Monday, June 9, 2014

Geek Theatre Takes Over

Contributed by Charles Battersby

“Geek Chic” has taken over the film industry in the 21st Century. The producers who green light movies about giant robots and superheroes used to be children who played with toy robots, and watched the Superfriends. However the theatrical community has lagged behind in trying to tap this vast audience pool of sci-fi, comic book and video game fans. An Old Guard of theater snobs turned up their noses at geek theater, while greedy Broadway producers watched in horror as Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark became a legendary disaster. MEANWHILE: The Off and Off-Off-Broadway scene has been slowly cultivating geek artists and audiences for years. I've been a theater critic for over a decade, and a playwright for twenty years; in that time I have seen an entire generation of nerdy theatre people spring up to replace that old guard. For this generation, nerd culture isn't a novelty, it's just another form of storytelling.

There are theater companies that specialize in science fiction theater now, and a few venues that have whole festivals dedicated to gaming and comic book theater, but only a few years ago it was still a very difficult task for a playwright to get a “Genre” show produced. The stereotype was that anything with aliens, robots or superheroes had to be a children's show.

It's partially a generational issue. In the last twenty five years, the quality of geek media has changed.  Middle-aged people might be confused by adults “Playing with the Atari” and watching cartoons, but anyone under 30 came of age as nerd culture was rapidly maturing. To them, Watchmen and Return of the Dark Knight have always existed.  Super hero cartoons mean Kevin Conroy's Batman.  Video games mean Mass Effect. For this generation, geek culture has always been intelligent, complex and mature.

There's also a left-brain, right-brain conflict.  Poetry versus science.  Theater people are very accepting of ghosts, fairies and gods.  But if someone writes a play about a character who has special powers due to a lab accident, then theater audiences and critics will tune out.  Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark was a perfect example; it was re-tooled so that Spidey's origin is influenced by mythology and magic, rather than being pure sci-fi.

I've reviewed a few other shows where the writer tried to make science fiction, but ended up dumping in elements of spirituality, as though they were worried that their audiences wouldn't be able to accept a pure sci-fi setting (Or the writers themselves just didn't have a good grounding in the genre). A few years ago I reviewed a musical that had many themes in common with the novel Brave New World. When I mentioned that to the playwright, she rather smugly stated that she'd never read Brave New World.  This would be a lot like a comic book writer making a story about a vengeful Danish Prince, then declaring that they had never seen Hamlet.

I also watched in astonishment as some of my fellow theater critics wrote positive reviews of a show that was blatantly plagiarized from famous comic books. This was a clear indication that the critics had never read Watchmen or Squadron Supreme when they praised a certain show for it's clever story and cerebral concept (And unabashed appropriation of Watchmen's most famous moment).

All of this indicates that there was a general lack of understanding about sci-fi within the majority of the theater community. Yet in just the last couple of years we've seen smaller theatrical organizations create a subculture of people who bring aliens and robots to the stage. In doing so, they're cultivating a new audience who are brought to the theater by a love for the subject matter, not the medium. That's a trait which is very distinct to the new generation of audiences; they can enjoy the same franchise on a variety of media, whether it's a film, a video game, a book, or a live performance.


Charles Battersby is a playwright, actor and journalist who is known for his plays That Cute Radioactive Couple, and sTopless Go-Go Girls at the Troll Hole. He also writes the bi-weekly Fallout Lore webseries for Shoddycast. He is a videogame journalist who has written for sites including Complex, Joystiq, Explosion, GamesReviews, and Explosion.

Charles' new play The Astonishing Adventures of All American Girl & The Scarlet Skunk is playing through June 25th in The Brick's Comic Book Theater Festival.

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