More Things In Heaven And Earth: The rise of science fiction in indie theatre
New York independent theatre has seen a surge of science fiction plays in the past couple of years – and the trend appears to be growing.
“There's a wider audience for genre material right now,” said playwright J. Holtham, whose short play The Great Silence, about two married scientists’ attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligence, was staged as part of Gideon Productions’ sci-fi anthology production Blueprint Project: First Contact in May. “It's in the zeitgeist.”
Recent productions of original plays about aliens invading earth, humans connecting to supercomputers and robots bringing about the end of the such as The Honeycomb Trilogy, DEINDE and Motherboard, have become increasingly popular among those who make and attend indie theatre. And the success of these and other sci-fi shows are spurring theatre artists to create even more work within the genre.
The rise of sci-fi theatre in New York is part-and-parcel with the rise of “geek” or genre theatre, with recent genre plays like AntiMatter Collective’s Death Valley (zombies & westerns), Temar Underwood’s The Brokenhearteds (political thriller), Flux Theatre Ensemble’s Hearts Like Fists (superheroes), The Blood Brothers present... (horror), and virtually anything from Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company or Temporary Distortion (you name it) growing both in number and popularity among theatre audiences.
It also makes sense that several theatre artists working on the scene today that grew up on Saturday morning cartoons, Star Wars, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Doctor Who, Isaac Asimov and Madeleine L’Engle are seeing the influence of these sci-fi products and authors in their theatrical work.
“A generation of artists raised on sci-fi and fantasy has come of age and is writing the kind of work that makes them excited,” Holtham explained.
Though sci-fi plays are far from new – Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) was first staged in 1921, after all – many involved in the New York indie theatre scene agree that the trend recently ramped up thanks to playwright Qui Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker’s Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company and playwright Mac Rogers and his company Gideon Productions.
Vampire Cowboys first appeared on the New York indie scene in 2004 with its Vampire Cowboys Trilogy, featuring three action-comedy plays in different “geek” genres: noir, superhero and sword & sorcery (a Xena sendup, to be more precise). Since then, Nguyen and Ross Parker have become even more ambitious with their productions, and with plays like Living Dead in Denmark, Fight Girl Battle World and Soul Samurai, they quickly made genre theatre both popular and seen as a viable avenue for other theatre artists to pursue.
“They really put that particular brand of ‘geek’ theatre on the map and paved the way for companies like AntiMatter Collective, Gideon Productions and Flux Theatre Ensemble,” said Emily Owens, a public relations agent who specializes in indie theatre, regarding Vampire Cowboy’s influence on sci-fi theatre.
Mariah MacCarthy, a playwright whose one-act “For the Good of the Child” was also featured in this year’s Blueprint Project and co-curator of this year’s sci-fi anthology Sex With Robots Festival, added that, while Nguyen “makes ‘geek’ theater fun, action-packed and sometimes silly in the best way,” Rogers “goes deep with the characters and uses the form to spotlight human nature.”
Through such plays as Universal Robots, The Honeycomb Trilogy and Frankenstein Upstairs, Rogers would emphasize the more philosophical and humanist elements of the genre. (This isn’t to say that Nguyen’s plays don’t have dark or serious elements, or that Rogers’ scripts are humorless or devoid of action or excitement as well.)
After writing The Lucretia Jones Mysteries, a comedy based on the private detective stories of the 1940s, and the book for Fleet Week: The Musical, a musical comedy in the style of On the Town, Rogers discovered that writing in pastiche was not only fun for both him and his audiences, but that he was still able to write the character-based stories he had previously written.
“It’s so much more fun to write in a genre,” said Rogers. “Writing Fleet Week and Lucretia Jones emboldened me to write Hail Satan, an Omen-style horror story. I had such a blast with that it emboldened me to write Universal Robots, my proper foray into science fiction.”
Just as Sleep No More spawned a rash of site-specific and immersive shows, the success of such sci-fi plays by Vampire Cowboys, Gideon Productions and The Mad Ones’ Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War have led other theatre artists to create their own sci-fi plays.
“Anytime someone is successful at something, it inspires others to try their hand at the same thing,” said Owens. “There have been a number of sci-fi shows that have achieved success recently, and that has just inspired other artists to create their take on the genre.”
Added MacCarthy: “There's been science fiction in indie theatre for a while, but it's just gaining more visibility now that it's been going on for a while, and the more visibility it gains, the more people are inspired to create their own work in that genre.”
Rogers suggests there’s another reason why sci-fi theatre has become increasingly popular — in the past 15 years, there has been a massive shift in how people interact with technology, and playwrights writing about contemporary life simply can’t ignore that.
“People can’t write plays in which characters all stand together in a room and talk to each other anymore, because that’s not how we interact with each other anymore,” he said, since we’re all either “sitting on a couch with a laptop or staring at our smart phones.”
This, according to Rogers, leads many playwrights to grapple more with issues of technology’s influence on our lives and speculating on how our lives will look in the future.
Holtham also noted that he, too, is getting tired of seeing “naturalistic dramas and rich white people problems” and hopes that more theatre companies abandon this older model of theatre and instead produce more sci-fi plays.
However the trend will play out in the future, many theatre practitioners suspect that it will continue to be a major component of the New York indie theatre scene for quite some time.
“Theatre and science fiction go together like peanut butter and jelly,” said Owens. “Theatre, and specifically science fiction theatre, helps us examine what makes us tick and why we’re here.”