Disneyland could have spelled death for theater in America if it hadn’t been for four little letters: C-A-M-P. When Walt Disney’s “Imagineers” unveiled the first “cast” of computer-controlled animatronic performers at Disneyland over fifty years ago, the human actor must have seemed an outmoded relic indeed. The terrifying sneer of pirates, the ghoulish gasps of ghosts, and the insipid dialogue of the Carousel of Progress filled the park’s first guests with wonder and excitement. Now the whole thing seems, well…campy. And Disney doesn’t want you laughing at its shit, unless it’s in the form of Pumba farts. So now there are as many real actors performing in the Magic Kingdom as electronic ones, and they coexist together in an awkward post-modern wasteland of ironic meta-awareness. I suppose the old Disney corporation realized it was even easier to control actors with health care plans and paid vacation than it was with robotics. But what is a robot? Something that is programmed to automatically perform an action or series of actions without further intervention from the programmer.
Yesterday, while watching one of Disneyland’s human performers—a robed and lightsaber-toting Jedi Master—teach the same fight choreography to kids over and over again “Strike left, strike right, duck! Strike, left, strike right, duck!” I began to notice a robotic sameness to his performance. Compare this to the various Johnny Depp robots that have been added to the Pirates of the Caribbean, which sparkle with the understated exuberance of Depp’s now-iconic character Cap’n Jack Sparrow. Even when he’s made out of latex, Johnny Depp can act any other performer off the stage! This is an age-old strategy for demoralizing your labor force: prove to your workers that they are completely unnecessary, and then hire them anyway.
And what a world for the actor who goes into debt getting his Masters at Juliard so he can wave a plastic sword at Darth Vader on Tomorrowland Terrace five days a week! Frighteningly, this gig is not too far from Broadway if you think about who’s producing those shows these days. Indeed the stars of Broadway’s biggest hits are on the same payroll as the poor schmuke narrating the Jungle Cruise day in and day out.
In the end, the fact that robotic and flesh/blood actors can coexist relatively peacefully in one Magic Kingdom is proof that technology will never really be the “actor killer.” The fear isn’t that actors will be replaced by technology, it’s that they will be used as indiscriminately as all the other non-human actors that Disney “employs.” Disney has no preference for what type of “actor” performs in their various productions—animated, computer animated, animatronic, vocal, puppeteered, or human—as long as they can control that actor’s performance. Disney’s audience is also similarly devoid of prejudice towards these various types of performers, as long as they provide entertainment that is up to Disney’s usual high standards. Furthermore, it seems that the more the line is blurred between these types of actors the better.
The proof is in the pudding. When human actors portraying various Disney Princesses, Monsters and Spirits came out to play during the nightly parade I overheard a small child ask her mother with wonder “Are those real people?”