Oriza Hirata’s Robot Theater Project adaptation of Sartre’s “No Exit” cancelled

Oriza Hirata, the playwright and director, and leader of the theatre company Seinendan, has revealed a hiccup in his ongoing Robot Theater Project.

Last year’s planned adaptation of No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre at the Festival Automne en Normandie was cancelled after the Sartre estate refused the rights to the play due to the nature of the production.

Existentialism and robots apparently are not a match made in heaven, though the inclusion of an android or mechanical performer would certainly have lent a certain je ne sais quoi to the most famous line in Huis Clos: L’enfer, c’est les autres (Hell is other people).

Preparations were already underway for the Asimovian version of the post-war classic, which had been commissioned by the Normandy festival (Hirata made it clear that the play had not been his choice). However, when the Sartre estate got wind that the main character was to be performed by a robot, there was a resounding non.

kafka metamorphosis hirata oriza robot theater project

Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as performed by Robot Theater Project in 2014

Hirata is miffed.

“I don’t think Sartre could have assumed his play would be performed by a robot,” Hirata said. “And yet this has become a serious problem in French theatre. When new media and new science technology come into being, regardless of whether or not the staging will make a clear contribution to the progress of humanity or the development of the arts, is it right for it to be denied by the will of the family of the deceased [writer]?

“We cannot foresee anything about the forms of media that will exist in fifty or seventy years’ time. And so I want people to think prudently about whether or not it is the people alive today who have the right to decide this kind of thing in political negotiations.”

Reading between the lines, it seems the Festival Automne en Normandie instead produced the adaptation of Metamorphosis with Hirata directing his robot and Irène Jacob.

Robot Theater Project has been developed by Hirata and Osaka University, using robots and androids by Hiroshi Ishiguro and funded by Eager Co. Ltd. Its central conceit is that robots can be employed as a radical twenty-first-century form of puppetry, less Blade Runner than Punch and Judy.

Art meets science, with engineers integrated into the creative process with artists and (humanoid) performers. It sets out to innovate and challenge the formal structures of theatre (i.e. does a programmed robotic performance still count as a “live” performance?), but also the way science is represented to the public.

Since its genesis in 2008, the Robot Theater Project has performed a range of plays, including recently Kafka’s Metamorphosis in 2014, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and original one-act plays written by Hirata. It has appeared at Kinosaki International Arts Center, Kyoto Experiment 2011, the Japan Society in New York, Trafó House of Contemporary Art in Hungary… over 30 cities in 15 countries, and counting. Setbacks from Monsieur Sartre’s estate notwithstanding, the gimmick has become a veritable industry in its own right, bankrolled by the auspices of various international foundations and agencies.

Surely a production of Ubu Roi must be on the cards at some point? Or even Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.?