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Be Careful What You Create: Karen Getz Premieres AI Project Tonight

Posted June 28th, 2010

You may remember three-time Barrymore Award winner Karen Getz from her comic-actors’ ballet Suburban Love Songs in the 2006 Live Arts Festival and the 2008 sequel, Disco Descending. She’s not in the Festival this year, so you better catch her new work, AI Project, tonight through Wednesday at 8 pm at the Bristol Riverside Theater.

AI Project was inspired by a video of a companion robot that Karen’s 11-year-old daughter brought home after building robots at school. Another comic-actors’ ballet, the show is about a human and four humanoid robots in a warehouse of cast-off robot parts. I caught up with Karen as she drove to rehearsal–don’t tell the police–about her geeky past (and, she admits, present), what the inside of a robotics lab is like, and how to tell a joke without saying anything at all.

Live Arts: I read that you went to the Hanson Robotics lab in Dallas, Carnegie Mellon, and MIT to do research for AI project. Do you normally do that degree of research for your work?
Karen Getz: I’m a total research geek–I try to do as much research as possible. I’m already a science fiction geek to begin with, so a lot of the science fiction I’d already read. It was very important to me to get the hands-on, engineering, programming questions and to actually go to these places where they’re working in AI. Getting images of who these people were and how they worked in their environment was invaluable.

After the jump: Inside the robotics lab.

LA: What was the Hanson Robotics laboratory like?
KG: So much fun. It was like the most delightful, mad workshop, like opening the door to a secret world that you had no idea existed where these wonderful, brilliant, kind, slightly different people were making things that would make the world a better place . . . Hanson started out as a visual artist and then crossed into the robotics realm. Everyone there were something-slash-artists–engineers-slash-artists, programmers-slash-artists. It was very much like being in a theater office, because the way they work is very theatrical . . . It was very touching. Something of the artist’s soul was in the robots . . . It was just incredible. We got a lot out of being in that place.

LA: Can you explain what a comic-actors ballet is?
KG: It’s a ballet where the ballet dancers are replaced by really funny actors . . . I was interested in telling the stories through real bodies that aren’t technically perfect, using a dance language that makes sense for them, that’s natural for them, so that anybody watching in the audience can identify. It’s still about being linear and telling a story without words. Text is replaced by physical language.

LA: You’ve been doing improv with ComedySportz since 1995. In a piece like AI Project, how is making a joke with dance different than with improv?
KG: It’s exactly the same if you’re doing good improv. Whatever you’re trying to say, if it’s coming from an honest place and you’re sincerely trying to communicate it, it will be funny. My passion about improv is really trying to achieve that . . . I’m very uninterested in being clever. I don’t like being funny just for the sake of being funny–that doesn’t get to people. I like to touch people. I want them to laugh from their bellies and not from their head. That’s my goal, to get there with this piece so that we’re really caring about these characters and we’re laughing because we love them and they have something we recognize in ourselves . . . When it comes to dance you really can’t lie, because when you’re dancing you can’t get away with it. If we set the character up right and we understand who we are, then the comedy’s coming from the same place–the truth.

LA: How do you choreograph differently to signify a robot versus a human? (Besides the standard robot move. See: 1983.)
KG: That’s the challenge, to really let the mechanics of how these creatures move inform me. Choreography is a visual art, so I have to kind of feel it and see it and watch it, which is why going to the Hanson lab was so important. [Robots] move very, very differently. It’s about what happens when they turn on, and I want to show how creepy they might be, and the weirdness. When I did workshops with the actors in March, the only thing we were working on was creating each of their languages based on what they were built to do, how they function, the religiosity of their limits. You know–they could do this, they couldn’t do that. Some of what the characters do is to make fun of the idea of what a robot is . . . The hubris for us is to anthropomorphize them. Be careful what you create, because once you do you don’t really have control of it.

LA: Are you worried about robots ever being able to move like humans?
KG: Worried? No. They will be. It’s more about what we create and how we decide to deal with it. They’re there. . . . It’s not science fiction by any means at this point . . . There’s this thing called the “uncanny valley.” It’s a theory that if the robot looks too much like a human you’d be creeped out by it, because it’s close but not exactly right. If [AI Project] gets the chance to live some more, I hope to have the time to bring that into my robots . . . I think sometimes we use technology to hide some of the messiness of being human. We’re not perfect, we’re really kind of messy. We’re not one and zero and we don’t make sense sometimes . . . Sometimes its really uncomfortable to feel something you don’t want to feel or look at something you don’t want to look at and technology is a way to cover that up. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology. When I grew up I really was a Star Trek fan. It was on three times a day in New York City and I watched it at 6, 7, and 11 pretty much every night. I think from that I learned that we can be as advanced as possible, but there’s still nothing as beautiful as a broken, messed up, really complicated, not completely understandable human being.

Maybe someday Karen will choreograph a dance for robots. For now, visit for more information and tickets to AI Project.

–Ellen Freeman

Photos courtesy of Karen Getz and Wikimedia Commons.