Other Worlds: Putting Science Fiction On Stage. Longread by Lauren Mooney

One of these performers is not like the others. The rest of the cast are all of a piece, voices sweetly complementary, a sisterhood of nuns from the same order. She, the outsider, moves differently – she holds herself differently, wears different clothes. She is an interloper. The other. Inhuman.

Tim Foley’s Electric Rosary opened at the Royal Exchange in May 2022, after a several-year-long development process and a fair amount of pandemic-disruption. Like its central character, Mary, it is a little uncanny; in many ways, it looks and feels familiar enough, with deceptively gentle, funny, naturalistic dialogue and a cast of carefully-observed, lovingly-rendered characters. Except that one of them is a robot.

 

The sci-fi in Electric Rosary isn’t ornamentary: it’s at the core of what makes the play function, genre as jumping-off point, short-circuiting an audience relationship to leap into big questions of faith, humanity, creation. Which is what sci-fi does, right? What it’s for. After all, as Ursula Le Guin (author of some of the most beloved sci-fi novels of the 20th century) wrote in her beautiful essay, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction:

“Science fiction properly conceived, like all serious fiction, however funny, is a way of trying to describe what is in fact going on, what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else in this vast stack, this belly of the universe, this womb of things to be and tomb of things that were, this unending story.”

So why isn’t there more sci-fi on stage?

Of course, that’s not to say there’s nothing resembling science fiction, or playing on its tropes: Ali McDowall’s X, for instance, opened at the Royal Court Theatre in 2016 and begins with the stage direction, ‘A small research base on Pluto.’ Sleepdogs’ Dark Land Light House – which also premiered in 2016, at Bristol Old Vic – was a story about loneliness set in the furthest and most isolated reaches of space. Then there are more experiential pieces, like Parabolic’s Bridge Command, which uses the language of TV sci-fi to create a collaborative game where players can pilot a starship together.

But shows like these remain rare beasts in the UK theatre ecology; it’s far more common for theatre writers to cut their teeth on sci-fi and genre outside our rehearsal rooms, in the worlds of TV and film.

‘I remember trying to write a slightly sci-fi play, but I didn’t know how to do it,’ says Danusia Samal. She’s a performer who’s worked across theatre, film and TV, as well as a writer, and winner of the 2018 Theatre 503 Playwriting Prize. ‘There wasn’t that much of a tradition or a support network for it and the feedback felt quite dissuasive … so I kind of abandoned it.’

Foley, too, talked about feeling discouraged during an early draft of Electric Rosary – the embarrassment he felt at sharing a piece of genre theatre with readers, struggling to shake the feeling that it was somehow less serious – and the fact that, the first time he sent the play to anyone, he received ‘such negative feedback that it really rocked me’. Luckily, Elizabeth Freestone, then-AD of Pentabus (where Foley was playwright in residence), told him to ‘stick at’ the play – that it had something. Electric Rosary won the Judges Prize at Bruntwood just over a year later, in 2017.

Samal is now part of the writer’s room for the Netflix adaptation of Bodies, a genre-busting graphic novel set variously in the 1890s, 1940s, 2010s and 2050s. Rooms like this felt an easier place to try her hand at sci-fi than theatre: ‘In the telly world there’s so much existing stuff, so much architecture, all you have to do is watch loads of telly.’ This kind of writing has given her ‘the opportunity to build worlds, and so I’ve become more ambitious about what I can write’. But surely it’s vital to our ecology that we find a way to support that kind of ambition in playwrights without them having to go to other mediums?

‘Good sci-fi theatre is few and far between,’ Samal says. ‘And if it’s something you missed, then – you’ve missed it.’ There is an access issue here, of course – the live-ness, the temporariness of theatre, the need to be in the right room at the right time. And it’s intriguing to think that a lack of genre on UK stages is breeding further lack of genre: that writers don’t have much of this kind of work to be in conversation with, or to give them permission to experiment with these worlds.

‘One of the reasons I got Bruntwood on my radar was because I remember reading an article, way before I was writing plays, about Ali McDowall’s Brilliant Adventures,’ says Foley. ‘And it talked about this guy from Middlesborough [where Foley is also from], who’d written a play about time travel, and I was just like – that’s what I want to do. He could have grown up round the corner from me and here he is writing something that I didn’t even know existed as a play.’

Despite being a lifelong sci-fi fan, Foley didn’t start playing with genre for stage until his 2016 residency with Pentabus, as their Channel 4-supported playwright. The scheme, still running today, awards six bursaries a year to new theatre writers, four supported by The Peggy Ramsay Foundation, two by Film4. Each bursary comes with a one-year attachment to the theatre or company that put them forwards.

Foley spent a year in rural Ludlow, and it was here, working with Pentabus, that he ‘had the big idea to try and write stuff I actually enjoy. Because I’ve always enjoyed sci-fi, but I’d felt that to be a playwright I had to kind of shut that bit off. And then I decided not to. And it was a really conscious decision.’

For Tim, the scheme was what made this decision possible: both its legitimacy, which gave him the organisational backing he felt was needed to reach out to experts (research with scientists underpinned his first, as-yet-unstaged sci-fi play, Gravity Lake) and its financial security. In residence at Pentabus, there was ‘time and space and money… there was no pressure. I wasn’t trying to win anyone over with a commission or pitch a story.’ This is what allowed him to make the ‘conscious decision to do things I like’. And what he liked, of course, was sci-fi.

‘The thing I always loved about sci-fi is that to me it’s a mostly hopeful genre that speaks about possibility,’ says playwright Vinay Patel. ‘And in a very corny way I could see myself in that more than any historical play. I know for sure that someone like me exists in the future.’

Patel cut his teeth in theatre and has since been in the writer’s room for Doctor Who (his Demons of the Punjab one of the finest episodes of recent years, in my opinion), but it’s only recently that he’s begun to consider putting genre on stage himself. He’s currently working on a sci-fi adaptation of a Chekhov play, about which more information should be forthcoming later this year.

For Patel, this reimagining has freed him from the idea that the only way to do adaptations of classics that engaged with race was for them to be about colonialism: ‘I wanted it to be there, but not the whole story.’ Adapting the story like this has freed him up politically – and personally, too, to create ‘a version of theatre that I would have been really excited about as a 15-year-old, obsessed with Star Trek.’

Over and over, interviewees for this piece described how they grew up loving Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Ursula Le Guin, Arthur C Clarke. And I was raised on the same steady diet – Blakes Seven on Wednesdays before Brownies, Sapphire & Steel on sick-days from school, crushing disappointment in the Star Wars prequels, and so on. These days, like Foley – and also like Timothy X Atack the writer behind Dark Land Light House – I write for Big Finish, audio dramas that extend the worlds of beloved sci-fi series. But the bulk of my work is in theatre, and I’ve never even considered putting sci-fi on stage – which seems strange, when I think about how inextricable these stories are from the ways in which I learned to love storytelling, world-building; learned, in fact, to imagine.

 

‘There’s a lot of personal stuff for me that attaches to sci-fi, which I think connects to – without meaning to sound pat – growing up in a culture that I wasn’t born in, and the notion of: “other lives are possible”,’ says Tanuja Amarasuriya, director of Dark Land Light House. ‘It’s something I’m very interested in as a theatre-maker and I think a lot of that comes from this idea of: where do you find your place in the world? So sci-fi is an obvious storytelling space for that exploration.’

Amarasuriya has been working with Atack since 2008, and as Sleepdogs since 2010. Generally, she directs and he writes, though the process for Dark Land Light House was exploratory, collaborative, and both have practices that span mediums and forms, including musical composition and sound design. They carry that omnivorous approach into Sleepdogs’ work, creating not only theatre but EPs based on field recordings and installations about time – with a distinctive preoccupation with genre running through all of it.

‘We’ve always been interested in genre storytelling,’ says Amarasuriya. ‘Genre is a bridge to big ideas basically … I don’t think either of us are naturally drawn to domestic stories, as such.’ For them, she says, genre is part of ‘the act of thinking into worldbuilding – which feels so obvious for theatre that I don’t understand why people don’t play more with science fiction in this medium. Because it feels like, as a form, you’ve got the audience there, with you, they’re already willing to be part of something with you – so inviting them into an act of really full-on, “what if” imagining feels like something these people might be ready to do.’

‘It’s great for theatre because this is a collective form of storytelling,’ says Atack. ‘The perfect medium for imagining what world you want to live in – and so it’s immediately a collective act, to imagine together.’

Despite this, Atack had initially planned for Dark Land Light House to sit in another medium; it was Amarasuriya who convinced him, slowly but surely, that it could work as a play. At the end of this long period of persuasion, Atack found himself alone in a theatre, working as a sound designer, and was struck by how right the space felt for a sci-fi story: ‘When the spaces are blasted open they’re these slightly rusting, cranky pieces of technology, and immediately you can imagine some infernal instrument, some ancient force…’

Part of the appeal of genre theatre of course is the capacity to reach beyond the medium for something else. Why shouldn’t theatre seek inspiration elsewhere and look to other forms? It seems a vital way to keep alive an art-form that can sometimes feel insular, inward-looking, like it’s chasing its own tail, where reviews of revivals reference previous revivals done better twenty or thirty years previous. We are a medium haunted by itself: this great production that no longer exists, that brilliant thing by so-and-so that you just missed.

‘I think sci-fi allows for extremity,’ says Foley. ‘For bigger ideas, other worlds.’ For him, you have to ‘build a world every time a play starts … so why wouldn’t you want that world to be as interesting as possible? And different, and surprising – and yet, allowing you to explore the real world in ways that a mirror couldn’t, completely.’

Similarly, for Atack, ‘There’s a kind of framework to sci-fi that means you’re allowed a bit of mysticism, to head into a place that asks for an act of imagination straight away… I’m not a massive fan of theatre that feels intensely certain about what it’s doing and saying, and so sci-fi and fantasy really help me to connect straight away with an audience in a way that says: ok, we’re going somewhere new, and you know we’re going somewhere new.’

This distance from reality, this ability to abstract the ‘now’, comes up repeatedly with the theatre-makers I talk to – as does ‘scale’. Scale is a funny word in theatre, often used to describe the breadth of appeal, the size of room one is allowed to use in – do we have, we are asked, experience of ‘working at scale’? But that isn’t what these makers mean by scale: they mean using genre to access ideas that feel gigantic to them, regardless of the size of room they are working in. Or as Samal puts it, ‘Real life is already pretty strange and sci-fi is a great way of tapping in to that, analysing it.’

 

When Parabolic, the company behind Bridge Command, was formed back in 2016, Artistic Director Owen Kingston ‘was looking for things immersive theatre wasn’t doing, or wasn’t doing commonly.’ Initially that was about political theatre: Kingston wanted to find a way to make socially and politically engaged immersive theatre, ‘but in a way that was fun and engaging and not about beating people over the head – to me, dipping into genre allows for that.’ Genre, for Parabolic, is ‘a lens we can approach modern issues through that disguises it enough to make it fun.’

Tom Black, one of the company’s associates, describes what they do as ‘very interactive theatre, that puts real control over the narrative into the hands of its audience.’ Bridge Control, written and devised for groups of 3-6, allows its audience-players (they use both terms interchangeably, with a slight preference for audiences, ‘because what we make is very much theatre’) to work collaboratively to pilot a space ship. But most of what Black contributed to its initial devising process was ‘world-building’ – planning the over-arching narrative that sits behind the experience, in which the audience are leaving behind a climate-wracked earth.

 

Both felt genre literacy allowed them to shortcut, to teach the audience the rules of the world and how to play the game with greater ease – because players are already somewhat familiar with the tropes of the world they’re entering. ‘Genre opens the door to mass engagement,’ says Kingston. ‘Getting people who don’t really go to the theatre to go to the theatre.’

Kingston expresses concerns about how insular the sector can feel, how distant from the lives of many people in the UK. Genre, then, creates opportunities for reach and popular appeal – although in Parabolic’s experience, it sits uncomfortably in the subsidised sector. Work that uses genre has the potential for commercial reach and return, something that’s made it hard for them to get their work made and supported in the current ecology.

Sci-fi, in particular, occupies a strange space in regards to its commercial potential. Although it has always had mass appeal – the original 1977 Star Wars immediately broke box office records on release – it has also, historically, been seen as something a little fringe. But one of the impacts of the Marvel 2010s juggernaut is that what used to be for “nerds” has ascended to the heart of pop culture. Sci-fi, clearly, is no longer on the fringes: ’It’s a bit like when your favourite band crosses over into the mainstream,’ says Patel. ‘You’re happy and excited but another part of you is like, “oh no”.’

And yet, it doesn’t feel like a given that that breadth of appeal will translate to theatre. ‘I think the aesthetic of sci-fi puts off audiences,’ says Patel. ‘Or that in theatre they might be like, “that’s a bit weird”. If you even think of trying to stage something that feels sci-fi – the future should be shiny and seamless and of course you can see the creaks of something in a theatre set.’ One reason people are reticent to put sci-fi on stage, he posits, is the need to stage it in a way that doesn’t ‘look silly’: ‘People associate sci-fi with awe. Trying to achieve that on stage is always going to be tricky.’

Samal says the same, talking about the level of world-building, props, costume, design and aesthetic required to make sci-fi feel right on stage. There’s a monetary consideration behind all of that of course: ‘Only the NT and the West End can afford to do that, and as an emerging writer you don’t get access to those places.’ Black also references ‘70s Doctor Who sets’ as a fear when making Bridge Command; picture spaceship doors that ought to be sleek, but wobble when anyone touches them. They’re currently remaking the show, with greater scope than before to achieve their design ambitions.

 

Clearly these aesthetics matter. It’s impossible to mention awe without referencing Clarke’s three laws, the genre adages created by Arthur C Clarke, one of the 20th century’s most famous and respected sci-fi writers (2001: A Space Odyssey, and so on):

 

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, they are almost certainly right. When they state that something is impossible, they are very probably wrong.
2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

 

Because in referring to scale, and to awe, and to scope, part of what that means is the possibility of the impossible – and the little bit of magic, of mysticism, at the heart of the genre. But that takes us into slightly muddier waters, like the difficulties of naming and defining science fiction beyond it meaning space, or aliens, or The Future. After all, not every story about or set in the future is sci-fi; utopias and dystopias don’t feel particularly similar; sci-fi comedies don’t feel much like grimy horror sci-fis.

For Amarasuriya, there is a ‘cultural politics’ about what gets to be called sci-fi, one she’s trying to acknowledge better. ‘You can talk about cultural beliefs and boundaries and practices in that as well,’ she says. If the works are ‘a bit “foreign”, they might be considered mystical or folkish, rather than sci-fi.’ Sci-fi, for her and Atack, is a useful shortcut, a way to describe and engage in ‘the necessary act of imagining alternative futures. When you’re trying to get institutions to make change, you’re trying to get them to buy into something they can’t yet imagine, and so the active cultivation of imagination as a big, bold thing… It’s a really important thing for us to do in order for us to progress as a society.’

Imagining the future, of course, feels like a valuable and complex act in these tricky times. Although the mid-20th century was a time of upheaval, there was also a fair amount of optimism swimming around, and technological optimism – for instance, a belief that the increasing power of computing meant we might all, by now, be working shorter hours, and be wealthier, ha ha. But if genre juggernauts like Star Trek and Doctor Who rose out of that optimism, it all feels quite far away now, in the 2020s, when Everyone Agrees That The Future Will Be Bad, Whatever It Is. So what can theatre, and genre theatre, do to speak to this moment?

Kingston notes that although the starting point of Bridge Command was ‘depressing, the idea of having to leave earth because the climate’s collapsing’, the show itself focused on hope, and on joy: right now, ‘just stating that we’re still here in a couple of hundred years feels hopeful.’

Part of imagining that future, though, of course, is to imagine the bad with the good – and Kingston and Black were taken aback when Elon Musk tweeted his plan to take people to Mars via, essentially, indentured servitude – they’d predicted the same thing in Bridge Command. ‘We thought we were exaggerating the worst that things could be and then it turned out that was exactly what Elon Musk had in mind,’ Kingston laughs.

(Despite what some people might think, says Foley, ‘I don’t think sci-fi is trying to predict what tomorrow’s going to be like.’ Although, ‘at times, it has predicted the future.’)

For Patel, similarly, the questions are around how genre can ‘help to frame a relationship to the future that is different, more hopeful’ – tricky, when ‘hope feels naïve to people, inherently naïve.’ But he wonders if we’re in a place again where people are ready to seek out more hopeful stories, that imagine the future as an okay place to be, ‘not in a naïve way but in an interrogated way.’ And in the meantime, for writers at least, ‘The future is a place to have fun. Because God knows the present isn’t.’

 

Lauren Mooney is a writer, producer and dramaturg. Since 2015 she has co-run Kandinsky Theatre Company, and her dramaturgy/writing credits with the company include Still Ill, Dinomania, The Winston Machine (all New Diorama Theatre, where Kandinsky is an associate company), There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester) and SHTF (Schauspielhaus Wien).
Beyond Kandinsky, she has worked as a dramaturg on projects in development at Wales Millennium Centre, LAMDA and Opera Zuid. She has multiple credits with Big Finish as both a writer and script editor, and has written about arts and culture for Exeunt, The Stage and The Guardian. She also worked for two years in the literary team at Clean Break Theatre Company, where she co-edited their monologue collection Rebel Voices (Methuen, 2019).
She is a graduate of the Royal Court Playwriting course and in 2020 she graduated from the Creative Writing MA at University of East Anglia, where she held the David Higham scholarship.
Published on:
10 May 2022

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