Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Mac Rogers.
So on Tuesday I tried to make a case for science fiction as a legitimate genre for theater. But obviously that’s all theory. How are we supposed to actually do it? We’re New York independent theater! We don’t have a robot to piss in!
Well, good, we should talk about the practical. That’s more or less the definition of theater to me. It’s all practical: “How are we going to make that happen? They’re gonna be watching us while we do it.” This is all pretty prominently in my head right now, as the Red Fern Theater Company prepares to open an anthology of science fiction one-acts entitled +30NYC , which includes pieces by Bekah Brunstetter, Victor I. Cazares, Christine Evans, Michael John Garcés, Ashlin Halfnight, Tommy Smith, and yours truly.
Two of the theater companies I follow the closest do a lot of genre theater. The brains behind Nosedive Productions, for example, are brilliant at achieving impossible effects. Last year, wincing in shame, I gave them a play that involved people eating the flesh off a severed head, and they figured out how do it! Vampire Cowboys have a different approach, which I also love: they let the strings show. Fight Girl Battle World, I remember, had an outer space tool of some sort floating around in zero gravity, but they made sure we could see the metal pole holding it up from offstage. In this way, they create effects that mimic the movies, but make sure that we can see how they’re achieving them, which 1) is awesome and hilarious, and 2) conjures cinematic associations while remaining defiantly theatrical.
As a writer-producer, I design my scripts so they can be produced on a budget without losing impact. (I design them that way; I’m not saying the design always works.) With science fiction, you have to give the story a good think-through to figure out how it would best be realized in theatrical terms.
In 2007 and then again in 2009, I wrote and produced a science fiction play called Universal Robots. The story presented major challenges. It spanned many decades, involved the invention of robots, and the eventual robot conquest of the Earth. I knew it wasn’t a question of just writing the story, handing it off to some producers, and swanning off humming a careless tune. I would be one of the producers. There was no escape.
The play that was my original inspiration, Karel Capek’s R.U.R., mostly relied on expository dialogue to explain the earthshaking events that took place between scenes. I decided to not so much fix that as feature it: I created a narrator, who could explain the bits we needed explained without having to shoe-horn them into conversation between the other characters, who had no reason to be explaining the plot to each other.
But who was the narrator? This is a hangup I have. If someone is talking to the audience, I want to know why. I want them to be a character. I want them to have a reason to be talking to us. So I brooded a bit more, and then I thought: what if she’s a robot? What if she’s telling us the story of the robot conquest? Because this (and this is when you know you’ve hit on a winner, ‘cause it starts solving multiple problems for you) addressed the problem of how to end a play that closes with all the humans in the whole world getting killed.
And then it hit me: hubris. Capek’s play fell squarely into the whole Greek/Icarus/golem/Frankenstein tradition of human aspiring to God-hood and getting smacked down for it. I wasn’t trying to mimic that particular moral framework, but the associations involved – the chorus, the ritualistic aspect, the religious dimensions – pointed me squarely in the direction of greek tragedy, and toward that crucial realization:
The whole play would be about a theatrical presentation by a troupe of robots after the extermination of the human race, led by the narrator. A presentation that had spiritual significance to the presenters – a confession, an expiation. It would start and end with a chorus, and in between it would tell the story of strivers who tried to be Gods. The answer of how to present a science fiction epic on stage, unsurprisingly, was to be found in Greek tragedy – in a genre of theater. One of the oldest.
It was the best idea I ever had, and it wasn’t my idea. I didn’t come up with anything new. I combined a bunch of very old, tried and true ingredients with a sprinkle of my own seasoning on top. Human beings have been presenting fantastical stories as long as there has been theater. Angry gods, monsters, war. The long night of revelations in a living room is what we often associate with theater, but it’s a more recent invention. There are other options. And science fiction is a natural fit with ritualistic, symbolic, hyper-experiential theater that defined the earliest incarnations of the form.
My subsequent play, Viral, was more Karen Fowler-style “we’re already living in a science fiction world” science-fiction. It involved a group of characters who come to engage with each other about as intimately as people can – but they never would have met were it not for methods of online communication and expression that barely existed a decade ago.
It made more sense to realize that story as your standard-issue living room play. I wanted everything to feel as ordinary as possible so that the extraordinary parts would really jump out. In my original draft, the first five or six pages took place in the virtual world of chat-rooms where the characters meet, but the director, Jordana Williams, sensibly convinced me to junk it. We simply had the characters on the couch in the living room, typing to the stranger who would change their lives, who stood apart in a separate light. Simple, elegant, and the audience, who spent much of their daily lives online, clicked into the concept instantly. The scene played solidly for suspense and laughs every time. Again, science fiction is never about gadgets or aliens, but how we, as human beings, adapt to them, and reveal ourselves through that adaptation.
Speaking of aliens… I’m writing a couple plays right now, but the one that’s falling into place the fastest? I must be losing my mind. It’s a trilogy of plays about an extraterrestrial invasion of the Earth. I must be off my frickin’ rocker. I’ll tell you this, though. My number one guideline in writing these scripts? This is not a movie. This is not a miniseries. This is a piece of live theater. And that informs every choice.