A good question

Why is there no sf theatre?

I’ve talked before about my admiration for Nick Lowe’s criticism, which has appeared in Interzone since 1985. The above question was one he asked in his second column (Interzone 14), and he helpfully proposed a number of possible answers:

a) Theatre is a moribund artform too inflexible to accommodate the mind-expanding concepts of modern science fiction.
b) Same, reading “science fiction” for “theatre” and vice versa.
c) Live performed sf would find itself competing unfavourably with the technical legerdemain available to recorded media.
d) Science fiction is an essentially popular genre and theatre is an essentially elitist medium; consumers of theatre and consumers of sf are minimally overlapping social groups.
e) Historical accident: no science-fictional plays established emulative traditions.
f) Genre sf is too crummy, radical sf too fringey, to be a bankable risk in a subsidised medium.
g) SF habitues are a bit of a bunch of dimmies and wouldn’t touch live theatre with any more appreciation than they’d pick up Daniel Deronda or Travels with my Aunt.

Lowe allowed, perfectly fairly, that there were occasional individual instances of sf theatre such as Illuminatus or Little Shop of Horrors; but his core point was that there’s “no sense of a tradition within the medium that new works can acknowledge, build on, plagiarize.” Nearly 25 years on, I’m sure plenty of individual instances of sf theatre could be listed, but I think the general point remains. (Possibly indicative datapoint: the first four Google results for “science fiction theatre” are a tv series, a rock album, the tv series again, and a record label.) And certainly, there’s a huge contrast between sf in theatre and in film – where sfnal works can be blockbuster or arthouse or anywhere in between, where directors can carve out careers for themselves primarily in the genre, and where CGI imagery has hugely augmented the possibilities of the form in the last two decades.

What I would like to suggest, though, is that there is a sense in which one can talk about the fantastic, more generally, as a tool in theatre. I’m not saying that there’s a tradition of fantasy works in theatre; I am saying that there’s a tradition of using the tools of the theatre to create fantastic moves. Some examples off the top of my head: the statue of Hermione coming back to life in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale; J B Priestley’s time-slip plays; the metafictional devices used by Tom Stoppard, such as the critics in The Real Inspector Hound getting trapped in the play they’re watching; Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, which flirts with the idea (and enactment) of the vicious fairy-tales written by its writer protagonist. I suppose the point of view I’m arguing is close to that put forward by Tony Kushner in his note on the staging of his play Angels in America (itself one of the great works of recent fantasy):

The play benefits from a pared-down style of presentation with minimal scenery and scene-shifts done rapidly (no blackouts!) employing the cast as well as stage-hands – which makes for an actor-driven event, as this must be. The moments of magic – the appearance and disappearance of Mr Lies and the ghosts, the book hallucination, and the ending – are to be fully realised, as bits of wonderful Theatrical illusion – which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing.

It was this approach that helped make Angels in America one of the most memorable experiences of my theatre-going life – and its absence made the HBO miniseries a lot less interesting. Film is a literal medium in which anything is possible – hence perhaps the difficulty in apprehending works that shade from “realism” into “dream” such as Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. But theatre is (or, at least, can be, and perhaps is most at home being) figurative. Perhaps that’s another answer to Lowe’s question: many readers expect science fiction to be literal and widescreen when it depicts the future, and that simply isn’t what theatre’s best at.

10 thoughts on “A good question

  • May 10, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    Are we wondering about the presentation of the fantastic in theatre vs. film (or text)? Or about which kinds of fantastic narrative fit which presentational traditions? Or about whether the science-fictional mode of the fantastic is better served (whatever that might mean) by film (or the theatre-of-the-mind of text)than by the stage?

    The history of fantastic stories (as distinct from coups de theatre) on stage seems to suggest that for some modes of fantastic, the more “literal” and believable and immersive, the better. When I think of fully fantastic plays, I come up with, first, the gothic thrillers that go back to the Romantic-Victorian period (Dracula, Frankenstein) and were, I suspect, the equivalent of later film versions of the same stories: filled with convincing, “magical” effects. This tradition goes back at least to the stage effects of the masque and is echoed in an odd way by the ghosts and apparitions in Shakespeare (Macbeth, Richard III), which could depend on traps for their sudden appearances. (On the third hand, I suspect that Macbeth’s dagger of the mind was not seen by the Renaissance audience.)

    Then there are the plays–Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tempest–that are inherently and fully fantastic whether stage magic is deployed or not. The worlds (because of the words) of these plays are fantastic, and productions generally work hard to express this, even though they can operate in a bare-stage environment.

    In the pre- and early-film era, Shaw’s Back to Methuselah and Capek’s R.U.R. are similar to the Shakespeare examples in that they are “real” SF in their thematics, independent of presentational modes. I don’t think an audience that is fully engaged with the texts of these plays requires elaborate stage effects. A stage version of, say, Star Wars, on the other hand, might seem anemic without them.

    “Theatricality” often taken to mean “spectacle,” and the history of theatre certainly supports this. There seems to be some sort of divide in the kinds of spectacle that audiences look for. Certainly most popular SF seems to operate most effectively on film, where really big effects sequences try to literalize really big events, generally to the detriment of everything else.

    When the economics of production support it, though, there’s a parallel phenomenon in theatre, if what I’ve heard about, say, Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera is true. People paid big ticket prices to see big stuff happen live in front of them, often to the accompaniment of mediocre music.

    Come to think of it, how much non-spectacle SF has ever found its way to the wide screen? The economics of film production don’t encourage that end of the SF spectrum any more than those of the theatre. Even with the enormously expanded audience offered by a nation of multiplexes, the SF of comic books and toy franchises is the safe bet, while the quite filmable work of, say, Nancy Kress doesn’t even get a first thought.

  • May 11, 2009 at 4:04 am

    As you’ve both noted, there’s no shortage of the fantastic in theater, and the proportion probably even gets more notable when we add in allied forms such as opera and ballet. And as Graham notes, there may be a larger tradition of science fiction plays than we think, but a lot of it is hidden in smaller local or regional productions that don’t get a lot of attention. Here in Chicago, for example, a small but popular company called The Organic Theater produced versions of The Sirens of Titan, The Forever War, and The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit as well as a three-part space opera called Warp! back in the 1970s (the latter well before Star Wars)until the director, Stuart Gordon, went to Hollywood to make horror movies. I can think of other examples of plays based on works by writers such as Le Guin, Farmer, and Ryman since then.

    There are even a few books about science fiction plays, and they pretty much all start by asking the same question that Nick asks: why isn’t there more? And they tend to come up with his same hypotheses. (One such book is Ralph Willingham’s Science Fiction and the Theatre, 1993.)

    But virtually none of these localized SF productions make it into the theatrical canon, and Nick’s point that there’s no sense of a tradition to speak of is certainly valid. And I suspect part of the answer is that it may be the wrong question. What we think of as SF is for the most part a popular narrative genre, and theater, at least in the 20th century, hasn’t organized itself along the lines of popular narrative genres. There’s really never been a tradition of theatrical Westerns or horror stories, and when an occasional mystery shows up on stage, it’s likely to be presented as a one-off “event” like Dial M for Murder or Sleuth. On the other hand, there are lots of comedy traditions in theater–but this is probably because it’s a highly performative genre which can generate instant audience response. Apart from its potential for spectacle (hard to bring off on stage without huge investments), SF has never been that performative. Like Russell says, SF without the spectacle hasn’t had a huge success in the movies, either.

    Try tracking down lists of theatrical genres and you’ll probably find things like realism, absurdism, comedy, tragedy, musical, maybe historical drama, but probably not much reference to any of these popular narrative genres I mentioned. And the few theatrical directors I’ve talked to aren’t much interested in them either; they think of what’s stageable, actable, blockable. If the fantastic turns out to be part of that, fine, but it’s by and large not where they’re coming from.

  • May 11, 2009 at 11:12 am

    There’s not really a sense of an SF tradition in mainstream literature either but we wouldn’t say they produce no SF. I’m not sure why it is important. And if those in the literature mainstream consider themselves sui generis then that goes double for theatre practitioners.

    Some I’m not sure “Why is there no sf theatre?” is a good question. I would turn it around and ask “Why would you expect to see any more sf theatre than already exists?”

  • May 11, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    It seems slightly strange to be asking this question in the week when the biggest opening in London theatre is Kevin Spacey’s sold out Waterloo project – inspired by Lang’s Metropolis and building on works like Punchdrunk Theatre’s adaptation of The Mask of the Red Death. There’s absolutely no shortage of spectacle there.

    Even if we exclude musicals like Wicked! or Lord of the Rings and plays like Waiting for Godot, Life is a Dream, Panic and The Tempest which inlcude fantastical elements, a theatre-goer looking for the sfnal or fantastic in contemporary theatre isn’t without choice.

    London’s West End theatres this week are showing Sarah Kane’s horrific 4:48 Psychosis, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia – with its themes of mathematics, science and intermingling time-streams, Grasses of a Thousand Colours Wallace Shawn’s play about a scientist in an alternate reality and When the Rain Stops Falling – a story that is set across 80 years from 1958 to 2038 and features the Australian desert inundated by rain.

    In the coming months Mark Ravenhill will adapt Terry Pratchett’s Nation and Unlimited Theatre’s tour of their latest sfnal play The Moon The Moon will get a run at the Southwark Playhouse (following up their excellent earlier sf work Neutrino, Tangle and The Ethics of Progress).

    I’d also point to plays like Copenhagen and On Ego which are definitely sfnal in their themes and story telling, even if no one ever calls them sf in the theatre world.

    And I guess that’s the point, you’re right no one is going to put down sf as a genre in theatre, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a strong thread of theatre writers and producers using the fantastic to tell stories. When I first thought about this, I thought sf theatre was marginalised, but actually I’ve started to wonder if it isn’t the exact opposite. It seems to me that you could make the argument that the use of sfnal material has managed to avoid being placed in the “ghetto” of genre in the that it has in literature or film, it’s judged on whether it works in the context of the play and the telling of the story.

  • May 11, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    I saw Warp in the 1970s in NYC, where it closed immediately after being a long-running hit in Chicago. And Vonnegut’s “Happy birthday, Wanda June.” but I have been to much too little theater in the last couple of decades, and though I have sent reviewers to SF/Fantasy plays in NYC, I have had bad results in actually getting reviews written and published in NYRSF. But I am with Martin McGrath, and feel that there is a lot there that is being ignored or marginalized by us in the genre because it is mostly not being promoted as genre.

  • May 12, 2009 at 1:24 am

    Much of Fritz Leiber’s work struck me as ready for translation to theatrical presentation, e.g., The Big Time, all of which (if memory serves) plays out in a theatre-sized station outside the timestream, and all the scenes of grand scope all related by characters’ dialog (told, not shown). Wasn’t Leiber involved in theatre in some way? Son of boardtredders or occasional actor or playwright himself or some such?

  • May 13, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    I think those who say there is NO science fiction theatre are, perhaps, not looking very hard. I live in Atlanta (not exactly a hotbed of live stage entertainment compared to NYC, LA or Chicago) and I’ve attended and/or reviewed something like two dozen stage productions in the last 10 years which arguably fall under the umbrella term “science fiction.” These include adaptations like War of the Worlds, Island of Dr. Moreau, and Clockwork Orange, as well as original productions like Bug, Geek Love, and Echoes of Another Man (about a brain transplant patient). And this counts only the productions I have chosen or been able to attend! Atlantans could probably attend a SF-ish play four or five times a year.

    I should also point out that the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company routinely performs regionally, providing adaptations of classic works by Wells, Heinlein, Lovecraft and others, not to mention their own original (often satirical) works.

    While I concede the point that SF is under-represented in the vast landscape of live theatre, it does exist. From R.U.R. to Flowers for Algernon, it’s been there and it’s still there.

    Finally, if there’s such a dearth, why don’t the professionals step up? (I know, I know, it doesn’t pay.)

    John C. Snider

  • May 14, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    A bunch of things to respond to here; thanks, all for comments. I guess my main point would be to return to something I said in my original post: I’m not maintaining that there is no sf theatre, I’m maintaining that there is no tradition of sf theatre (in the way that there’s a tradition of written sf, or musicals, say). That’s not a claim you can argue against by listing productions; you have to do so by seeing if sf theatre has the things we associate with a genre – a commonly accepted identification, common critical tools, people making a career in sf theatre, a sense of continuity and conversation between productions, etc. One of the things about theatre is that you can have a localised genre – you may be able to argue that there’s a tradition of sf theatre in Atlanta, say.

    I’m also maintaining, separately, that there is a tradition of using fantastic (rather than specifically science-fictional) moves, whether “spectacular” or not, in theatre. If there’s one thing I’d emphasise, it’s that those different propositions (and, more generally, “science fictional” and “fantastic”) should not be smudged together.

    [First] Martin’s question has been bugging me: “Why would you expect to see any more sf theatre than already exists?” Well, principally by analogy with film. If science fiction films make up such a high proportion of box office hits, why isn’t that the case in theatre? The audience is clearly there for, let’s say, sitting in a darkened room and watching an sf story. Why on a screen and not on a stage? Increasingly, I think the answer is Lowe’s c): our expectations of visual science fiction are often expectations of special-effects spectacle, which the stage just can’t deliver.

  • May 17, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Well I certainly have been to see a few SF musicals in the West End (London): Rocky Horror Show, Shop of Horrors, Forbidden Plant and ‘Cats’ is arguably fantasy.

    I see this no less a theatrical tradition as say theatrical detective musical
    s or western musicals. (And like other commentators above I have seen loads of small productions: Solaris, Hitch-Hikers Guide, Science Fictions…

    Yes SF has a written tradition but it is still very much a minority tradition w
    the book industry/cannon/whatever and so similarly SF theatre is minority.

    Is it really that surprising?

  • May 20, 2009 at 7:12 am

    You know, I was going to say that theatre doesn’t scale, mass media can hit the SF demographic more profitably than the performing arts, stuff like that. But after a bit of thought, I’m going to say it’s homophobia on SF’s part and geekophobia on theatre’s part. Uniting the two is double jeopardy. What are the odds of someone liking Cole Porter and the Honorverse? Still, Rocky Horror Picture Show works and someone in the thread mentioned Little Shop of Horrors.

    I bet Howard Waldrop could do it.


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