Performing Robots


[DADeR/Presence] “Presence: Robots’ Interventions in the Human Environment” –  Olga Maroudi


Concept: presence
Case Study: Nao robot


This paper takes recent approaches to the notion of “presence” in theatre studies to analyze how this concept is in action in the case of NAO Fit. This robot, designed by students of VU Amsterdam, is a fitness coach for young children, intended for placement in domestic environments. The robot’s presence as an embodied mind is expressed as it stands before a child to perform its tasks. It is not an illusion, nor merely a symbol or an allegory (Eckersall 2015, 126). This ‘performance’ calls for interaction and response from the child’s side, otherwise the robot has no reason to exist. Unexpected movements can be integrated to the design of the robot to enhance the presence of the robot.



Expanding Performance course was a conscious choice to challenge myself and experiment. One can assume that I am intrigued by the unknown; many theatre scholars mention this interest in the unknown, when they refer to spectators who experience robots in theatre. As Marianne van Kerkhoven has claimed, there is a certain panic for the unknown regarding the robots. Simultaneously, people have the tendency to assign their characteristics to machines to establish an understanding of them and create an empathetic emotion (Eckersall 2015, 126). As Kim Baraka also mentioned in his presentations, it is impossible to ignore things that move in our environment. This is enriched by the fact that when we witness a robot, we witness something that we are not familiar with, and hence, our attention is highly focused on its existence, functions, and presence.

Through this first personal experience with robots and influenced by Deleuze and his statement that the actual and the virtual are both fully real (Rozendaal, Marenko, and Odom 2021, 46), I will try to see the possibilities machines have and furthermore, how can I add to their improvement from a dramaturgical position and with central component a concept from the theatrical discourse.

Our discussions in the course made clear to me that we do not need to compete with robots or try to highlight our differences. We do not need to find appealing our replacement by them, or to seek for the same possibilities and characteristics we, as humans, have. This is impossible and therefore, it would mean an unequal war that we have already lost. Instead, we need to discover what they can and cannot do. As Eckersall asserts in the text Robots: Asleep, Awake, Alone, and in Love, there is not a matter of human actor replacement but a matter of creating a new type of actor and by this, creating possibilities of new thought and knowledge. We need to realize this complex relationship, and how we coexist with objects, how we position ourselves between the real and the virtual, how objects exist within us and around us (Eckersall 2017, 117).

In this paper, I will use the concept of presence. A Google search on ‘’presence in theatre’’ confronts us with a collage of words such as charisma, quality, attention of the audience, engagement, and appeal. We soon realize that presence refers to a certain quality, on the energy performers have and on how they are capable to transfer and communicate this exact energy to the spectators. Researching and relying on recent approaches of presence in theatre, I will conduct an analysis of this term and I will further relate it to my case study.

In these respects, I will use as a case study a robot from the VU Group 19, NAO Fit. I interacted with this robot in my collaboration with the VU designers. My experience with the VU students and Kim Baraka provided me with a hands-on experience and with the first traces of inspiration and enjoyment of this procedure. The following text will be a homage to this collaboration.

Presence in Contemporary Performing Arts

Before I proceed to my case study analysis through the prism of presence, I will first conduct an introduction of the concept to build on a concrete and helpful advice for the VU designers.

As we learn from Bleeker’s and Rozendaal’s text Dramaturgy for Devices: Theatre as Perspective on the Design of Smart Objects (2021), presence in theatre was defined in Patrice Pavis’s Dictionary of the Theatre in 1998 as the ability of an actor to captivate the audience. This means that some performers know how to captivate the audience better than others. Simultaneously, this capacity can be enriched and ensured by other supportive elements on stage. Having a strong and great presence on stage does not necessarily mean that the performer ‘‘has a similar strong presence in everyday life’’ (Rozendaal, Marenko, and Odom 2021, 49). This interpretation of presence is closely related to Carlson’s Performance: A critical introduction (2017) where he refers to two different concepts of performance; the display of skills and the display ‘‘of a recognised and culturally coded pattern of behaviour’’ (Carlson 2017, 4).

Moving towards a more detailed and complicated explanation of presence in theatre I will briefly refer to Power’s book Presence in Play: a Critique of Theories of Presence in the Theatre (2008). Characteristically, he asserts in the first pages of his book that ‘’…presence in theatre is not a singular, monolithic entity, but a complex and multiple set of discussion and perspectives’’ and that historically this concept’s meaning constantly changes, highlighting the complex nature of the topic and introducing the frame of understanding how theatre stages presence (Power 2008, 13, 4). Thus, he asserts that there are three modes of presence: the literal, the auratic and the fictional.  The first signifies the literal presence of the actors and spectators. In that way there is an emphasis on the here and now of the event. The second refers to the ‘‘having of presence’’ and the spiritual quality of art which exceeds the medium; in theatre there is ‘’a gap between medium and artistic expression…’’. Creating self-presence means to eliminate this exact gap and, in this way, to move away from representation (Power 2008, 51, 53). On the other hand, the fictional mode of presence is concerned with the ‘’making– present of fictional phenomena’’. Although real people and real objects take place on stage, the fictional mode deals with the pretence to create imaginary fictions. He concludes that the first mode of presence is not totally separated from the other too, since it is never a matter of singular perception (Power 2008, 47,89).

After this brief introduction of presence in theatre, based on some indicative definitions, I will proceed to Demers’s text to approach this issue with a closer relation to robots and objects.

Demers asserts that audience and machines share spatial and temporal existence. He discusses the qualities and behaviours that can be assigned to robots not for them to replace us, but for us to live with them. Furthermore, he treats anthropomorphic and non- anthropomorphic as equivalent. Bodies of machines must be experienced and empathized with by the spectators’ bodies. The machines’ actions and the audience’s imagination create potentialities and meaning, and for this to happen, the marriage between robots and humans must be guaranteed (Demers 2016, 273-276).

In his text, Demers refers specifically to Fischer-Lichte, who although she ‘’attributes an aura to objects on stage’’, she denies them the quality of presence. She suggests three modes of presence: the weak, the strong and the radical. I will insist on her radical mode of presence, by which she means its involvement to the ‘’semiotic and phenomenal body’’. Although objects appear present on stage, according to her, radical presence is not assigned to robots because the former requires ‘‘an embodied mind’’ which only human beings have.  On the other hand, Demers makes clear that objects can have radical presence since he treats them as equal as an embodied mind. For him, machine performer can ‘‘be a body, since enactments are not issued by a model (having a body) but emerge from the ongoing actualisation of the body in the environment (being a body)’’ (Demers 2016, 290).

Design Case: NAO Fit

NAO Fit is a robot designed by the VU students in Group19 in 2021. It is a fitness coach for young children, placed in domestic environments after a doctor’s advice. Its main goal is to assist children with their weight issues and social difficulties they may face.

NAO Fit is a small white robot, and it is obvious that it does not seek to look like human in terms of appearance, nor is this the point. It is designed as a device that can interact, communicate, keep company, and help, through its gestures, exercises, sounds and speech. The robot can introduce itself, ask questions, play music, give instructions for exercises, and present a squat.

The dialogue flow that has been introduced has three essential aspects: first, the VU students designed several questions as the departing point of the dialogue flow to efficiently collect information about the healthy condition of the child. In that way, the robot has an overview of the child’s health and weight, data that are considered and kept in robot’s memory system for the future interaction. Then, NAO Fit guides the child to selected physical exercises and lastly, the designers made the robot able to say some verbal cheer-up phrases to motivate the child during the exercise and to make them feel proud, comfortable, and encouraged. What is particularly intriguing and simultaneously difficult for the designers and their next steps, is the interaction between the machine and the child. How this interaction can be established and how an intimacy can be created and guaranteed in a long-term relationship.

NAO Fit is energetic and funny, a friend and a motivator. It can support the children, help them relax, come close to their bodies, reduce their stress and embarrassment, play, improve their health and develop social skills. Although it is placed in a safe environment for the children, their interaction can be significant, determining and unexpectedly fruitful when the children will go to school, a broader environment with multiple stimuli, and interact with real human beings.  The robot embodies welcoming gestures when it speaks and its eyes’ colours shift, depending on the rhythm of the background music it plays. Since the test audience is children, the machine’s appearance is important. It must be charming, playful, appealing and calm.

NAO Fit and presence

To include my concept and inspired by the text Dramaturgy for Devices: Theatre as Perspective on the Design Smart Objects (Rozendaal, Marenko, and Odom 2021), as we see in the case of Mokkop (designed by Josje van Beusekom), the light that glows on the device several times during the day, signifies the presence of Mokkop. This presence emerges and intensifies when the given surrounding space changes and when the communication is activated and mutual. Therefore, NAO Fit could find a trick, an element that changes during the day, and thus, activates the robot itself, the child, and the relationship between them, indicating to the latter that ‘I am here’. Besides that, it would be nice for the robot to create the right conditions to perform an action. It is not just a matter of interaction, but also a matter of atmosphere in the space which provokes the action to take place.

A robot can captivate the audience since human characteristics have been assigned to it, thus the person can relate to it. Through its embodiment, performativity, and communication skills, such as eye contact and verbal expressions, it can address the target group, and initiate the interaction with a strong sense of intimacy. The skills that the robot has are recognizable by the members of a society, as actors’ actions are usually recognisable on stage by the audience and, thus, they can relate to them. People are intrigued by and focus on things they cannot completely understand, and it is evident that they can develop strong relationships with animated objects, such as toys and teddy bears, especially at a young age.

Since there is an undeniable physical presence in my case study both from the NAO Fit and the children, their spatial and temporal coexistence is secured; we can say that the literal mode of presence is secured. In theatre, the captivation of the audience is somehow easier because the audience has paid for a ticket thus, they visit consciously an event with knowledge about it and expectations. The rest has to do with the supportive materials that the dramaturg with the director chose to use and highlight and with the performers’ ability. In these respects, we understand that address and presence are connected. NAO Fit is located inside a house. Probably, the child does not expect anything a priori. The robot’s presence as an embodied mind is expressed since it stands in front of a child, and it performs actual tasks. It is not an illusion, nor merely a symbol or an allegory (Eckersall 2015, 126). This ‘performance’ calls for interaction and response from the child’s side, otherwise the robot has no reason to exist. However, and although these characteristics are there, NAO Fit needs to do something more to enrich its presence.

For the robot to be more present, the designers can integrate into its system and functions, unexpected and sudden movements- interventions, that clearly indicate its presence in space. If the robot knows the child’s weekly schedule, it will help to set in the system different than usual, and convenient and appropriate hours during the week that could surprise the child and interfere smoothly with the program of their day. This interaction could occur either with background music played by the robot which would then imply the beginning of the exercises, either by approaching the child, or lastly, by lighting/ blinking its eyes. In this way, robot will acquire a key role in the daily life of the child, it will suddenly appear and become ‘alive’, creating changes in the space, and activating their connection. Respectively, this could happen every two weekends. The children usually relax on weekends. Hence, they could play a game and interact in a different way, not using the physical exercises.  For a better and smoother communication between them, and for the child not to be frightened or stressed by the presence of the robot, they could develop a small talk, communicate the children’s’ efforts, and listen to some music selected by the children if this is possible. In other words, instead of creating a specific schedule or a system that gets activated only when the child or the parents ‘turn on’ the robot, the robot can ‘become alive’ by its own force specific days and hours.


As I mentioned in the introduction, I wanted through this process to treat robots and smart objects as something exciting, existing, and contradictive compared to my life and practice. I am fascinated by the fact that robots are so distant from me and at the same time so present and important for artists. During this course, I questioned myself; how can I interpret robots beyond their conventional, rational, scientific, and industrial approach? How can robots be creative and create real conditions of presence and intimacy?

At the beginning of this journey, I thought that it would be extremely difficult to associate a robot with the theatrical concept of presence. However, through readings and stimuli both from the theatrical discourses and robotics, I understood that humans and robots although they have different qualities, they can coexist and collaborate for better and improved results in the society and the artworld.

The here and now of presence, the way of addressing the audience in shared time and space, can signify a composition of human and non-human beings/ performers and therefore, their fruitful interaction. Having defined presence, my advice to the VU designers is to continue developing their robot, not under the prism of how the robot can be more human-like, but with main concern how it can be necessary, present and ‘here and now’ to assist children and guarantee their communication. I really hope I made a step for this improvement in the way of thinking when it comes to the robots’ relationship with humans. One thing that I understood all these months, is that robots cannot and do not have to replace us or imitate us. On the other hand, this relationship can shape new ways of existing and coexisting, new forms of performing, new ideas of approaching theatre and dramaturgy, new ways of thinking.




Carlson, Marvin. Performance: A critical introduction. Routledge, 2017.

Demers, Louis-Philippe. “The multiple bodies of a machine performer.” In Robots and Art, pp. 273-306. Springer, Singapore, 2016.

Eckersall, Peter. “Towards a dramaturgy of robots and object-figures.” TDR/The Drama Review 59, no. 3 (2015): 123-131.

Eckersall, Peter, Helena Grehan, and Edward Scheer. “Robots: Asleep, Awake, Alone, and in Love.” In New Media Dramaturgy, pp. 107-134. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2017.

Rozendaal, Marco C., Betti Marenko, and William Odom, eds. Designing Smart Objects in Everyday Life: Intelligences, Agencies, Ecologies. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.

Power, Cormac. Presence in Play: a Critique of Theories of Presence in the Theatre. Brill, 2008.