Christopher Grobe

Associate Professor, Amherst College

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Mechanical or Electric?: A Roboticist's Guide to Acting

Seminar on "The Life and Liveness of Machines" (ACLA 2017; Utrecht, The Netherlands)

Good realist acting is often “technical,” but it must never be “mechanical.” It can—indeed, should, according to some—be “automatic,” but it must never, ever get “robotic.” Keep these principles in mind and, if you’re lucky, you’ll someday give a truly “electric” performance! In these (and a thousand) ways, we insist: the realist actor must never (and must always) be machine-like.

This is not as contradictory as it may sound. For centuries now, the word “mechanical” has been a dead metaphor in theatrical discourse, meaning false, predictable, and clichéd. At the turn of the 20th century, though, teachers and theorists of acting brought new machine metaphors to life. Take Russian director and acting theorist Konstantin Stanislavski, who famously railed against what he called “mechanical acting,” but who aimed to create actors who were “flexible, receptive, expressive, sensitive, responsive, mobile—like a well oiled and regulated machine.” Or consider Samuel Silas Curry, an influential American contemporary of Stanislavski, who decried “cold and mechanical” modes of performance, but who taught actors to operate on themselves the way an “engineer does [on] his engine.”

Surveying acting theories of this period, and applying them to the case of actors who took machines (telegraphs, telephones, etc.) for their scene partners, I will define and historicize the new vision of machine performance—“sensitive, responsive, mobile”—that roboticists (and actors) now take for granted.

copyright 2015, Christopher Grobe