Caution: Robotic Technology At Work


“Please turn on your cell phones, and set them to vibrate.”

Spectators have played a part in performance since theatre began, laughing, gasping, and watching performers respond to their responses. In the 20th century, environmental design went further, blocking us into the action. But when the Quantum Theatre in Pittsburgh collaborated with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University to create a high-tech production of Cymbeline, the joint effort enabled 21st-century audiences to lend input to Shakespeare himself on the dialogue.

The Quantum used a formal garden in Mellon Park, where spectators sat around an Elizabethan raised thrust, surrounded by cypress trees. Director Karla Boos says Tony Ferrieri's minimalist set of ramps and platforms “looked like a spaceship that had landed in this beautiful city park.”

A secret marriage, a faked murder, plenty of disguises, and even more missives are part of the Bard's romantic farce. If he could use magical elements, why couldn't the Quantum? If Shakespeare wanted missives, Boos would give him missives.

Audiences witnessed sheets of paper with newly generated words magically appearing from laser printers, hidden in giant trees. At first, an actor would rip out a page with a thematic word or noting “Rome” or “Wales” to set location.

Then cell phones in the audience vibrated.

A character called out to the audience: “Tell us the name of one you lost” — the message when Imogen is presumed dead. Spectators texted back names. “What is worth fighting for?” was texted to the audience during battle. “Our children” and “cupcakes” were among the answers spewing forth in large, visible type. “Whatever they said, that's what came out,” says Boos. “At the end of a performance, a guy went through the trash to find his word as it appeared in the performance”

Roboticist Illah Nourbakhsh and software engineer Aaron Tarnow collaborated with Quantum on the project. “Where can I get a printer that prints fast and is quiet, small enough, and battery-powered?” Nourbakhsh says he wondered during the planning stages of the production. “What circuitry do we buy? What technologies should we pick? How should we implement the system?”

Tarnow would have to achieve communication with the phones and enable the stage manager to control which printers would send words, as well as the size and font. “At the beginning, we weren't sure the cell phones would work at all,” says Tarnow. Would they be able to deliver the missives, or would technology be no better at communicating than some of the characters are?

Working outdoors meant finding ways to protect equipment from weather. Also, Ferrieri had to deal with uneven terrain, which “sloped down toward the seating area in the wrong direction from the steps that would support the stage,” he says. Although he created a ground plan before beginning, the site changed, with some plants growing more and some flowers ending their run before the show did. The production team, as guests of the city, had to take care not to damage plants while lugging lumber to the site. Since actors might track mud on the stage floor on rainy days, Ferrieri decided on a parchment paper look, but paint dried before crews could scumble colors together when painting in the hot sun.

Lighting designer C. Todd Brown faced competition from natural light. Because the sun set later as the run went on, the quality of natural light changed throughout a performance — and across the run of the show. In addition to lighting the show, Brown lit props — a ring and bracelet exchanged by the star-crossed lovers, a bloody cloth, a box of mysterious compounds, and a tablet. The jewelry, worn by characters and handled roughly, would be particularly problematic. The jewels would appear early in the show, when natural light might interrupt the effect. “Available power was inadequate to the scale of the show,” says Brown, who had to light about 1,000sq-ft. of acting space. “The total power available to us was 200 amps, single phase, which was used for lighting, sound, robotics, and general backstage power.”

And, oh yes, some actors played two characters who appeared at the same time and talked to each other. Susan Tsu's costumes would be called upon to do tricks, too.

“It felt like I took a step onto a ledge,” says Boos. Would the technology work as planned? Would the audience?


To prevent failures, Nourbakhsh carefully selected the technology, then tested it all meticulously. Backups proved essential — a backup laptop, fully programmed, backup cable, and backup printers saved several performances. He decided on thermal Pentax printers that print like fax machines. “We used the Telit GSM cell phone transceiver to make this possible, with both technologies plugged by USB into a laptop,” Nourbakhsh says. “The laptop was the hub of activity. It both communicated with the printers and with the person in the control booth and with the cell phone world. It was able to send messages out to the audience and read messages back from them.”

Tarnow created a text file the stage manager could edit by typing in a word with spacing. “The program translated the text file into a list of cues for each act, controlled by a go button,” says Tarnow, who wrote the interface, printing, and cell phone code using Python. “I had an empty Microsoft Wordpad file that had the font specified,” Tarnow adds. “When the stage manager clicked go, the program would write the word, spacing, and font size to the file and issue a Windows command-line print command…It was possible for her to reprogram any cue during rehearsal, but the text file never changed once we opened, so when she ran the program nightly, she got the list of cues as she expected it, like any lighting software.” Tarnow's source code is available at:

They used a card that plugs into a laptop to simulate a cell phone.“This card looks like a circuit board with an antenna and a power button, and a standard phone SIM card plugs into it. You send it commands, and it sends you back responses,” says Tarnow, who programmed this in a way that allowed other things to occur if cell communication was delayed. “It's a serial device. You send it a command and wait for it to respond. The text message technology, SMS, is not the most robust technology in the world, as you know when a friend text messages you, and you get the message three hours later.” By threading — creating a program with two sets of commands — he made it possible for two things to go on simultaneously. “The program could move on to another phone when one didn't deliver quickly.”

Ferrieri says the team searched for a site that would accommodate the show “and we incorporated the printers into what was there. We oriented toward the West, toward two tall cypress trees in a kind of field. The trees flanked a staircase that normally brings you into the garden. We covered most of the stairs and had the stage above and ramps wrapped around the trees.” Ferrieri added wedges to level the seating for spectators and strengthen construction so the seating platform wouldn't collapse. Pruning and adjusting the terrain continued throughout. He created “an antique parchmenty look with beige epoxy deck paint, which held up well through rain and mud,” he says.

Brown treated every scene as if it would be played in the dark, protecting against problems with light levels.“The result was that we didn't see some of the effect of the stage lighting while we had the sun, but this was preferable to the other end of the spectrum,” he says. He also did some brush-up cue writing to compensate for the changes in natural light during the run. “To work as flexibly as I could [without adequate power], I chose sources that were as efficient as possible — primarily ETC Source Four ellipsoidal and PAR units with 575W lamps — and tried to use them efficiently, which meant sticking to a very light color palette.” The palette used in scenery and costumes, shades of white and off-white, helped. “When I did use some saturation, the contrast was stunning and affected the viewers much more because of its scarcity,” he adds.

Brown used LEDs to light the props. Sometimes, this was straightforward.“The bloody cloth simply had a string of battery-operated LEDs attached to it and was arranged by Tony Ferrieri so that the actor could carry it by the battery-pack and look very natural,” says Brown. Ferrieri also designed the box and tablet to allow mounting LEDs in each. “These objects again used pre-constructed LED strings, although I modified them to fit the objects properly,” adds Brown. The LEDs used in props included a mixture of battery-powered strings from Bethlehem Lighting and Environmental Lights, novelty necklaces from SureGlow for parts, and individual LEDs from All Electronics.

The head of Cloten was difficult. “Initially, many of our ideas for representing the head related to the paper theme, but ultimately, we decided that using LEDs could make the effect fit better,” Brown says. “I combined another LED string with individual LEDs — red, of course — which hung from the bagged head to represent fresh dripping blood. Once we established this as an idea, we [added] a collar of blood to the headless corpse, the actor with a cleverly designed head-covering, with more blood drops.”

Collaboration solved the ring and bracelet problems. “Susan Tsu shopped the structural bit of the bracelet and designed the look of the finished product, I designed and constructed two strings of blue/green LEDs, and Tony Ferrieri helped make the system stay together physically,” says Brown, who attached lighting to the actor's finger instead of to the ring. “Susan attached a piece of elastic for me, and the actress was able to wear the band holding two blue LEDs under the ring. She operated the lights from inside her costume sleeve and was able to turn the lights off as she removed the ring to give it to another actor.” Actors were careful in how they held their bodies during moments when natural light might limit the effect.

Tsu's costumes solved double casting problems, too. For the characters of Cymbeline and Lucius, she designed “a doublet-like vest that had a panel that was like a stylized lapel that could flip back and forth,” she says. “The smooth ivory side represented Lucius, and metallic appliqués of giant washers that gleamed in the sunset represented Cymbeline, the King. A country boy in a ragged fur jacket transforms into an elderly doctor in a sleek over-robe. A loyal servant in vest and jodhpurs changes to a strong son in a ragged fur poncho. And the plotting Iachimo becomes the cunning Queen by putting on a black glove with an evil pointer finger and flipping a knotted drape from the front to a loose flowing shawl in back.” When actors transformed by donning or ridding themselves of symbolic costume pieces, Tsu says that audiences often applauded.

Tsu used imaginative materials to stay within budget, including watercolor paper ripped into little squares and stitched to strips on shirts, screening on a hat, shower liners, washers to represent the royal family, bits of silver tape stitched in patterns, drier lint wedged and stitched into plastic “raviolis,” and fur/noil/yarn remnants pinned to costumes. The pins were then hot-glued closed.

There were small technical mishaps through the run, but all agree these were never significant enough to stop the show or dampen enthusiasm for it.

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