Mike Miller designed the software that controls the robots and a system to choreograph their movements. Like most of the software and systems used in the show, it was custom-built by the team at MIT. The walls are programmed to know their marks on stage, and use RFIDs placed overhead to figure out their positions. They can locate themselves on the stage within about eight inches, although Matt Berlin — who, with Jesse Gray, acts as the "wall dance coach" — is working on a way to make it even more accurate.
The Operabots are more agile. Six operators control them from the galleries high above either side of the stage. The space where they work is a narrow gap between the railing and a table that holds all the computers, and they can watch the Operabots by peering down and through the ropes, or on the hazy computer displays facing them from that table.
These robots were built by a team of MIT undergrads just last summer. They're controlled with Xbox game controllers: two thumbsticks, two triggers, and buttons. I had a chance to take a robot for a spin, and found that it was not unlike playing Halo: you can move and turn at the same time to make the robot coast along a curve. Hitting a button makes it move faster; pulling a trigger makes the robot spin fast one way or the other. They're too heavy to topple over, but their thin triangular heads shake slightly as they zip across the stage. Miller says they "spent a lot of time tuning the acceleration." The robots should move smoothly, safely, and quickly. And they need to know how to dance.
I watched choreographer Karole Armitage work on a number with human performer Hal Cazalet and a pair of Operabots. The dancers can get direction and remember it instantly. The robots are slower: Armitage frequently picked up her mic and called up to Miller in the gallery above, asking him if he'll need to program something to get the movement she wants.
Aside from the physical robots, the production design also includes the visuals, which display along the giant bookcases. Peter Torpey designed the software that organizes the visuals and triggers them to live cues, or guides them around with a mouse. For the last couple of weeks he had been rehearsing these visuals, and he told me it's "similar to rehearsal with the actors. But it takes a lot more time."
Torpey works closely with the production designer, Alex McDowell, who is a Hollywood vet — Minority Report is one of his most relevant credits — but who was drawn to this theater project because so much could be left to the imagination. "You don't get to do abstraction in film. You've always got a naturalistic imperative. In theater, [you can make] the leap into abstract expressionism."
The visuals displayed on the walls, for example, march from concrete to abstract, matching Powers's transformation from a man to a lifeform made of light. McDowell describes a hierarchy in the visuals from "memory" to "biometrics" to "desire": we see the memories of the man, followed by symbols of a body coming to life — "blood is flowing, breath is breathing" — and finally, pure light. Says McDowell, "We move from a formal state of the absolutely solid to the absolutely immaterial."