So, the time has come for me to really begin my next major project, Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of Karel Čapek’s RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots.

“Never heard of it,” you might say. You would be one of the masses that might be saying that. And it’s really a shame. RUR is one of the major plays to come out of the surprisingly vibrant Czech literary tradition. But, unless you’re a multiculturalist, that isn’t reason enough to embrace it.

For me, it’s about the once-grand, now-quaint, beginnings of the tech-dystopia genre. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep —and, consequently, Bladerunner— can trace their line directly to RUR.

Today the play reads as a bit of a 1950’s B-movie techno-parable. But this thing was produced in 1920. Nineteen-twenty! It is the text that coined our contemporary usage of the word “robot.” And, as a reaction to World War I, the warnings of our fascination with technology and machines parallel it squarely with Tolkien’s warnings in The Lord of the Rings. The first audience must have had their minds blown.

TANGENT! There are a few first performances I would have liked to have witnessed: The Rite of Spring (which caused a riot), Aida (in Cairo), Hamlet, Beethoven’s Ninth, A Streetcar Named Desire, and RUR. Of course there are others, but these are the top. Each one, in its way, was groundbreaking enough to create an audience-wide numinosum: a spiritual reaction caused by the power of the piece or the performance.

I didn’t even know that RUR existed until TCR’s artistic director asked if I was interested in directing it. Honestly, I wasn’t, especially after I read it the first time. It seemed so dated. But after rereading and researching, I started falling in love with it and, specifically, with the challenges that it creates.

I have had the great luck of directing some remarkably challenging theatre: Streetcar, Macbeth, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Gross Indecency, Six Characters. With the exception of Six Characters, which had overwhelming and multiple daunting challenges, the directing was very much about the logistics. Certainly the acting was a huge part of them—it always is—but there are specific logistical nightmares brought on by episodic texts (LWW, Gross), large casts and multiple roles (LWW, Gross, Mac), and re-envisioning well-known and beloved texts (Streetcar, LWW), that make certain plays formidable.

RUR is challenging in a much different way. The fact that it is not a well-known play automatically counts against it in our city. People here mostly want to see shows they know. I get it. I want that too. And ticket prices are such that most people want a known commodity, which I also understand. But that kind of issue is out of my hands. I just get to create the best product possible and hope that people come see it.

The main challenge for me is the text itself, not the logistics of the thing. It is a philosophical text filled with exposition and, to a certain extent, inner monologue. It is clichéd, in that all plays, texts, and films that followed use RUR’s structure and themes, so we’ve seen it in various guises, usually with explosions. Explosions are always a plus.

Well, we are not going to have pyrotechnics for this show. It will be actors working to make old ideas feel fresh and spontaneous, working to turn long passages into interesting windows opening upon a specific human’s thoughts and fears and motivations.

This show will be acting at its most stripped and basic level. I can’t think of anything more exciting that that.

I can barely wait to bite into this thing!