Monday, June 16, 2014

Staging the Impossible: Theatricality in Science Fiction

Contributed by Kelley Holley

Erin Eva Butcher in Solace by A. Vincent Ularich,
produced by Science Fiction Theatre Company, May 2013. Photo credit: Becca Lewis

Science fiction is no stranger to the stage. Though science fiction theatre may seem to be a budding concept, gaining ground in the last decade, science fiction plays have graced stages for more than 100 years. Whether these plays are adaptions (as many are, including numerous adaptions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) or new works, science fiction has been a constant thread through contemporary theatre history. It has waxed and waned in popularity, perhaps never reaching the truly mainstream (though popular dramatists such as George Bernard Shaw, Ray Bradbury and Sam Shepard have dabbled in it). Many have attributed science fiction theatre’s decline in the late 20th century to the prominence of movies, which are create vast worlds on screen with special effects, have epic chase scenes, and have a cast of thousands believably and easily. Yet, science fiction theatre has seen a recent surge in popularity. As science fiction theatre cannot provide the unending landscape nor the 100 foot tall creature of film. Instead, it must strive for something other. It must stage the impossible.

Rather than trying to compete with science fiction on the screen, science fiction theatre must produce a uniquely theatrical experience. “Theatricality” is not easily defined, and in the confines of this blog post, I will not attempt to do so. However, the packed term does provide a general understanding. It may be grand or it may intimate. It may be puppetry or costumes. It may be a pillar of light that demands the audience to use their imagination to create the setting. The question surrounding science fiction theatre is often “how do you put a spaceship on stage?” Theatricality is key here. Theatre artists must not try to replicate film. It can never be achieved. There is a vast, rich world for science fiction in theatre and we must strive to achieve it.

As I struggled to define “theatrical” in any strict sense, I used both the terms “intimate” and “grand.” My experience with science fiction theatre has made great use of the intimate. Creating a new world in a 50 seat theatre requires a true connection with the audience. The proximity to the bodies on stage is essential. As the audience forges a relationship with the actors, they are able to venture into strange new worlds. Theatrical science fiction does not need universe spanning battles. Instead, it can focus on questions. Science fiction theatre acts as lens for artists and audience alike to imaginatively explore possibilities. Can sound be a spaceship? Can light? Can dance?

Science fiction theatre allows artists to push the boundaries of possible. The genre already provides for the unusual and atypical: it is just that staging it must allow for these as well. Consequently, not only does science fiction provide space to ask important societal questions, but also the boundaries of how artists create theatre. The tool box of science fiction theatre is vast. There are no limits beyond what the artists can fathom. The imagination can create a creature more terrifying than CGI can, simply through the suggestion of sound. A costume can suggest an alien, both strange and immediate. Puppets can create a chase scene across universes through mere suggestion, creating a space where the intimate and tiny approaches the grand and spectacular.

Science fiction theatre is not in competition with itself in other mediums. There is something truly unique about science fiction on stage that demands the imagination to be an active participant. The theatre artists encounter questions that demand new genres and stories to explore, and new methods and aesthetics to embody them.

How does one place a spaceship on stage? How does one stage the impossible?

Nothing is impossible.


Kelley Holley is the Literary Manager of Science Fiction Theatre Company ( She is a recent graduate of San Diego State University, where she earned her Master of Arts in Theatre. She has worked as a dramaturg for such organizations as The Playwright’s Project and American Repertory Theater.

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