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Valley of the ‘Bots: How a Vegas workshop is blurring the line between man and machine

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Amanda Deacon and Ian Herrington with a pair of their part-human, part-machine Showbots.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

So this is a robot breast. White, semitransluscent, Vac-u-formed. Crafted in molded resin by hand in a studio in Las Vegas. It will eventually have LED lights running below it, and it will change color.

Only it’s not going on a real robot. Not exactly. It’s going on a Showbot—a partially automated robot suit worn by a human performer. Think Iron Man, minus the missiles. Think C-3PO, with more fluidity and grace. You can see a Showbot in Blue Man Group at Monte Carlo, where a perky, ponytailed Showbot is the show’s first female character. She plays with the guests before the show; she assists the Blue Men; and—this number debuted last week—she gets nominated for a Roby Award and walks away empty-handed and heartbroken.

But this new ’bot isn’t going to the Blue Men. It’s heading to the Palazzo, where a Spanish producer is assembling a show at the Act nightclub. Production has been delayed, but the goal is a modern-day Moulin Rouge with Nicole Kidman played by a high-fashion, straight-off-the-runway, sleek and sexy Showbot. The old model is cute in a girly way; the new model is taller, thinner and more mature. And the suit is form-fitting, which means it’s harder to hide all the robotic bells and whistles—like color-changing breasts.

Just west of the Strip in a nondescript industrial park, Showbots are being made. My tour of the 5,000-square-foot Show Creators Studio begins in a swank black and red lobby—1975 Rock-Ola jukebox, barstools, fishbowl full of Starbursts (reds and pinks only), impressionist Jimi Hendrix. I pass by the recording studio, walk through the sizable rehearsal space and end up in the robot workshop full of wooden tables, power tools, computers and that robot boob.

The studio is new, and it belongs to Showbot creators Ian Herrington and Amanda Deacon. They’re both 44, both former dancers, and they both look fit enough to slip into the Showbot suits at a moment’s notice. They came to Vegas in 2004 and moved into the workshop in early 2012.

Ian and Amanda met 26 years ago on the set of the BBC’s equivalent of America’s Best Dance Crew. Ian’s crew won; Amanda’s got sixth, and when the show was over, they started dating.

Inside the Show Creators Studio, Showbots are born. Michael Jackson was a fan, and so are the Blue Men.

“We got bored of auditioning,” Ian says. “It’s like a cattle call—so many dancers. So we got to thinking: What can we do that’s completely new?”

They put together a club act, a floor act, a robot act wearing the intricate suits that almost merge man and machine. At first, they didn’t have the skill set to build the suits, so they taught themselves with help from technical master Ted Hyde in Orlando and Gary Tunnicliffe, who runs a movie special effects company.

They called themselves Adam and Eve, based on the concept that these humanoids were the first of their kind, too.

People ate it up. Amanda and Ian found work easily, and everything was going well. For a time.

“Ian’s costume had pyro strapped to it,” Amanda recalls. “On the arms, shoulders, back, legs—pyro. So I’d always stand at least 20 feet away when it all went off. It happened at the end of the number, when I’m in my final pose, like this.” She demonstrates a robot at rest.

“One night, the pyro went off and I felt something. At first I thought I pulled a muscle in my neck. But then it got hotter and hotter. What happened was my wig caught on fire and it was burning my neck.”

Amanda lets me lift up her hair so I can see the back of her neck. Red and faintly scarred. “It happened the same time Michael Jackson had his [Pepsi commercial] accident onstage, and I remember everybody saying, ‘We know you love Michael Jackson, but come on …’”

After the accident, Amanda and Ian distanced themselves from the Showbots. “For the longest time we had this feeling we should grow up and get a real gig,” Ian says. “So we stopped with the robots and started producing corporate events.”

They paired up bands with themes. They hosted a pool party with the Beach Boys and a disco party with KC and the Sunshine Band. They did big events for big companies in big convention centers and hotel ballrooms. AliBaba.com, GNC, you name it. The parties were successful, but they left Amanda and Ian feeling unfulfilled. They wanted bigger things, bigger shows, bigger crowds, bigger inspirations. They wanted to take the next step.

Sometimes you have to go backward to go forward. That’s what Amanda and Ian found when they returned to the Showbots. “When we decided to re-embrace our roots, everything we had wanted in our lives just opened up,” Ian says.

It all began with Michael Jackson. Amanda and Ian were hired by Pepsi to perform an auxiliary event on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous tour. Separate venue, before the concert. So there they were, in their robot suits, getting ready to do their thing when Michael Jackson’s people intercepted them and said three magic words: “Come with us.”

To say that Amanda loves Michael Jackson wouldn’t be saying enough. “He performs the music, as opposed to just performing to the music,” she says. “You see his showmanship from the tip of his nose to his fingertips. The sharpness, the clarity, the emotion you get when you watch. ... When we met, my heart was pounding through my costume.”

Instead of performing the show as planned, they performed for Jackson alone. He hired them on the spot and asked them to join him for the whole tour.

Ian and Amanda’s job was to entertain Jackson’s green-room guests. When super-fans and contest winners would meet Jackson before a show, they’d go nuts, Ian and Amanda explain. This overwhelmed Jackson, but with the Showbots by his side, Jackson could say, “Let me introduce you to my robots.” They were, in a way, his safety net.

As the tour wrapped up and the years went by, the Showbots evolved. They stopped walking and started rolling on Segway scooters embedded in costumes. Amanda and Ian added interactive voice and video. The Showbots grew more and more, well, robotic. Before long, Amanda and Ian had checked another dream off the list: They got to work for Disney, creating EpBOTS that interacted with guests at Epcot’s Future World.

“He was amazing,” Ian says of one of the EpBOTs they built. He. That’s how Ian thinks of the Showbots. As people. As children, maybe.

Ian and Amanda have no children of their own. They dated for a decade and were engaged for seven years, and then they broke up. Now they’re best friends. Amazingly, the split didn’t hurt their work.

“When we broke up, we didn’t want to lose all we created,” Amanda says. “That was 12 years of our career. Plus, we’re great … we’re like …”

“Yin and yang,” Ian continues. “As a result of us staying together, we got Michael Jackson, Disney, Blue Man Group, and we performed in 45 countries worldwide.”

Which country stands out?

“We did a world tour for Swatch,” Ian tells me, “and when we arrived in the Philippines, we were surrounded by people, paparazzi, cameras, flashes. Right on the jetway. So we looked behind us, thinking somebody famous had landed right after us.”

There was nobody. Swatch had just done an impossibly good job of marketing the Showbots.

“We skipped through immigration,” Ian continues, “went to the royal suite. We were met by big dignitaries, front page of the Manila Times. Toured around with a team of 14 armed guards. When we got off the bus, they had built a platform for us to walk on. People would hold their babies up to us, like they wanted us to grab them. It was amazing … papal. I remember, I turned to Amanda, and said, ‘Remember this, because this will never happen again.’”

I turn to Amanda. She’s crying. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she says.

Things weren’t so magical in Hong Kong. Amanda and Ian were working the Chinese New Year. “I had eaten some papaya for breakfast and I wasn’t feeling great,” Amanda remembers. “But the show must go on.”

It was hot outside. Really hot. While not uncomfortable, the suits do tend to heat up. Once Amanda and Ian installed a cooling system, but it meant taking out other technology that they wanted for their performances, so they decided to just be hot.

“I started feeling queasy,” Amanda says. “As soon as the show was done and I got backstage, I unclipped my body suit. I figured I needed to get more breathing room. I should have unclipped the helmet instead …”

“You mean …”

“I threw up in my head. Orange, papaya. Splashed right back. Blowback.”

It took all day to clean and repair the helmet. (Ian did the cleaning.) But the following day, the performances continued.

“The show must go on,” Amanda says.

The Act’s high-fashion Showbot is far from done. Each body piece must go through the same meticulous process: first the clay sculpt, then the silicone mold, then a cast made of reinforced resin. Once hard, the resin is reshaped, drilled, sanded, primed and painted. And when all the pieces are complete, each one is attached to the actual suit, along with electronics, hinges, fasteners and padding.

The whole process takes nine people three weeks and costs “a lot,” in Ian’s words. Amanda and Ian develop the creative vision for every Showbot, and the production team helps bring it to reality.

Given that cost, how worried are Ian and Amanda about the Palazzo show’s delay? “Right now,” Ian says, “the show’s on hold. But hopefully things will get worked out in the next couple weeks. It’s still in production; it just doesn’t have an opening date.”

And if the show never launches, what will become of the new Showbot? “We’ll use her ourselves,” Ian says. “Welcome her into our family. We’ll use her for other shows or corporate events or a kids’ TV project we’re working on.”

If Amanda and Ian are worried, they certainly don’t show it. Poker faces? No. Robot faces.

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