Cyborphic

Science Fiction And Greek Theatre

(In)Frequently Asked Questions about Science Fiction Theatre

Part One: La théâtre de science-fiction, qu'est-ce que c'est? A.K.A. The Completely Invisible Thing No-One Has Never Seen Or Ever Talks About in Public, so It Cannot Be

 

Are people frequently asking questions about science fiction theatre? 
Nah. But that will change soon.

What is science fiction theatre?
Science fiction. On a stage.

I don’t know what this is but I think, like, that can't be done.
It has been done, it is being done, sometimes extremely well. Pomona, Mr Burns, The Nether, all contemporary sci-fi plays that did extremely well.

Hang on, I saw Pomona and I wouldn’t describe it as sci-fi.
You seriously want to enter the “is X sci-fi or speculative fiction or Weird or New Weird or Cosmic Horror or Scientific Romance” debate? (the “X” here also applies to X if you know what I mean.)

Ok, fine. But, in all honesty, I haven't heard of science fiction theatre before.
You haven't been paying attention.

I’m THE theatre critic, THE artistic director, THE theatre scholar.
You still haven’t been paying attention.

Now that you mention, I think I've seen a play once with sci-fi elements.
A.k.a. a sci-fi play.

No, it was mostly realistic with very few sci-fi elements.
My vegetarian breakfast had elements of bacon.

I wouldn't call it a sci-fi play but it was set in the future.
Yep, sci-fi.

It didn't have much science in it.
Still sci-fi.

It was set 10 years from now but the technology was identical to ours.
That’s a speculation about the future of technology 10 years from now. So sci-fi.

I would rather call it post-apocalyptic / futuristic / dystopian / posthuman / near-future.
Sub-genres of sci-fi.

Hang on, post-apocalyptic doesn’t necessarily mean…
Is the world destroyed by technological means?
Yeah but…
So sci-fi.

Your definition of sci-fi seems very broad.
My approach to genre in general – what I call a Zenre approach – is discussed in this article, “From Genre to Zenre”, published in the Alluvium journal in 2014: https://www.alluvium-journal.org/2014/10/17/from-genre-to-zenre/ Beautiful quote by Ray Bradbury included. If interested in holistic approaches to genre, try reading Gary K. Wolfe’s Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature.


Part Two: Can Science Fiction Be Staged Well, Can It Feel Like Cinema, HAHA Look At Your Tiny Budget, Can’t Be Done Without A Billion Dollars, And My Favourite Writers Are Doing Realism Which Is Much More Serious And Deep

 

Fair enough. Let’s say it exists. But surely sci-fi theatre cannot compete with sci-fi cinema.
It depends on the kind of sci-fi. Philosophical, high-concept sci-fi can be done equally well in both. Theatre does sci-fi differently than cinema.

Sci-fi is not my cup of tea.
How you must love human culture if you dismiss one of the major genres of contemporary cinema, literature and yes theatre as not your cup of tea.

It’s a matter of taste, I just don’t fancy it. All that non-realistic stuff. I like my classical theatre. None of my serious classical writers do unreal things or – God forbid - fantasy.
Hamlet’s Ghost. Macbeth’s Witches. Mephistopheles. Argus Panoptes With A Hundred Eyes. Gods. Demigods. Satyrs. Titans. A Dream Play. Endgame set in a post-apocalyptic world. Carl Freedman talks about “the science-fictional tendency” in Beckett’s Endgame in Critical Theory and Science Fiction.

Fake News! I still don’t know any great playwrights who are into that sci-fi stuff (and I refuse to call Endgame sci-fi.)
Caryl Churchill wrote A Number. Features cloning!

Yeah but I have not heard this described as sci-fi anywhere.
Alan Ayckbourn has written several sci-fi plays and he is ok with it, though he does recognise the prejudice the genre is facing. He says about the genre: “It keeps cropping up in my work, although I never call it science fiction because people get a little jumpy about it.” (link: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12259814.Is_that_a_sci-fi_play_I_spy_/ )

Ok, but I don’t know any great sci-fi writers who are into playwriting.
Try Ray Bradbury, major believer in the power of live performance. There’s this beautiful speech in which he says: “I got out of acting when I was 21. The reason I'm here tonight is because I quit acting...because I couldn't remember the goddamn lines.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_W-r7ABrMYU Actually, that’s a funny quote but doesn’t necessarily support the claim. Bradbury was also a playwright and ran a theatre company, Pandemonium Theatre Company, in Los Angeles. There are of course others. One of the earliest (if not the first of the great ones) sci-fi plays was R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) which was written by a playwright AND novelist, the Czech writer Karel Čapek.

Coincidentally, I’m an academic and I’m researching the genre and/or I am generally interested in sci-fi and/or theatre. Any sources?
Google “Past and Future of Science Fiction Theatre”, ideally keeping the quotation marks. For longer reads, “Staging the Impossible: The Fantastic Mode in Modern Drama,” edited by Patrick D. Murphy. And I assume you’ve already read the Ralph Willingham.

I saw this sci-fi play but it didn't look sci-fi.
You mean (most) sci-fi theatre doesn’t have the same aesthetics as (most) sci-fi cinema? Because indeed it shouldn't.

Not convinced that good sci-fi can be done with a theatre's low budget.
Watch The Man from Earth, a 2007 film. Google “low budget sci-fi” for entire lists.

I’ve been at one of your Talos Science Fiction Theatre Festivals and some of the plays I wouldn’t describe as science fiction. One of them was pure fantasy.
Yeah, we like fantasy too, it’s under the same umbrella term as sci-fi and horror: Speculative Fiction or, if you prefer, Fantastika. It’s like this: I’ve added some tomato to my gyro wrap, it’s still on the whole an omnivore’s lunch despite the occasional vegetarian ingredient.

Your analogies suck.
Wait till you hear my puns.

You have any sci-fi puns?
I’m into both Greek and geek theatre.

You’ve made that joke before.
I got nothin’.

PART 3. From Denial to Acceptance to LOVE: Liking Science Fiction in Theatre (Without Sacrificing Critical Thinking In Its Name)

 

Trying a more positive attitude now. I’ve thought of it and I really like sci-fi theatre. Do you think we need more of it? Is it a case of ‘the more the merrier’? CAN I HAZ MOAR?
Yes but what we also need is for more people to call it science fiction when they’re doing it. There’s been an infinite amount of science fiction plays that haven’t been labelled as such in related marketing material, press releases, reviews and so on. It’s contemporary theatre’s elephant in the room. Maybe a baby elephant.

So there is a prejudice against the genre? In theatre?
In general, sadly, and especially in theatre.

So you’re doing sci-fi theatre? That’s so cool!
Maybe. Unfortunately the quality of science fiction theatre is difficult to measure. Doing it isn’t automatically cool or uncool. But there is some coolness in the act itself.

Why is there bad sci-fi theatre?
Ralph Willingham makes this good argument in his book, Science Fiction and the Theatre, that unfortunately many of these plays (at least in the 20th century) were written by “dramatists schooled in the old playwriting formulas” (people doing traditional theatre attempting a go or two at sci-fi.) That is of course not the only reason. Same rules apply here that apply to all theatre.

Can theatre critics judge sci-fi theatre? Can sci-fi critics judge sci-fi theatre?Yes if they know their sci-fi extremely well. Yes if they know theatre extremely well. Unfortunately, it’s very easy for a theatremaker ignorant to the achievements (and problems) of the genre to create a play whose science fictionality is merely reproducing sci-fi cinema’s clichés and for a critic who’s watched the occasional sci-fi film to be impressed. Engaging with the genre in any capacity requires a certain expertise to create a meaningful experience.

So a sci-fi play needs to be both good sci-fi and good theatre?
That is the challenge.

What is the future of sci-fi theatre?
Just say the future of theatre. That’s what it is.

Christos Callow Jr

31 May 2018

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