A Miraculous Kind of Machine: The Incredible Tale of Robot Boy

Award-winning company Theatre-Rites is a field leader in the creation of experimental theatre for children. Their latest co-production with German company Schauspielhaus Bochum aims to bring neuroscience to audiences in entertaining and visual ways. Emma Windsor caught up with Theatre-Rites’ Artistic Director Sue Buckmaster to find out more about how this modern day Pinocchio tale was born.

credit: Birgit Hupfeld

Can you tell us a little about the story of ‘The Incredible Tale of Robot Boy’?

The Incredible Tale of Robot Boy is a large scale show which has been co-produced by Theatre-Rites and Schauspielhaus Bochum in Germany. Initial development support came from Wellcome Trust and Polka Theatre.  It is inspired by the idea that, if Pinocchio was to be created today, he would not be made by an Italian woodcarver, but by a team of Global Scientists. 

We tell the story of how a group of cutting edge Neuroscientists make a brain from scratch and put it in the body of a robot boy. They do this to advance their studies of how neurobiological methodology can be used to help those with prosthetic limbs or with neuro-degenerative disease. However, what they actually learn about is what makes us human and how to face the responsibility of looking after their young creation, who rapidly becomes more sentient and playful.  The show aims to both entertain and introduce the audience to concepts of neuroscience in fun, highly visual ways. It is suitable for anyone over six.

credit: Birgit Hupfeld

‘The Incredible Tale of Robot Boy’ is a project that was developed from the ‘Animating the Brain’ project funded by the Wellcome Trust.  Can you tell us about the aims of that R&D project?

Six years ago I decided I would like to learn a little more about Neuroscience. I collaborated with puppeteer/performers Charlotte Dubery (who is Associate Director to the production in Germany), Mohsen Nouri and Simon Palmer. I personally wanted to understand the language of neuroscience, consider the ethical implications of its advancements and see how it could increase my understanding of the power of the puppet on stage. After all, a puppeteer literally offers their brain to become the brain of another object. 

Wellcome Trust funded the initial stage that allowed us to do research with neurobiologists Matthew Grubb and Laura Andraeae. We learnt about basic neuroscience and its various applications.  As a Theatre-Rites project it was also important to ask: how can we make the study of the Brain interesting to children? With the scientists we had imagined creating a brain from scratch and had discovered how neurobiologists manipulate or investigate neuron activity in their daily practice. Next I wanted to put that imagined brain in a puppet body of a child so that children could relate to it more directly. That enabled us to explore the brain/body connections discovered by understanding neuron activity in the brain regions. This related to the methodology I use as a Puppet Whisperer, slowly bringing a puppet to life. 

We commissioned Stitches and Glue to create the puppet. It became the stunning Robot Boy. As part of our research we visited year 6 children to ask them what interested them about brains and to ask their teachers about what already existed on the curriculum. Polka Theatre allowed us to try out ideas during their Brainwaves Festival where we presented a sharing and Q&A session to children and those interested in science and the arts.

After the sharing we were asked to take Robot Boy in to Great Ormond Street Hospital for a residency to meet families with children who were experiencing neural illness. We also met doctors and play therapists who were making key decisions about offering  brain intervention reparation techniques. This was very different to the clinical world of our earlier scientists who dealt with neuron clusters, sliced and dead brains. We were now embarking upon emotional and ethical issues raised by developments and opportunities offered to children through advancement in our understanding of how the brain works. 

Great Ormond Street Residency

The set/puppet design in the show is particularly eye-catching!  Can you tell us more about the design concept and fabrication?

After 3 years of research we had our beautifully designed central puppet character by Stitches and Glue and we were ready to start turning our research into a visual theatre show.  I shared ideas with writer Jimmy Osborne and we slowly created a script. Joanna Scotcher came on board as Designer and she proposed the stunning laboratory setting with a sci-fi aesthetic which was constructed by the in-house team in Bochum. Within that set she provided a series of pentagon and hexagon surfaces which could be projection mapped to receive imagery created by video artist Dick Straker. This was inspired by the graphics of neuroscience and the images from EEG monitors and MRI scans.  Along with Lighting Designer Wolfgang Macher a stunning visual world has been created on stage inspired by a cutting edge Laboratory and the real things found there, as well as the imaginary world of Robot Boy’s Dreams as his brain becomes more human.

credit: Birgit Hupfeld

‘The Incredible Tale of Robot Boy’ opened at Schauspielhaus Bochum in Germany and will run there over Christmas.  How has it been received so far? Will it tour in the UK?

The show is now part of the Schauspielhaus Bochum’s repertoire and is performed in German by their ensemble of performers. Theatre-Rites also introduced two puppetry skilled guests to join the ensemble: Markus Schabbing and Franziska Dittrich. It will run over Christmas until the end of January, then it is part of the repertoire of shows that the Theatre can present throughout the year. It is not specifically a Christmas show. 

It is performing to an audience of 800 at a time, either schools or families, and it will have reached over 20,000 by Spring. So far it has engaged people with its beauty and braveness. It has been acknowledged for taking a current and not necessarily child-friendly subject and making it accessible, fun, beautiful and inspiring. 

We are now looking into the possibilities of bringing the English version to the UK. 

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