Teaching Science Fiction Theatre: Reflections from Sci-Fi Theatre Workshops
It is impossible or rather simple-minded to place the words “science fiction” and “theatre” together without acknowledging the common essence of both; the notion that science fiction is a “literature of ideas” and that theatre is necessarily that too, as it is rooted in conflict, as it is, more than perhaps any other medium, a dialectical art form. Any attempt to create, practice and teach the genre on stage should start from this principle.
Equally commonplace is the following approach, that science fiction engages with what-ifs, that it is literature of the “what if.” What if robots ruled Britain, what if you could teleport to Mars, what if aliens looked like giant teabags? However, these what-ifs are in themselves indistinguishable from one another in terms of artistic merit or purpose. Anyone can come up with a mashup of two things that sound funny or scary or exciting together and put them in a story set in another time or another space where their union is made possible.
As an exercise however, experimenting with such what-ifs can provide the occasional starting point for a great play or novel, especially when there is an order to the creative chaos, a “why” that accompanies the what-if in question. The exercises that are briefly mentioned below and which have formed part of the workshops discussed in this blog post have featured both individual and group experimentation with science fictional what-ifs in the context of playwriting, but always in relation to another more specific instruction or objective, such as worldbuilding for the stage or adapting a non-sci-fi play.
As the year 2018 is coming to its end, I wanted to reflect on these sci-fi theatre workshops here (and similarly-themed university seminars) and provide some observations and conclusions based on my experience of teaching science fiction theatre in different contexts for the past couple of years, as well as observing sci-fi theatre workshops led by others.
1. Teaching the Science Fiction Play
Teaching a science fiction play in a seminar for English literature and/or Theatre studies students is a very different experience than that of a sci-fi theatre workshop; it is, in many ways, beneficial for the play to be introduced among other contemporary texts and approached as a work of contemporary theatre that nevertheless includes elements of science fiction. The pluralism of approaches that a large diverse group of students brings to such a play’s reading is incredible; literature students may have no interest in science fiction but an expertise in theatrical texts, while others may have the opposite. Theatre students, even when they do have a passion for science fiction, have never been encouraged to connect the two and the term sci-fi theatre sounds to them new and alien in most cases.
However – and this is in relation to the introductory bit above – those students who come to sci-fi theatre with a background in literary criticism, will gladly engage with the political and philosophical core of each text, and will apply postcolonial criticism or Marxist theory often reaching a great understanding of one or several of the themes the text engages with. The more diverse a group of students, the more fruitful the conversations on the text. When teaching The Nether by Jennifer Haley at Birkbeck, University of London, the students expressed a wide range of emotional and critical responses. This is expected of high-concept science fiction literature, but in this case the added element of the play leads to more complex questions and makes the study of the text more personal; those that had seen the play had a different emotional involvement in the discussion, and those that disliked or had little experience of reading theatre, were motivated to read more plays (and in some cases to challenge the common prejudice that plays aren’t meant to be read) as they were intrigued by the strong philosophical and moral conflicts. That said, The Nether – as I had written in a previous blog post – can be a difficult play for literature students who aren’t used to the more provocative and disturbing elements of either classical or contemporary theatre. I suspect that Alistain McDowall’s Pomona would be similarly useful as teaching material but similarly shocking to BA students of English lit. It may be that Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn would be more accessible to start with, however I haven’t had the chance to introduce the same group of students to all three texts to get a sense of their reactions.
Generally speaking, science fiction plays are a good way to introduce science fiction literature fans to theatre, and vice versa, theatre fans to science fiction. There should be one in every contemporary literature syllabus and in every contemporary theatre syllabus, again because the conflict of ideas and worldviews is such an essential part of both science fiction and theatre that in sci-fi theatre one often gets the best of both worlds.
2. Teaching the Sci-Fi Theatre Workshop
I spoke mainly about seminars for literature students above; while teaching theatre studies at the University of Leeds earlier this year, I gave an introduction to sci-fi theatre workshop that I later adapted to the first workshop of 2018’s Science Fiction Theatre Research Lab. Both versions were three hours in length and included a mini lecture, a discussion and a creative exercise in two parts. There’s no need to go into further detail about its structure, but it was interesting to observe how differently a similar workshop was received by students and by professional participants (many of them were theatre professionals and others were writers) who attended Cyborphic’s 2018 workshops in London.
The workshop included an adaptation exercise, which basically means taking a well-known play and converting it to science fiction. This is a straightforward exercise, and there are both theatre directors who adapt certain classical stories as if they were sci-fi plays / set in dystopian near-future scenarios, as well as writers who take classical plays and add a sci-fi twist. There isn’t always a good or a concrete reason and the sci-fi adaptation can feel forced, but there were students who made good connections between science fiction tropes and a certain theme or character in Shakespeare, for example. This is another way to inspire people to think outside the box for the potential ways a text can be adapted, but it also helps to go back to the original text afterwards with a more complex perspective.
3. Science Fiction Theatre Research Lab
While delivering the workshop to theatremakers and writers, it was fascinating to see how differently the people who chose the workshop (rather than the students for whom it was part of their course) perceived science fiction theatre. I feel it is important for anyone creating and/or producing science fiction plays to converse about these issues with different groups of people who will have a completely different understanding and experience of science fiction and/or of theatre. This was obviously a group who was positive about all things sci-fi, most of them very knowledgeable about science fiction literature and culture, and who were also eager to expand their awareness of the genre on the stage and use any information or inspirational thought to inform their practice. Staging their writing was a new experience for writers, while engaging with high-concept sci-fi ideas was a new experience for theatre artists.
The research lab expanded on the original workshop and I had invited three more workshop leaders as part of this workshop series. The other workshop leaders were Dominic Allen, Chloe Mashiter and Edward Einhorn. Edward Einhorn, a theatre director and playwright with substantial experience in creating science fiction theatre (including a collaboration with Ursula K. Le Guin on a stage adaptation of her The Lathe of Heaven, and adaptations of Jack London’s Iron Heel and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), led a very informative and engaging workshop that started with a debate on defining science fiction and spoke about his experiences with directing sci-fi theatre. Dominic Allen, who had recently performed (with Simon Maeder) the successful Lovecraft-inspired show Providence, talked about devising and comedy and the participants explored sci-fi through improvisation exercises. Chloe Mashiter talked about the different kinds of worldbuilding and the art of worldbuilding in theatre. One of the workshop exercises was to explore one central idea that would lead to a new world. So again the concept of a what-if exercise but with a specific objective, to construct an imaginative world and its laws starting from the agreed what-if scenario.
During the four-day workshop series, people discussed their overall experience of science fiction plays, engaged in several different exercises including exercises to generate ideas for sci-fi plays and to perform improvised scenes based on them, as well as writing exercises, including the cold reading of one of the participants’ own sci-fi scripts.
It seems that as science fiction theatre – apart from merely a “genre” of theatre – is a marriage of two cultures - theatre and science fiction - that a combination of approaches and exercises from both fields can lead to the optimal result. To teach sci-fi theatre (whether sci-fi playwriting or sci-fi theatre-making more broadly), it is best to combine straightforward worldbuilding and science fiction writing exercises that you would get in a science fiction writing class, with traditional theatre exercises like improvisation, writing dialogue for performance, staging / directing drafts of scripts. These conclusions are of course fairly basic and obvious; however I understand there isn’t at the moment anything close to a tradition of teaching the two – science fiction and theatre – established in either higher education or in professional theatre or creative writing workshops. This is definitely an area that hasn’t been sufficiently explored and whose benefits will prove increasingly useful to theatremakers of our current generation and of the future.
I would furthermore propose that improvisational exercises and the staging of any piece of dialogue or monologue can be beneficial to the creative writer even when writing science fiction prose; and vice versa, that taking a classical text like Hamlet, Macbeth or the Oresteia and introducing science fiction (or fantasy or horror or even Weird) elements to the plot or its staging can be a strong brainstorming exercise even when the end result is a production that doesn’t involve any of those. I hope to report more substantial and specific conclusions from future workshops, conferences and productions of science fiction theatre. For now, I hope I have provided a taste of teaching sci-fi theatre in three different contexts and for different groups of people.