job easy. The more Robin didn’t want to play along with my scene, the better. But he had to visibly enjoy himself while denying those ‘trained’ responses, so it’s fortunate he has a tail that communicates waggin’ dog laughter. Cheese nibbles were my go-to.

What drew you to the idea of doing improv with robots? Where did the inspiration come from? Dogs are kind of useless. Some of them have real-life tasks like rescue, leading the blind, hunting or herding, but mostly they eat food and shed and need to be walked and some don’t do anything useful at all. So why do we keep those around? They’re useless! Robots too are kind of useless unless they have happen to have a use. Why would we build robots without uses?

I got inspired watching Heather Knight work stand-up comedy through her Nao robot, Data, a few years back. I sent her a link to a Buddy Daddy show and we started a conversation about what improvisation with a robot would look like. If you watch her TED talk, you’ll see that she created awesome feedback loops to help Data choose his next joke. She was teaching a bot to work a crowd! But what does it mean to pin down a guffaw or a chortle? How do you qualify something as a feelin’-good giggle or a condescending snicker? How can you tell a heckle from a shout-out or a groan of boredom from a groan of pun-ishment? There’s a raw visceral immediacy in live theatre that combines with a buzz of of danger in anything-goes improvisation, and it is in this atmosphere of biofeedback we hold our revival to reward empathy and nurture social bonds.

People like seeing uselessness in their performance, it’s something we relate to.

What has the process of putting together this show been like?
True autonomous robots are hard to come by. Programmers generally need programs with purpose. Batteries don’t hold charge. Artificial Intelligence can retain predictive patterns but don’t compensate with their own voice. Sensors have limits and lots of data is tough to categorize. “Improvisation with robots” is impossible! But the technology is coming and it’s coming fast. It will be interesting to see what happens. Robots are slaves born of the village as a gift to the village, and it behooves us to consider how to work them into our collective moral compass without losing sight of our humanity in the process.

What have you learned about robots? What have you learned about the human condition?
It’s easier to fool a robot than a human, but why would you do either?

What continues to excite you about improv?
The sheer boldness of improvisers willing to make mistakes. An audience freed from apology or expectation.

Where are you hoping to take this show in the future?
I’ll record and document Bot Party to submit to potential sponsors or as grants. I’d love to share space with engineers and explore some of the mind-boggling technology that’s out there in academia. Robotics needs intuitive and counter intuitive voices alike to truly reflect and complement our unique social development in this brave new world, so why not throw my dumb hat into the ring? Do you want robots in the idiot hands of the professional military or militantly in the hands of professional idiots?