Old Fire Station Blog

News, happenings and goings on from the Old Fire Station, Oxford

Spillikin: Interview with Jon Welch

My name’s Jon Welch, and, along with Pipeline Theatre I’m bringing my play ‘Spillikin – a love story’, to the Old Fire Station, on the 10th and 11th February.

It’s not often, as a playwright, that one’s given an opportunity to write a play for an actual, state-of the-art robot. However, in 2014, Cornwall-based robot-maker extraordinaire Will Jackson, having seen our play ‘Transports’ (which also played at the Old Fire Station in 2016), took a chance with us, and so we started the process of putting one of his astonishing creations on stage. His robots are life-sized, humanoid, and exhibited around the world at museums, Universities, Ted Talks, but this was the first time one of his robots was going to be in a real play, playing a ‘part’. His words to me were: “I’ve spent ten years designing a piano – now I need someone to write the music.” So, no pressure, then.

The immediate issues were, one: how to make it ‘theatrical’ (not having the special effects and narrative shortcuts available in film), and two: how to avoid the clichés – in fiction robots generally either become ‘human’, or kill everybody. What was the story going to be? Around the same time, our artistic co-director’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the idea of combining an endlessly patient robot-companion with someone embarking on an unknowable journey of forgetfulness and loss came into focus.

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Because this robot is so special, and looks so amazing, it became obvious that it would have to be a bespoke companion. So it became a love-story – a robot designed by a robot-maker (himself with not long to live), specifically for his ailing wife; an ersatz husband, uploaded with his memories and ‘personality’, a whirring, twinkling, singing, game-playing, memory-prompting love letter created to stick by her from beyond the grave, as her Alzheimer’s worsens.

As a writer, it’s a been a journey for me too; not just in terms of the robot, but in the contact I’ve made with human carers – selfless, good-humoured, unsung heroes. It’ll be a long time before a robot can replace any of them. Seeing them stubbornly continuing to honour the totality of a person’s life and humanity, even as it diminishes in front of them, has been humbling. This is why I felt that our story should also take in the couple when they first meet, their early awkward, teenage romance, at their silliest, a full future ahead of them, and in their prime. Alzheimer’s is a dark theme for a play. But as audiences have attested so far, there are laughs, and plenty of them, in amongst the tears.

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I really hope you’ll come along and jump on the rollercoaster with us. Afterwards there’s a special ‘Q&A with a difference’, where you’ll be able to get up close and personal with the robot.


Spillikin – A Love Story is here, 10 & 11 February, 7.30pm. Tickets: £12/£10 from www.oldfirestation.org.uk or 01865 263990.

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This entry was posted on February 6, 2017 by in Uncategorized.

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