How we got here…
Prior to 2014, actor and artist Arthur Simon performed a solo improvisation piece with his dog, Robin Goodfellow, calling it Buddy Daddy. A typical set would involve Robin wandering about the set in search of water, kibble or blanket, ie *being a dog* and becoming endowed as silent characters by Arthur.
Bot Party originated through Fusebox Festival’s Machine Shop Series. Seeking to “scratch an artistic itch,” Arthur set off to answer the question of how to improvise with a robot, corresponding with some programmers at University of Texas and MIT Media Lab before then traveling to Pittsburgh to study with social roboticist Heather Knight and her comedy robot Data at CMU.
A resulting showcase in the Salvage Vanguard Theater during Fusebox 2014 featured choreographer Lucy Kerr and Rhoomba Variations, improvisers from ColdTowne Theater and robots from Austin’s Robot Group. Big Crawler bombed the short form game “Entrances and Exits” while Artie the Robot nailed his turn at “Freeze Tag.” A blown fuse nearly derailed the show, but everything worked out.
Fusebox Festival 2016 featured Bot Party 2.0, a full show in a black box that set out to combine Battlebots with Whose Line is it Anyway? Artie and Big Crawler were back between sets of Jenga with a PUMA 560 industrial arm. A collaboration between Arthur Simon and Red Sky Robotics Founder Martin Triplett resulted in Annabelle, a robot empowered with voice recognition, word association and a fancy purple dinner dress from Costume Designer Kelli Bland.
Simon and Triplett presented Annabelle and her cousin AVA at Austin’s South by Southwest Interactive in 2016 and were reviewed by Engadget, which called the show “raw and raucous. As unpredictable and wacky as the real thing. It’s bonkers and somewhat hypnotic.” Annabelle was invited to participate in the MakerFaire Austin 2016 and presented three unique styles in its annual fashion show: Prom, Beach Party and Cinderella.
With attention from a Kickstarter reaching Wired Italy and Reverie Report, Bot Party held its first Hackathon over 48 hours at the Off Center in Austin, joined by research scientist/performer Kory Matthewson and roboticists from University of Texas discussing, among many things, the Pygmalion Effect and its place in both theatre history and social robotics. The resulting code brought about an even more expressive Annabelle animation.
The acquisition of a Jibo social robot, designed by MIT roboticist Cynthia Breazeal, presented new opportunities for silly robot-to-robot interactions, though the launch of Jibo’s software hit the wall of capitalism in a market that favored Alexa and Siri. Jibo was nonetheless a featured player in the full stage version of Bot Party 3.0, presented in November 2017 at Austin’s Rollins Theater with the support of IEEE, Fusebox Festival and ColdTowne Theater’s first long-form robot/human improvisation troupe Are You Are. 3.0 programs included an original coloring book with illustrations by Addison Billingsley.
A MakerFaire Blue Ribbon award was presented to Annabelle in 2018 and another in 2019 went to Bot Party’s “Doctor Head,” a Gemmy Halloween toy developed as a fortune-telling robot complete with plasma ball and bash script fortunes. Doctor Head has since been upgraded with sticks and bones in a class through Austin’s dadageek art collective and featured at Arthur’s stop on the annual East Austin Studio Tour.
Bot Party continues its mission to get its robots interacting with human audiences, and has presented at the Shreveport Regional Arts Council, Austin Tinkering School and the Katy, Pflugerville and Austin Public Libraries.