Panel on “Entangling with the Nonhuman in Performance” (MLA, Chicago, 2019)
The realist actor’s basic problem is that theater is inhuman. If you’re not careful, its deadening repetitions will turn you into a robot. No wonder, then, that early theorists of realist acting always described bad acting as “mechanical.” Their solution, though, was not to restore actors’ humanity, but to turn them into better machines. In Stanislavsky’s words, actors needed to become “sensitive, responsive, mobile—like a well oiled and regulated machine.” Only then could they “arouse … dormant feelings” amid inhuman conditions.
Meanwhile, in our age of realist acting, one scenario has predictably thrilled spectators: a human actor plays a robot character who tries hard, and usually fails, to seem fully human. These roles are meta-roles, couched in scripts that are, at heart, about realist acting. Surveying robot dramas from Čapek’s R.U.R. to Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, and from Metropolis to Ex Machina and WestWorld, this talk reveals a popular conception of realist acting as the art of seeming human—or, rather, the art of slowly arousing a machine to humanity.
Because these actors succeed by dramatizing robots’ failures—securing their own humanity by playing down to their characters’—I refer to this genre (and its attendant ideology) as one of “botface” performances. Scholars of sci-fi have long observed that robot lore is a way of working through histories of slavery and present realities of racialized oppression. I therefore end by suggesting an alternative to the “botface” performances of realist acting—namely, the cyborg dreams of Afrofuturist performers.