Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

My Dead Boyfriend is a Robot Involves Student, Director Collaboration, Themes of Grief

John Seyfried
The cast of My Dead Boyfriend is a Robot performs in the Irene and Alan Wurtzel Theater.

Last weekend marked the end of a two-semester-long workshop for the original play My Dead Boyfriend is a Robot. This staged reading was written and directed by Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater and Africana Studies Preston Crowder, OC ’16. Crowder began working on the show as a semifinalist for the National Black Theatre’s I AM SOUL Playwrights Residency Program based on a scene they had written in their MFA program. 

“From there, I put it away again,” Crowder said. “I didn’t really like it, to be honest.”

However, the chance to workshop it at Oberlin bore promise. 

“I was like, ‘Okay, well, let me dust this script off again and return to it,’” Crowder said. “And when I returned to it, and began working with the students here at Oberlin, so much opened up about it, and I was able to find my way into the story through some of their ideas and through some of their feedback.”

What resulted was a fun-filled 90-minute play that dealt with serious topics like grief, technology, and the material ways we try to fill the gaps left by those we love. The show featured a cast of zany characters, both robot and human, who all brought life, humor, depth, and effective physicality to their respective roles. 

Assistant Director and College second-year Kaiya Noguera commended the actors and the characters they were able to portray. 

“I really want to plug the actors because I felt like this was very challenging,” Noguera said. “There’s more to think about with this elevated stage reading compared to how a regular production would go.” 

Though actors had their scripts with them onstage, this was due to the constant revisions and its impact on rehearsal time. Even until the final dress rehearsal, adjustments to the script were being made, a true testament to the flexibility, commitment, and connection of the actors onstage. 

“I was amazed,” Noguera said. “I was really impressed.”

The cast, as well as the assistant directors, played a significant role in collaborating with Crowder on the formation of the script. 

“Playwriting can feel like a solitary sort of thing where it’s just you and your computer, just typing out your script,” Crowder said. “But something that this process really helped me understand was, also, you need collaborators in the process of playwriting as well, and how important that is.”

Noguera, alongside Assistant Director College first-year Gabriel Semrau, got to see firsthand the ways in which the script, performance, and production changed over the course of this year-long workshop process. 

“It was really, really cool watching the script evolve from what it was in September to what it is now,” Semrau said. “It was vastly different in September.” 

Some of these changes were because  the show was originally written for an all-Black cast, which was not reflected in this recent production. Noguera pointed out that many of the changes were also due to cast and crew involvement. 

“In terms of the process, what I thought was really cool and that I had never been a part of was just how involved we were in terms of giving suggestions,” Noguera said. “Because usually it’s like, ‘Oh, you have your responsibilities, you handle that,’ but in this case, Preston wanted us to give him our thoughts and ideas.”

Sometimes this was through a more structured feedback setting, but sometimes it was through improvisation exercises or cast bits that made it into the script. 

“Last semester, we rehearsed just once a month maybe, and one of the rehearsals there was no new draft of the script to read,” Semrau said. “So we got together in Warner Studio Four and we did character improv for like four hours. And that day is the reason [the characters] Keith and Madam Vyagras end up together.”

When Noguera joined the production team in the spring, the spirit of collaboration was alive and well. 

“In [Crowder’s] presence, I’m never afraid to be like, ‘Hey, let me say this, let me say that,’ say how I’m feeling on things,” Noguera said. “He just makes an environment where you feel comfortable to voice how you feel and your opinions.” 

This reflects Crowder’s personal conjecture that the biggest changes happened because of the collaboration. Part of this collaborative process was reframing the story to focus more on the humans than the robots. While the plot follows a typical technology-goes-too-far arc, the show seems much more interested in the interpersonal relationships. 

“The story, which I originally thought was going to be about a meditation on technology and AI, is really not that at all,” Crowder said. “It’s a story about grief; how do we deal with grief, and how do we find help within community.” 

The production tells the story of Isis and Ashton, who are both dealing with the fallout of recently deceased partners. Ashton spends his life savings to design a robot which resembles his dead boyfriend, while Isis struggles to stay afloat financially. The two connect in a world increasingly run by technology and explore the response to grief.

The show is packed with murderous robots, drunk hypnotists, dad jokes, and Pixar references. Crowder used them to engage in subtle commentary on a capitalist society that puts so much focus on material manifestations as a coping mechanism for grief. This is often through technology, such as the notably expensive “human adjacents,” AI specially designed to look or act a certain way, or even the wacky Angelle TV show that Ashton finds “comforting to see people with more messed up lives than mine.” However, it can also be seen in the doll that Keith has with “dimes for the eyes” which reminds him of his deceased daughter, or Ashton’s boyfriend’s urn. The puppets and the urn are the only props that appear on stage, and the actors’ striking interactions with them carries the message of the show.

Speaking of props, the minimalist production aspects create a clean aesthetic with a beautiful set. 

“I didn’t want to do a normal reading where you have just, like, stands that stay in place the whole time,” Crowder said. “I wanted to be able to incorporate movement and fluidity of movement.” 

Clear rolling stands allowed cast members the room to explore pantomime and physicality. And the scripts did not detract from the committed performances, which featured not only a wide range of comedic and dramatic moments, but also some fun instances of singing and dancing.

Both assistant directors expressed their gratitude to Crowder for the experience. Crowder thanked the school and cast for allowing the opportunity to perform the show. Looking forward, they plan to continue developing the show.

“I would love to see where it can go,” Crowder said. “We call it a workshop because the script is still in process … It’s still happening, and so I do want to keep working on the script to make sure that I get to a place where it feels finished.”

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