Science Fiction on stage

When theatre was our main form of visual dramatic storytelling, all genre could be found on stage. But since the advent of film and television, there has been a separation of what story types are considered ‘appropriate’ to be shown in each media. Science Fiction, for instance, is often thought to be ‘better’ on film – mainly due to the ability to create futuristic special effects – but in so doing the power of the imagination to conjure up futuristic scenarios has been undermined. This prejudice is being increasingly challenged by playwrights and directors, evidence of which was seen with the plethora of SF plays at this year’s New York City Fringe Festival. In the UK, too, companies such as the re-formed Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool are crossing ‘the final frontier’ and SF was also seen at this year’s 247 Festival in Manchester. The Crafty Writer decided to ask Richard Stockwell, playwright of one of 247′s SF offerings Future Shock, to give his perspective on putting this controversial genre on stage.

Is science fiction better on film?

This summer I had a science fiction play, Future Shock, produced at the 247 Festival in Manchester. Some people I spoke to about it were nervous about putting science fiction on the stage. “Film does it so much better” by which I assume they mean if you want to fire a laser or beam someone aboard it’s bound to look a bit naff on stage therefore you can’t do science fiction. This is of course nonsense. When writing for the stage you are careful to select what you show and don’t show, this is the job of the dramatist to select what is appropriate for the play in order to make the point you are trying to make. This is true whether in science fiction or in any other genre, for example, Alan Ayckbourn points out in his book, that you have to be careful about the way that you use violence since it either looks false or else we get too much of a vicarious thrill from it and it obscures the meaning.

As a result most plays prefer to keep fights offstage. alan-ayckbourn-the-crafty-art-of-playmakingIn science fiction you do the same – you just keep the lasers or phasers or fazers (or whatever the hell they are) offstage. A play is still a play whether it is set in 1603, 2010 or 2875, the same rules apply. Science fiction is usually about what it means to be human whether it’s Blade Runner “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion…” or Star Trek “logical captain”. By presenting the non human replicant and the non-human Spock we are able to consider what the boundaries of humanity are. That theme is also central to my play.

Future Shock

In Future Shock a woman is stranded out of time unable to reach her lover – the only way to get to him is for her DNA to be recorded and the data held for the time in the future when her lover will appear. The question of the piece is: will the reconstructed human being be the same if body dies but the blueprint goes forward, or are we more than our DNA? In other words, what does it mean to be human?

Genre expectations of science fiction

The genre then raises an expectation which is partly fulfilled and partly surprised, it’s a shorthand notation for certain expected themes and tropes. When the expectation for these are fulfilled the audience is soothed and rewarded, they are made to feel knowing. The genre therefore helps the audience to a point of understanding from which the more interesting, unique element can grow. By sharing a starting point (the genre) writers are freed from a host of setting up problems and instead of starting from point A and writing through to F they can start from D and then go further – maybe even to P or Q!

Future Shock was performed at the 247 Manchester in July 2011. It was the winner of the Drama Association of Wales prize for Best one Act play of 2011, and is published by the Drama Association of Wales (price £3.50, to order email info [at] dramawales.org.uk). Visit Richard Stockwell’s website to learn more about his work.

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  4. Shakespeare: the World as a Stage

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2 comments on “Science Fiction on stage

  1. HP van Duuren on said:

    Never thought about SF as something for a Stage,
    but I can see that with all the things you can
    do on Stage, things like Sound- & Light Effects
    doing SF on Stage does have interesting possiblitities.

  2. Richard on said:

    Yes – you can make exciting effects on stage but the joy of science fiction for me is that you can create extreme situations which allow you to examine fundamental truths.

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