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Science Fiction in Theatre

I’ve been thinking a lot lately – and by lately I mean over the last year or two – about science fiction in theatre, and why there isn’t more of it.

About a year and a half ago, I saw The Nether in New York. I had mixed feelings about the work, but fundamentally I was thrilled by the relatively rare chance to see a play that dived into with what has traditionally been the stuff of books and movies – virtual reality, the nebulously ominous near-future, the likely evolution of the Internet – and the potential dangers and darkness within that. I came out of the theatre thinking about all the books and movies and TV shows it reminded me of – Tad Williams’s marvelous epic Otherland most of all – and realizing, too, that I had very few plays to add to this list.

There are many reasons why there hasn’t been more of a sci fi presence in live theatre. For one thing, the special effects and visual design that can make an audience gasp at the silver screen, or imagine in the broadest scope possible when reading text, are much harder to replicate onstage. There’s also often a reliance on heavy amounts of exposition, especially on the literary side of the genre, that’s difficult at best in a play. Still, neither grandiose visual effects nor chapter-long expository passages are actually at the heart of what makes speculative fiction. At its best, sci fi – whether a book, film, TV show, radio program, or anything else – is about themes like the nature of humanity (can an AI ever be considered human? What really is the difference between a person and a constructed entity with the same level of intelligence and emotional response?), the dangers and glories in ever-increasing cultural and technological developments, the question of what else is out there – and where will we, as a species, go next?

Hey, that all sounds like good theatre to me.

It’s not that there’s no sci fi/fantasy (speculative fiction? genre?) theatre out there. That oh so Otherland-esque off-Broadway show I saw got rave reviews, and there’s been at least one more production of it since. The word ‘robot’, now so ubiquitous even beyond sci fi, has a theatrical origin, as it was coined in the Czech writer Karel Čapek’s 1920 play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). And I myself have been working as social media manager for the Bay Area’s own, and only, sci fi/fantasy/geek theatre company, Quantum Dragon Theatre, now in the middle of its second production, Speed of Light, a straight-up classic sci fi drama about aliens and faster than light travel and drug-addicted geniuses bent on bringing civilization to an ever-increasing technological point. But I got involved with QDT because there is in fact so little, comparatively, sci fi in our theatre; because I believe in their mission, which at its core says, hey, why don’t we combine live theatre with sci fi stories? (It’s a bit better worded than my paraphrase.)

But science fiction isn’t just about majestic planetary vistas and spaceships swooping silently between the stars, or about laser battles and aliens constructed through over-the-top prosthetics and makeup work. (Not to say that none of that could happen onstage, ever – I have nothing but admiration for my costume, prop, and scenic designer friends and the amazing things they manage to create!) It can still be science fiction if it takes place in one room with very little set, virtually no props to speak of, and minimal costumes – as with QDT’s first production, Civil, a courtroom drama of the future that I secretly call Twelve Angry VR Users in the privacy of my own brain. For that matter, The Nether, though it featured some beautiful and clever set design, had not a single swooping spaceship nor a single alien character (by and large, it looks like an episode of Law and Order). The major themes of sci fi are very theatrical – and yet there’s this strange dearth of truly sci fi theatre out there.

These are just some observations, and I don’t really have a pat answer to wrap up with, except maybe, if you’re a playwright or a producer or director, here’s a great opportunity for you to fill the gap – and, support those sci fi productions that do exist. Theatre is such a wonderful medium for experimentation, and science fiction is such a wonderful and experimental genre. It just seems like a natural fit.

So here’s something worth thinking about with regards to this year’s Tony Award nominations, which were announced on Tuesday morning. The quartet of young actors who play the title role in Matilda were deemed ineligible for the award – for reasons not forthcoming, but easily guessable – and, to make up for their ineligibility, were given special honorary awards to recognize their work. Fair enough. I had problems with the trio from Billy Elliott being nominated/winning together last year, as did many others, questioning whether the award was being given for the acting work (really, are all three identically, uniformly, worthy?) or for the role as written. Not all nominators/voters could see all three young performers, and the same problem would have occurred had the Matildas been eligible. This was a slightly awkward, but probably least awkward, way of handling the issue for 2013.

But the young actress playing the title role in the 2012 revival of Annie, Lilla Crawford, performs the role by herself, unlike either the Billys or Matildas (nothing against them — it’s simply a different casting/directorial decision, and no reflection on the individual performers, all of whom must be highly talented as well as fortunate to be acting on Broadway at such a young age). The controversy over last year’s decision to award the Tony to three performers for a single role didn’t affect Crawford’s initial eligibility. She was deemed eligible for the Leading Actress in a Musical category, and there is certainly precedent for a child actor to take home the Tony — see Daisy Eagan, who won the Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical when she was 11 (The Secret Garden; 1991) and Frankie Michaels, who was only 10 when he received his Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Mame; 1966). (The fact that Eagan was put in the ‘featured’ category, rather than lead, is a different issue. The trio from Billy Elliott won in 2012 in the leading performance category, as Crawford might have had she been nominated; this is the category sought by the producers of Matilda for their four stars.)

The Tonys aren’t the only theater awards in town, of course, and Crawford has been recognized by a nomination for the Distinguished Performance Award in the 2013 Drama League Awards, for one. (The eponymous stars of Matilda were not, it may be worth noting. Perhaps for the same problem of multi-casting — can you call it an award for a distinguished performance if all four share it? Yet how do you single out one of the four and say “Yeah, you, Matilda #3, you were better than the others”?) Still, the Tony Awards are the best known and most mainstream theater awards. It’s worth thinking about the fact that, likely to avoid a repeat of last year’s controversy, the Tony eligibility committee gave one set of young performers a special award to avoid even nominating or not nominating them… Then gave nothing – not even the nomination – to the hard-working young star of Annie.

I haven’t seen any of these actresses in their snubbed performances, myself, so for all I know, maybe Lilla Crawford is terrible as the famous little orphan, and the quartet of Matildas thoroughly deserving of every Tony or not-quite-Tony award offered them. Either way, though — it’s worth thinking about.