Thursday, June 5, 2014

Science Fiction—A Brave New Stage

Contributed by Jen Gunnels

The question of science fiction in theatre has become a hot topic of late, but it’s presence in theatre is not something radically new. In fact, I’ve been specializing in it as a drama critic, and it’s been around in quantity and quality for the last ten years or so, especially in regard to new original work. A quick jaunt over to Facebook’s Forum for Science Fiction in the Theatre will reveal a worldwide network of artists and critics. In New York alone there are so many sci-fi plays I cannot review all of them. For those in the know, it’s some of the most exciting new theatre in decades, but for others more versed in the “traditional” venues of science fiction—books, television, and film—natural reactions might be, “Wait . . . what?”, “Impossible to do!” and “Why bother?”
DEINDE with Rachael Hip-Flores; Photo by Justin Hoch
DEINDE with Isaiah Tanenbaum, Ken Glickfeld, David Ian Lee,
Rachael Hip-Flores, and Nitya Vidyasagar; Photo credit Justin Hoch
Sovereign with Hanna Cheek, Erin Jerozal, Sara Thigpen,
Neimah Djourabchi, Stephen Heskett, & Daryl Lathon
Photo credit Deborah Alexander

First of all, it isn’t impossible. Sci-fi isn’t just about special effects or aliens or whatever stereotypical images the genre conjures. It’s also about people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances which require them to question their humanity and/or their relationships to one another and their world. That’s pretty much what theatre does. Period. Theatre is very good at examining huge questions about the human experience and has been for quite some time. Long before books and film, actually.
Second, look around for a moment. Are you reading this blog on a laptop? Tablet? Smartphone? Everyday life has become more and more science-fictional. We’re living in the future. It makes perfect sense that theatre, an art form which has always mirrored the social and cultural circumstances surrounding its production, would include sci-fi. This is how we tell stories now, and this is how we come to grips with questions concerning the future as well as dealing with the current fallout from the onrush of technologic progress.

Two playwrights, my unabashed favorites, expertly wield sci-fi to create poignant, powerful characters in unenviable circumstances. August Schulenburg, playwright and artistic director of Flux Theatre Ensemble, did this admirably in DEINDE, explored what happens to humans when they jack themselves directly into a quantum computer in order to save planet from a virus. Mac Rogers, the reigning sci-fi playwright here in New York, wrote the award-winning Honeycomb Trilogy (Advance Man, Blast Radius, Sovereign) produced by Gideon Productions, utilizing the trope of alien invasion and masterfully created an amazing character study without having to show us a single alien.

Blast Radius featuring Becky Byers and Adam Swiderski
Photo credit Deborah Alexander
This is the merest taste of the many original sci-fi plays I’ve seen and doesn’t include the remarkable science-fictional production designs that have been applied to more “traditional” work—as with the most recent Steampunk treatment of The Tempest at the American Repertory Theater.

Are there different concerns with creating this kind of theatre? Schulenburg would say that the concerns of sci-fi theatre are merely the concerns of theatre dressed in speculative drag. True. Rogers would readily echo the sentiment. The challenges of producing science fiction for the stage, however, is a question for another day, and one that is in the process of constant innovation and revision as artists and critics work together in building into theatrical practices sensibilities addressing the needs of sci-fi and theatre alike. (As an aside, artists and critics enjoy an amazing working relationship in this type of theatre for which I am profoundly grateful.) If anything, sci-fi theatre provides an opportunity for the art to move forward in a way that will challenge audiences, artists, and critics in exciting ways.


Jen Gunnels is the theatre editor for the New York Review of Science Fiction and holds a PhD in theatre history and criticism from the University of Texas at Austin. She created the Forum for Science Fiction in the Theatre on Facebook and has contributed essays and reviews to a number of books and scholarly journals. Most recently she gave a keynote at Stage the Future—the First Conference for Science Fiction Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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