Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sci-fi Theatre

By Leeman Kessler

This spring, I had the opportunity to portray 1920s horror writer HP Lovecraft in a play called "Monstrous Invisible".  This and three other plays of a supernatural and/or pop cultural bent were part of Monkeyman Productions' Banana Festival in Toronto.  All of these were previewed by Eye Weekly in an article called "Sci-Fi Lo-Fi" wherein Paul Gallant commented on the uniqueness of mixing science fiction with live theatre, noting the contradictions between private consumption of one and the necessarily corporate interaction of the other.  While I appreciated the publicity, I found myself struck by some of the assumptions made. 

"But still. All the artistic forms that have comfortably absorbed the caped crusaders, monsters, wizards and space travel of Planet Nerd have one thing in common: they all tend to be enjoyed alone, in the dark, usually on a screen or on pulpy paper.  Live theatre, already colonized by its own breed of misfits, has a propensity for real-time action and low budgets that seem a poor match for geek fascinations. You have to go out in public to see theatre, which is no easy chore for folks who have trouble leaving their parents’ basement."

Two things strike me as false about this.  First, is the premise that scifi/fantasy is a loner's game.  This blog alone suggests that there is an urge among the fantastically-oriented to commune.  My bookshelves are filled with sci-fi books that I've shared and have had shared with me.  My wife has a missionary's zeal when it comes to spreading the Gospel according to Joss Whedon.  The convention scene has been alive and kicking for over seventy five years as evidenced by the subject matter of Monstrous Invisible.  The story revolves around the short marriage between Lovecraft and Sonia Greene, a financial supporter of horror publications.  The two met as part of this community and while the marriage did not last long, it showcases that even an introvert like Lovecraft was able to extricate himself from his mother's basement in Providence for the sake of his literary passions.

The second fallacy is the idea that theatre rarely demeans itself with the Fantastic.  In the Banana Festival, we had my show about eldritch horror and romance, "Fortress of Solitude" about superheroes and romance, and finally "The Second Last Man on Earth" about zombies...and romance.  All three dealt with their respective subject matters in different ways, either using the horror to parallel the feelings of hopelessness in a loveless marriage or merely acting as a fantastic background.  Before this festival, Monkeyman had done other plays that explored similar themes, but outside of this company I have seen other uses of Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror on stage.  Carol Churchill's A Number is about a father, his son, and that son's many clones. Gary Owen's Drowned World is set in a not-too-distant future where the mundane and the homely have risen up against the talented and the beautiful to create a paradise free of envy where two attractive people find themselves hiding for fear of their lives.  There are also the big budgeted plays and musicals based on books, comics and movies like the Lord of the Rings, Evil Dead or The Golden Compass.  While the larger scale productions highlight the Fantastic through setting and special effects, they are no less a part of this need and urge to explore the strange that is at the heart of the Fantastic.  To suggest that it's a leap for theatre to indulge in such trappings maligns the various genres and also displays ignorance of theatre's history.  Even The Tempest and A Midsummer's Night Dreams are plays about the Fantastic and the people caught up in it.

While there are good points made in this interview about the intersection of various sub-cultures, to say that such a juncture is unseen or somehow innately problematic does not sit well with me.  Science Fiction and Fantasy are both about journeys and explorations if in different ways.  Theatre merely gives a storyteller different tools to go about showing that exploration and I consider myself quite lucky to be a part of these different forays and I recommend others join in the fun.

Leeman Kessler, Science Fiction professional, is a Nigerian-born American living and laughing in Canada.  He occupies his time selling books, acting, singing karaoke loudly, and getting paid to let medical students poke him.

1 comment:

  1. I actually saw Lord of the Rings the musical, and I think one of their biggest challenges was trying to convey battle scenes. But, you know, Henry V has the same problem.

    Not as many space operas on stage though!