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Creating play without words: Robopop rehearsals

Robopop actors: John Abramson, Erin Pike,
Micky Rowe and Libby Matthews
Photographer: Laurie Clark Photography
Heidi Ganser and Ben Zamora are Seattle-based theater artists. She designs costumes, he designs lighting, and they are engaged. But before Ganser can start planning their summer wedding, the pair are plunging into a completely different type of production, one where the current rehearsals are creating the story. “It started as conversation: if we could do anything in the world, what should we do? A robot musical!” said Ganser.

“We thought about turning Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots into a live show,” said Zamora.
“But after contacting the Flaming Lips, we found that somebody else already had the rights,” Ganser added. In fact, Aaron Sorkin (West Wing) has been reportedly writing a Broadway-bound musical based on the group's 2002 album.

Not wanting to let a good idea get away, Ganser and Zamora decided to create their own robot musical performance piece and they knew exactly where to stage it: Washington Ensemble Theatre. As longtime members of the ensemble, they couldn’t imagine a more welcoming creative space. A place where they could work out their now wordless play with the actors. “I don’t think anyone else would let us do something like this with such trust,” said Ganser.

Along with their creative input, Zamora took the role of director, delegating lighting design for once to somebody else (“but with lots of advice”), while Ganser decided to stay in her usual role as costume and set designer.

“I couldn’t figure how how to do this without creating the costumes. So many of my ideas grow out of the costume design first,” she said.

Nine actors were cast, and then Robopop was ready for a rehearsal process that is currently creating the nuances of the plot.

“We started with a very loose story outline, a basic Romeo and Juliet love story about a girl and a robot,” said Ganser. With this essentially "textless" idea, Zamora and Ganser asked their actors to create their characters and the story surrounding them.

“We cast the nine people that we needed to create this world,” Zamora explained. “Ensemble generated work isn’t necessarily an efficient process, but you can arrive at some amazing results if your are open. But you also have to be able to say 'no' too.”

“The first week of rehearsal, we said ‘yes, yes, yes’ to all the ideas. Then we started saying ‘no’ and trimming,” said Ganser.

Libby Matthews, who plays the girl leading the Man vs Robot rebellion and discovers love, found it “a whole new way of working. For me, it was an unleashing process.” And, as a heroine caught up in a robotic rebellion, she drew much of her inspirations from “bad ass” heroines in pop culture.

“It is all non-verbal storytelling,” said Ganser. “And as high concept as it is, Robopop is also totally accessible and pretty straightforward.”

“It’s sincere and genuine,” said Zamora. “There’s a heart in the story that pulls you through the whole thing.”

“With no dialogue or text, you can view this as a performance art piece, but a totally unpretentious one,” said Ganser.

“Our ambition is to make Robopop the most beautiful show that we can at this point,” said Zamora.