Best Performance by a Robot in a Supporting Role 2012 | Aunt Julie-Bot in Heddatron Stray Cat Theatre | People & Places | Phoenix

Whenever Elizabeth Meriwether's Heddatron is produced, the biggest of the play's challenges is coming up with five robots that, among other things, perform the opening scene of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. As well as finessing time and budget constraints, Stray Cat Theatre had to reach out from their own weird little community to the weird little robotics community. Designers Tim Gerrits and AJ Hernandez and a crew of plucky remote-control operators made it happen. The mecha actors were all classy, but our favorite was Aunt Julie-Bot, who is invited to sit down, bumps into a chair several times, and finally replies, "No, thank you." Nailed it!

ASU Ph.D. candidate Courtney Brown's re-creation (thanks to fossils, CT scans, and 3D printing) of a Corythosaurus dinosaur skull and nasal passages, with a mechanical larynx that performers blow into to approximate the sound the animal made, is pretty cool just to think about. Once you've pulled up the video and listened to the prehistoric-style cries, though, your mind will be entirely blown. Brown has beaucoup other advanced musical projects on her plate — like her Weimar-influenced electronic cabaret act that's "designed so that the performer will fail" — but keep an eye out for when the little guy will be bellowing in public again this academic year.

Performance art per se has enjoyed isolated heydays on the Phoenix culture scene, and a new wave is cresting thanks to some genuinely experimental organizations, including Matthew Watkins' Orange Theatre Group. With cameras, microphones, and computers getting smaller and more affordable all the time, technology plays a vital role in sucking Orange's audiences in and then disturbing and disorienting them, as intended. Whether actors appear to be digging graves, peeing in toilets, chugging cough syrup, or writhing on the floor crooning Europop, the media tracks reveal perspectives and amplify secrets that add layers to the live performance, creating something that's hauntingly thought-provoking — and surprisingly beautiful.

The researchers and scholars involved with the Meteorite Vault at Arizona State University have a Chicken Little complex. Sure, we've all claimed the sky's falling on our worst days and when we've had a little too much doomsday punch, but these academics have the rocks to prove it. In 1960, ASU purchased more than 700 meteorite samples from amateur meteorite hunter H.H. Nininger. Since, the collection has grown to more than 10,000 samples from more than 1,650 meteorite falls around the world, including a rare Martian meteorite that fell in southern Morocco in 2011 (the first Martian fall in 50 years). The Center for Meteorite Studies is now the world's largest university-based meteorite collection, hosting important data used by geological and space-oriented scientists around the world. And as soon as they brush up the collection and reopen to the public, they're promising to put on a real rock show.

Evelyn Ngugi

Phoenix-based neon artist is not a career for the faint of anything. In the summertime, it's more than 120 degrees in Sue Meyers' studio. She's not running the A/C and she says a swamp cooler won't cut it because during the day, she's using 1,800-degree flames to mold, craft, and twist glass tubes that she'll fit and light to create neon signs and sculptures for businesses and "vintage" art fiends around the country. Meyers says she's been fascinated by neon since she was a kid and would go with her mom on trips to Las Vegas. In the early '90s, she took a neon class, and later ditched her commercial design gig to pursue what she knows is a temperamental industry full-time. Today, she's fighting the growing popularity of LED, not to mention the dangers of molding glass and working with neon in pure form, but she'll assure you that while her process is anything but cool, her product is exactly that. See a video of Meyers' work.

There's a buzz in the science community these days. Led by Dr. Gro Amdam, a team of scientists based mostly at Arizona State University recently published its cool findings — that older bees actually can reverse brain aging when they do work normally done by their younger comrades. The team also discovered a physical change in proteins in the bees' little brains — including one protein also found in humans that can help protect against dementia. So, you ask, how does any of this relate to us two-legged types? Well, down the road, researchers might be able to create a drug that can help folks maintain brain function. Genius!

Aaron Voigt is a cat with a penchant for the past — specifically the 1950s. He occasionally styles his black hair into a pompadour worthy of Buddy Holly himself and bombs around on a vintage beach cruiser, and his workshop is adorned with tiki heads and filled with the distortion-filled strains of surf rock. Voigt's fondness for the Eisenhower era also is illustrated in the retro-futuristic look of his handmade robot creations, which resemble the snazzy Space Age automatons seen in sci-fi flicks of that period, right down to the myriad dials, gears, and colorful bulbs adorning box-like chests and heads. Many of the Mesa artist's works are rectangular in nature, owing to the fact that Voigt usually fashions each robot's body from square-shaped steel tubing. After welding the pieces together, he adds various voltmeters, springs, knobs from vintage appliances, and discarded antiques to give each 'bot its own personality. "I'm also trying to mimic the old tin toys of the 1950s," Voigt says. "So if I can find something that just looks right and mount it so it looks believable as a robot component, or it adds to the robot look, I'll use it." He often spends entire days in his workshop cranking out dozens of pieces, which has led to a cramped and cluttered situation where a few of his own creations, which can get fairly heavy, have fallen off shelves and conked him on the foot. So much for Isaac Asimov's law about robots being verboten from causing harm to humans.

First-year psych students love spouting off about that dusty old Jungian theory concerning mankind's penchant for duality. (You know, that whole thing about our supposed yin-yang nature or potential for both good and evil.) Well, they'd probably have an effin' field day analyzing some of the disparate flicks featured every year at the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival. Imaginative fables of impossible feats and futuristic stories of hope are mixed with twisted tales of bloodthirsty abominations and terrifying deeds to make up the lineup of feature-length movies and short films of 30 minutes or less that screen at the annual event, which operates in conjunction with the Phoenix Film Festival. Now in its eighth year, it dispenses both cerebral sci-fi thrills and ghastly horror film chills that send your psyche into overdrive.

As any local cinema buff can tell you, Arizona has been a popular destination for film crews since the 1930s. It's due in part to our state's abundance of harsh desert terrain, which has proved an ideal setting for hundreds of Westerns. Ditto for science fiction flicks, particularly post-apocalyptic yarns like Planet of the Apes — both the original and its execrable 2001 remake — or tales involving barren desert planets. (That doesn't include Return of the Jedi, because it was shot just across the border from Yuma in California.) Other non-desert settings in Arizona have been seen in sci-fi films, including Starman, Star Trek: First Contact, and our personal favorite, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. The zany 1989 time-travel comedy was largely lensed in the Valley, which stood in for San Dimas, California. Watching the film is a cinematic tour though such local landmarks as Golfland Sunsplash in Mesa, Metrocenter, and the Ralph Haver-designed Coronado High School in Scottsdale. (A few of the locations are sadly no longer in existence, such as Metro's iconic basement ice-skating rink, below the food court.) We still get a chuckle whenever we drive past the Circle K at Hardy Drive and Southern Avenue in Tempe — the location where Bill and Ted meet their future selves — and invoke the memorable line from the same scene: "Strange things are afoot at the Circle K."

Robert F. Kennedy once famously waxed: "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not?'" The optimistic sentiment, paraphrased from George Bernard Shaw, is something likely shared by the slew of speculative-fiction scribes who attend and appear at LepreCon each year. While most of the geekazoid gatherings and conventions taking place around the Valley each year include science fiction and fantasy content, such topics take a larger focus at this event, particularly literary renditions of worlds that never were. As such, the lineup of special guests at LepreCon, which has been around since 1974, has included award-winners like Elizabeth Bear and Darrell K. Sweet. Meanwhile, hundreds of panels and events are held, featuring info on getting into the sci-fi book biz, discussions about the metaphors involved with aliens, public readings, and the possibilities of getting fan fiction published. Hey, it worked for that chick who wrote 50 Shades of Grey, which started out as a piece of Twilight fanfic.

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