Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Theatre & Dance

First Advisor

Oliver Gerland III

Second Advisor

Todd Murphey

Third Advisor

James Symons

Fourth Advisor

Michael Theodore

Fifth Advisor

Beth Osnes


Robots and puppets are linked by a common human impulse: the desire to give life to nonliving objects through the animation of material forms. Like puppets, robots are technological objects capable of revealing aspects of the human experience and have demonstrated the ability to provoke the suspension of disbelief and evoke agency. While the role of puppets and automata in theatre history is well established (Segel 1995, Jurkowski 1996, Reilly 2011), the study of robots in theatre performance is largely unexamined. Citing the presence of autonomous and semi-autonomous machines in live performance and technological developments that result in increasingly responsive and interactive robots, I argue that these technological players warrant critical investigation and study of their methods of representation. Given their ontological link, I use puppetry to construct a phenomenological understanding of robots by considering the following questions: "Does robotic performance constitute a creative act?" and "Can engineers use puppetry to develop robots that better exhibit behaviors are identified with creative performance?" Using States' concept of "binocular vision" and Dennett's concept of "intentional systems," I propose that robots evoke agency by demonstrating expressive and responsive behaviors. Contrary to the imitative approach which uses realism and life-like features as a starting point, I suggest that engineers adopt the method of puppetry which utilizes movement as the primary means of expression. This approach results in machines that produce motions that appear less rigid and mechanical and are more likely to avoid the Uncanny Valley (Mori 1970). Citing recent theatrical productions (How to Train Your Dragon, King Kong), and my contributions to a robotic marionette system (Pygmalion Project), I outline how entertainment robotics can use puppetry-inspired choices to create intuitive interfaces for designing and operating robots. I advocate for an approach that acknowledges binocular vision and minimizes the role of mechanical reproduction in favor of essential and abstracted movements. For tele-operated machines, I propose a gesture-based control system that more tightly couples the interaction of the operator's motions with those of the puppet. I anticipate that these methods will lead to robots that are more dynamic and more likely to evoke agency.