Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"Actually, we've already made first contact . . ."

Mac Rogers is a Brooklyn based playwright and co-founder of Gideon Productions. His science fiction plays have won multiple awards and garnered high praise from critics and fellow artists. The first play in his most most recent work, The Honeycomb Trilogy (Advance Man, Blast Radius, Sovereign), won Outstanding Premiere Production of a Play for the 2012 New York Innovative Theatre Awards.

Not that theater doesn't deal in big decisions, but ... an alien invasion? Really?” []

Here’s my thing: It’s not that this sentence popped up in a review of Sovereign, the third installment of my science fiction trilogy for the stage… it’s that it took until the third part for a single reviewer to express incredulity at the idea of a play about an extraterrestrial takeover of the Earth. All three parts of The Honeycomb Trilogy were reviewed by several critics apiece when my company presented them over the first 7 months of this year. We had almost 40 reviews [] over the course of three plays, many from what they call “mainstream” publications – some good, some bad, some middling – but we only had one review that questioned, and even then only briefly, whether an alien invasion was an appropriate subject for a play.

Let’s talk about audience: I’ll admit that a few folks expressed some gentle amusement when I told them what the Trilogy was about, but most didn’t. When I talked to people after performances or in the days after they saw one of the shows, the pattern was the same:  whether they liked or disliked it, nobody for a second acted as if theater should not include stories about giant insects taking over the world. Everyone just assessed it as a play, like any other. My previous foray into SF playwriting, Universal Robots, had the legitimacy imprimatur of starting its life as an adaptation of Karel Capek’s classic R.U.R., but The Honeycomb Trilogy had no
respectable uncle to lean on: it was a full-on bug-eyed aliens epic for live theater, and no one had any problem taking it seriously.

You can see this blossoming of stage sci-fi happening all over. In my particular neck of the New York City indie theater woods, it was the Vampire Cowboys Theater Company [] that broke this ground. Their shows, nearly all written by Qui Nguyen and directed by Robert Ross Parker, contained zombies, ninjas, aliens, superheroes, sentient robots, and inter-dimensional beings, all brought to the stage with an intricate craftsmanship and care that made them indelible. Vampire Cowboy shows are often comic, but I wouldn’t call them parody; Nguyen and Parker always create a consistent internal logic to their universes and demand that we care about their characters and take them for who they are, living or undead.

There’s a sense among many of my colleagues that Vampire Cowboys emboldened us. We wanted to tell these sorts of stories, but had some sense that we weren’t “allowed.” The idea of great theater a lot of American students are exposed to early on is actually kind of a narrow vein: your basic O’Neill, Miller, Williams, Mamet. I got Churchill and Kushner and Jean Claude van Itallie later, but only after the big respectable pillars had made their initial mark on me. (There was Shakespeare in there too, of course, but I remember being taught to think of Hamlet’s father and the ghost of Banquo and Ariel as metaphors or projections or whatever, not as actual frikkin’ supernatural beings I was supposed to invest in.) The message that comes across is that great plays are basically realistic, sad stories of thwarted dreamers/everymen feebly struggling against the economic and societal structures holding them down – and no robots allowed. I don’t deny the greatness of these playwrights, but they only represent a sliver of what’s possible in theater. Among a lot of folks I know, Qui and Robert’s success said to us, “Go ahead, throw a robot in there. No one’s gonna laugh at you. Not if you do it right.”

The point I’m making is this: we don’t need to be embarrassed anymore. We don’t need to be sheepish about this. A huge number of the theater artists and theater critics working now grew up in a culture permeated by genre and speculative fiction stories, and many of us understand that the repurposing of popular genre motifs for the stage doesn’t have to mean Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. Nobody pointed and laughed at August Schulenberg’s superb AI-enhanced humans thriller DEINDE; NYTheatre called it one of the smartest, sharpest, and most important new plays of the theatre season.” Nobody mocked Edward Einhorn’s stage adaptation of Ursula Le Guinn’s The Lathe of Heaven; Theater Mania praised its “admirable simplicity” and “enchantment.” Indeed, the Mad Ones’ [] brilliant Samuel and Alasdair: A History of the Robot War became a full-on (and much-deserved) critical darling earlier this year despite one of the pulpiest titles imaginable.

And I’m only citing reviews really as a snapshot of a more widely emerging consensus throughout the theater community: Science fiction theater isn’t fighting to be born, to be recognized. We’re already here. We’re already doing this. This is already a tradition. Sure, it’ll be a while before a lot of bigger theaters will be programming science fiction, but believe me, they’re going to catch up with us. I think they have to if they want to tell stories about who we are now. As sometime SF novelist Karen Joy Fowler told a couple years ago, I truly believe that science fiction is realism now and literary realism is a nostalgic literature about a place where we once lived, but no longer do.” []

Our seat is very much at the table. I think we’ve reached a stage where we can set aside fighting for legitimacy and simply do our work: tell our stories, hone our techniques, and share our information. That’s a big part of what “Performing Science Fiction” is for. Jen Gunnels will bring in a number of SF theater practitioners to post their own thoughts and hard-learned lessons here (and I hope she’ll have me back at some point to share some of the lessons I’ve learned writing and producing SF theater as well). It’ll be great to have this blog here. We’ll all get to see each other at work; we’ll know how many more of us are out there, bringing these stories to life on stage all over the world. We’re here now. We’re “allowed.”

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