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Robots, puppetry breathe life into musical adaptation of ‘A Thousand Blues’

May 15, 2024 - 16:42 By Hwang Dong-hee
The Seoul Performing Arts Company's "A Thousand Blues” (Seoul Performing Arts Company)

On a white Christmas, a building collapses trapping a woman named Bo-gyeong in the basement. Amid the ruins and darkness, Darpa, a rescue robot navigates the debris to locate signs of life. Outside, people gather in despair, praying for a miracle, while the woman’s mother pleads for her daughter’s rescue.

Darpa spots Bo-gyeong and calculates the survival odds: body temperature at 35 degrees Celsius, an 88 percent chance of another collapse, and only 20 seconds left. It estimates Bo-gyeong has a mere 3 percent chance of survival. However, a determined firefighter braves the wreckage and retrieves her.

Despite Darpa’s grim prognosis, the firefighter and mother refuse to give up. And Darpa gradually increases her survival rate to 8, 17, 31 and finally 90 percent.

This emotional rescue scene is from the Seoul Performing Arts Company’s musical production, “A Thousand Blues,” which premiered Sunday.

Based on the science fiction novel of the same title by Cheon Seon-ran, “A Thousand Blues,” set in the near future, tells the heartwarming story of a humanoid jockey, Collie, his racehorse, Today, and their encounters with the two daughters of Bo-gyeong.

Actors rehearse a scene from “A Thousand Blues” alongside a quadruped robot, GO2, developed by Unitree Robotics. (Seoul Performing Arts Company)

At a rehearsal open to the press on Tuesday, the musical blended futuristic elements with traditional craftsmanship.

The creative team employed various types of robots used in real life and LED panels to transcend spatial and temporal limitations.

Alongside the quadruped robot GO2, developed by Unitree Robotics, which performs as Darpa in the show, other commercialized robots like Boston Dynamics’ four-legged Spot, indoor autonomous patrol robot Iroi and a self-driving patrol robot, Patrover, both developed by South Korean robotics company Dogu, make appearances in the musical, creating a vibrant depiction of a futuristic society.

The Seoul Performing Arts Company's "A Thousand Blues” (Seoul Performing Arts Company)
The Seoul Performing Arts Company's "A Thousand Blues” (Seoul Performing Arts Company)

In contrast, the main characters Collie and Today are depicted with puppets. The actor who plays Collie mainly controls the 160-centimeter-tall handcrafted puppet's head while two puppeteers handle the movements of the arms and legs. Three puppeteers manipulate the horse puppet, which measures 170 centimeters in height up to the withers.

“We gave a lot of thought to how to bring the robots, especially Collie and Today, to the stage. We decided to focus on delivering the warm and emotional, humane side of Collie, and chose to use puppets,” said director Kim Tae-hyung.

“The puppet can move like a robot (with the puppeteers’ handling) and the actor portrays its inner side. We wanted the audience to feel and empathize with Collie. And this kind of presentation can only be done in the language of theater.”

From left, actors Seo Yeon-jung, Hyo-jung, Jin-ho and Yun Tae-ho pose for group photos after a rehearsal. (Seoul Performing Arts Company)

The actors who play Collie said it was a unique challenge to work with the puppet.

Yun Tae-ho, one of the actors double cast as Collie, said, "It was awkward at first because I couldn’t move freely. My body was kind of tied to the puppet. I focused on synchronizing my gaze and movements with the puppet to bring it to life."

Jin-ho from the K-pop boy band Pentagon added, “It was definitely a challenge to convey that the puppet and the actor are one character, breathing together.”

K-pop girl group Oh My Girl's Hyo-jung and actor Seo Yeon-jung were cast in the role of Yeon-jae, who gives a name to Collie and creates a new set of legs for him.

Hyo-jung, making her musical debut, said, "There were moments that felt almost fantasy-like as I listened to the voices of the actors but talked with the puppet. I felt as if I could look into Collie's pure innocence.”

“The difficult part is that people naturally turn their gaze toward the sound. So we have to control our gaze to focus on the puppet. We are working hard not to let off the tension,” Seo said.

The director emphasized the power of storytelling.

“This is a story about people who are unable to, or afraid to take the next step. I tried to give more thought to the human characters, robots and animals. We want to say that it is okay to walk slowly, that it is not wrong, and that you are not left behind,” said director Kim.

“A Thousand Blues” runs at the Seoul Arts Center's CJ Towol Theater until May 26. English subtitles are available. The English edition of the novel is set for release next year by Penguin Random House.