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Science Fiction in Theater

Playwrights’ Corner

The world of science fiction is growing. On the big screen we see it in every new superhero movie and on the small screen we see it in shows like Orphan Black, where lead actress Tatianna Maslany, (playing multiple clones, at least five regularly) has recently (finally to some) received recognition for her work and has been nominated for an Emmy award.
But while television and film seem to have found a comfortable place to house the genre, what of theater? Shouldn’t such fantastical subject matter warrant a place in a live medium that can directly connect with its audiences? Such places do exist and they have created incredible worlds and stories for willing audiences to explore. The Lark has had it's fair share of science fiction inspired shows such as Walt McCough's Chalk or Jennifer Haley's The Nether.
In New York, you can find Qui Nguyen’s Vampire Cowboys, an OBIE winning “geek theatre” combining “theatre based in action/adventure and dark comedy with a comic book aesthetic.” They have a main season, a development program for new scripts, and a fight studio to train those new to the art of stage combat.
Los Angeles sci-fi enthusiasts may enjoy the annual festival, SCI-FEST LA: The Los Angeles Science Fiction One-Act Play Festival, going on May 2016. Sci-Fest is a festival of 15 minute plays from emerging sci-fi writers as well as those looking to premiere adaptations of some of the genre’s most prolific writers, such as Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, and Clive Barker to name a few. Two short story writing contests are also featured in the festival. They are The Tomorrow Prize for local high schoolers and The Roswell Award for adults. Actor and Co-Founder of Sci-Fest, David Dean Bottrell, spoke to me about how the festival circuit and science fiction genre work together.

Gillian Heitman: What are your audiences like? Hardcore sci-fi folks, theater people, younger, older, etc.?
David Dean Bottrell: We’re still a very young festival so we’re still discovering our audience.  We initially tried to market to the Comicon fans, but many of them didn’t seem to get what we were doing.   Finally, I just stood in the lobby with a camera and offered to take everybody’s picture in front of our banner.  When we looked at the picture it was an incredibly diverse crowd.  We had younger, older, young professional and a nice contingent of nerds. 
GH: What are some of the hardships specific to sci-fi theater and how do you overcome them?

DDB: We face the same challenges any theater festival does:  Finding the money and putting people in seats.  We’ve tried to stay receptive to our audiences.  Sci-Fi is a specific niche and the audience has certain expectations.   During our first season, we paid attention to which shows were most talked about in the lobby during intermission.  It was clear that the plays that had a strong visual element or a cool special effect were clearly the favorites.   During the second year, we picked more shows that required special effects and that turned into more sold-out houses. 
GH: Your website says the first year had a sold out crowd. How did you market your festival? Did you find niche markets or did you do a broad marketing campaign?
DDB: The festival has been very successful, but marketing is a constant battle.  The Los Angeles theatre-going crowd is notorious for waiting until the last second to buy tickets.  That can be a little hair-raising.  We don’t spend money on advertising because it isn’t effective.  Although we’ve gotten phenomenal press and continue to market via social media, we’ve honestly found that our best marketing tool is word-of-mouth.  Our festival is meant to be challenging and thought-provoking, but it’s also meant to be a fun night out.  If we put on a good show, the audience comes.   

In addition to New York and L.A., Chicago's sci-fi theater scene is on the rise with The Otherworld Theatre, a theater dedicated to developing work of science fiction and fantasy. Exploring the benefits and struggles of sci-fi theater, I asked Tiffany Keane, Otherworld Theatre’s Artistic Director, Founder, and Mage, for her thoughts on some issues pertaining to the genre in theater.
GH: In your experience, is sci-fi respected in theater? By audiences, producers, artists? What makes this genre essential to the evolving world of theater?
Tiffany Keane: Science Fiction Theatre is starting a new conversation, and PEOPLE ARE beginning to take notice. It is a young voice in a community of academic theater professionals who have established the 'American Theatre' identity. Our work isn't fitting that particular mold, and I have felt the personal backlash. I have been told, on numerous occasions by seasoned theater professionals, that the work I want to do is unstagable and impossible. Multiple playwrights have told me it is harder to get sci-fi plays produced or published because editors and agents aren't taking their stories seriously and telling them they need to write "plays established in a realistic setting." Otherworld is looking to change just that and establish a home for Science Fiction and Fantasy works.
Science Fiction helps us imagine the world beyond our day to day, proposing a different reality and considering how humanity would deal and live within the extremes of that reality. It broaches questions that we normally wouldn't ask ourselves- or be comfortable asking ourselves- under other circumstances. Why do the actions we are taking today matter? What are the possible consequences of those actions?
Our audiences have always been vibrant and welcoming- curious about theatrical magic and always staying after the show has concluded to ask questions to the production team and actors about the process. I am always pleasantly surprised how these newcomers are hungry for the personal connection of being in front of live actors. Young theater patrons crave adventure, and we can offer them just that as the genre is all about the exploration of different worlds.

GH: Is it difficult to produce? Do you find yourself having to compromise your vision for what is available? Science Fiction can be costly, so do shows that have a more realistic setting (like some dystopian stories, for example) appeal to you or, if possible, would you produce a show with an elaborate world and inhabitants?
TK: I never choose to tell a story based on limitations. There can be challenges, certainly, but I think it unwise to approach a project with the mindset of having to compromise. It is a myth that Science Fiction is more expensive to produce than realism. In fact, since you are building a new world, Science Fiction can offer you more freedom. We can take something like bubble wrap, make a wall, uplight it with LED's, and say, "In this world, this is what walls look like." The audience takes it, enjoys the scenography, and fills the rest of the blanks with their imaginations.
In Realism, you have to recreate environments and atmosphere's that we, as an audience, can already recognize. We know what a hotel room in the 50s is supposed to look and feel like. What if you can't find the right bed? Will you purchase a vintage antique? How much is that going to put your budget back? I have seen realistic plays that had a full working kitchen on stage where the actress fried bacon and washed the dishes. This, too, is very expensive.
When we produced Bella Poynton's Science Fiction Epic The Aurora Project, we built an immersive spaceship for $1,000 using recycled materials and IKEA runs. Our costumes were another $300, which included our Make-up and Latex design. 
Science Fiction should be produced because the stories are worth telling. If Otherworld falls in love with a script that's on a different planet full of unique aliens, then that's the story we are going to tell. If we fall in love with dystopian narrative that is set in a world more familiar to our own, that's the play.  We don't favor one over the other because of budget. We tell these stories to incite a meaningful conversation.

GH: Sci-fi Theatre seems to be developing a bit of a cult following, with various organizations and festivals producing this creative work. Do you feel like the genre will become more mainstream in the way it has been in TV and Movies or do you see it continuing to have a cult status as the theater world develops?
TK: I am proud that Science Fiction Theatre is gaining attention and attracting new audiences. It is my sincere hope that, through the genre, the younger generations will start to make theater a part of their lives. I do believe that producing theater that engages adventure and exploration is key to inspiring such a movement.
However, in terms of mass media- simply because its the nature of theater, it's hard to be mainstream. Because the audience is present, it is not a medium that you can rewatch at home or share on Facebook. A theater performance at an average storefront is lucky to have 1,000 eyes for a run of a show. It will never be able compete with the massive reach of the TV/Film industry. You create a small community- and that community shares a theatrical experience as a memory. It's what makes theater special- the patron is there as a witness and saw the performance live. Not only do you see the show, you also experience the show- and who doesn't want to experience a Science Fiction adventure?

Have any thoughts or comments on this topic? Know another great sci-fi organization or festival? Join the conversation and post your message on our Facebook!

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