Drama, mortality and robots

Performing Arts Department to stage world premiere of Elizabeth Birkenmeier’s 'Sky Sky Sky' March 26-29

Doctor and patient standing next to robot.
Kiki Milner as Dr. Lowe and Jae DeBerry as Harbor in “Sky Sky Sky.” The world premiere drama by Washington University alumna Elizabeth Birkenmeier features a PR2 robot as a primary character. (Credit: Whitney Curtis/WUSTL Photo.)

Actors are not robots, Hollywood evidence aside.

But over the last decade, Annamaria Pileggi, professor of the practice in drama at Washington University in St. Louis, has worked with a small interdisciplinary team to explore how movement-training techniques drawn from theater might help real-life computer scientists improve human/robot interactions (HRI).

Beginning Thursday, March 26, Pileggi will put those theories to the test with “Sky Sky Sky.” The world premiere drama, written by alumna Elizabeth Birkenmeier (LA ’08), features three human actors and one fully functioning, custom-programmed PR2 robot, on loan from Oregon State University.

“This is not a person in a costume, or a special effect, or something that just happens in the background,” said Pileggi, who will direct the show in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre through March 29. “Our goal is to have a robot function as a true character. It has a very specific role, with very specific actions.

“If we’re able to pull this off, I think it’s going to be very poignant and evocative.”

The PR2.

Theory of physical action

Pileggi’s interest in robotics dates back to 2004, when Jared Mackey, a student studying both theater and computer science, introduced her to Bill Smart, then associate professor in the School of Engineering & Applied Science.

“Bill was intrigued by the idea that movement training exercises, or Jerzy Grotowski’s theory of physical action, could be used to help program HRI,” Pileggi said. “We actually created a piece, using only the robot’s physical vocabulary, in which one actor tried to get forgiveness from another.”

Over the next several years, Pileggi and her actors — along with Smart and David Lu, then a graduate student in computer science and engineering at Washington University — presented the piece, titled “Forgiveness,” at Washington University and participated in HRI conferences at Stanford and in Osaka, Japan.

“We performed a version with the human actor playing the robot and then a version with the robot playing its own role,” Pileggi said. “People actually felt more empathy for the robot.

“They understood the robot’s limitations,” she said. “They saw it was doing the best it could.”

Jae DeBerry as Madrid

‘Sky Sky Sky’

For Pileggi and Smart, PhD, who is now associate professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State, the next step was both obvious and dauntingly ambitious: a full-length stage performance featuring a robot as a primary, emotionally resonant character. Birkenmeier, a freelance playwright who’d been one of the original “Forgiveness” actors, was commissioned by the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences to write the play.

“Liza is doing quite a lot of work in New York, so we were really lucky to get her,” Pileggi said. “We talked a lot, and were fascinated by the image of a robot caring for someone in a nursing home. I think that’s the kind of work robots eventually will be targeted for — caring for the very old and the very young, the most vulnerable members of our society.”

The story, set in the year 2062, centers on Joan, an elderly woman suffering from dementia, who has been brought to what is euphemistically known as an “exit facility.” In flashback, we see the young Joan fleeing northern Ohio’s infamous “Tornado Alley”; her tumultuous relationship with fellow vagabond Madrid; and the couple’s adoption of an orphaned child.

“Throughout her life, Joan has encountered storms both literal and figurative,” Pileggi said. “Now, at the end of her days, she no longer recognizes her own granddaughter, Harbor, but we see her bonding with the robot. She is able to project the kind of stable, caring relationship that she’s never actually experienced.

“There’s a moment when Joan has trouble eating,” Pileggi said. “The robot supports her arms and helps maintain her dignity while her own granddaughter takes the fork away.

“It’s a very human thing,” Pileggi said. “You understand Harbor’s sense of loss, her anger and grief. She is struggling just as anyone who’s ever watched a loved one become a stranger has struggled.”

But for Joan, the robot represents a kind of security, a blank slate onto which hopes and needs can be safely projected.

“It’s incredibly moving,” Pileggi said. “I would challenge anyone to watch this play and not feel empathy — both for Joan and for the robot.”

Kiki Milner as the young Joan

Cast and crew

The cast of three features senior Kiki Milner as both the young Joan and Dr. Lowe, who oversees the exit facility. Senior Jae DeBerry plays Madrid and Harbor. St. Louis actress Nancy Lewis is the elder Joan and Mauve, Joan’s legal guardian.

The robot’s movements are programmed by Lu, PhD, who earned his doctorate in 2014 and is a lecturer in computer science in the School of Engineering. Senior Mitchell Manar, who served as the robot’s stand-in for early rehearsals, will oversee operations during the performances.

Scenic design is by junior Leora Baum. Costumes are by Bonnie Kruger, professor of the practice in drama. Lighting is by senior Ryan Blumenstein.

Stage manager is senior Megan Yeh. Dramaturg is graduate student Danielle Conley. Props are by Emily Frei. Graduate student Rachel Blumer is assistant director.


“Sky Sky Sky ” begins at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 26, 27 and 28. Matinee performances will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, March 28 and 29.

Performances take place in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, located in Mallinckrodt Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. Tickets are $15, or $10 for students, seniors and Washington University faculty and staff, and are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office.

For more information, call 314-935-6543.