Auckland Theatre Company’s newest piece is true science fiction horror
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most formative texts of the science fiction genre. It’s a story that explores the horror of creation, othering, and alienation, and ethics of scientific experimentation. The Monster rises from bubble and smoke, and inspires awe and fright, before there’s a frantic reckoning of what it means to be human, capable of such creation. In Emily Perkins’ newest piece, The Made, the Frankenstein-ian myth is imagined in a near future, where an AI sexbot is the subject (object?) of creation.
The play follows the trials and tribulations of Alice, played by Alison Bruce, an underfunded and frustrated scientist working in the field of emotional artificial intelligence. She’s at the cutting edge of scientific creation—her reactive AI robot Arie (Hannah Tasker-Poland) can really feel happiness.
However, Alice’s motives and interests do not align with the capitalist incentives of the corporation, ATHOS, that funds her work. They’re interested in mass-producing and monetising the feminine-coded, sex, and service robot. As a scientist, Alice is interested in pushing Arie’s emotional intelligence further, and developing the depth of her consciousness. ATHOS sees Arie as a finished product, and seeks to market it immediately.
Alice’s family life is another point of conflict and exploration, as her child Sam comes home from uni, and her separation with husband David draws out. While reckoning with her creation of Arie, she also considers her relationship to and upbringing of Sam. In the chaos, Alice imbues another robot, Nanny Ann, with full emotive capacity. The Frankenstein, Blade Runner, R.U.R. story spins out of control, with a simultaneous complex exploration of middle-aged motherhood.
While stories about robots and AI might seem, on their surface, to be about the technologies themselves, historically they explore human anxieties, human hopes, and human problems. In The Made this tradition continues—Alice is forced to reflect on her personal values and wider cultural values that arise in the wake of creation. Early in the play, she expresses concern about the way we treat these technological entities and how our actions towards them might affect our own condition. It’s concerned with horror in a way, looking at the disrespect of semi-human entities, and what that might do to our human spirits.
This concern with the uncanny is a pervasive aspect throughout the play. Tasker-Poland’s movements and performance are stiff, nearly human, but not quite. The direction of this hybrid dance-performance is one of the play’s strongest attributes, and Arie’s presence on-stage is consistently mesmerising.
This movement also makes the interactions with Arie really unsettling—in some cases other performances hit her, or pick her up roughly. The discomfort that arises from these scenes is powerful, and raises ethical questions about how to properly engage with non-human consciousness, as well as the problematic gendering of assistant technologies… what does it mean to scream at Siri? What might that do to our own disposition and attitudes?
Perkins’ The Made is a new entry into a science fiction catalogue that’s already fascinated by these questions. The context she pulls from is specific though—she’s imagining the impact of this scientific development in Tāmaki Makaurau, and considering how people in our contexts would cope, reimagine, and exploit. It’s perhaps a warning about our future, or our present, and asks us to prioritise caution as we develop tools and beings we don’t quite understand.
PHOTOGRPHY BY Jinki Cambronero