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Features Published 30 January 2017

Sci-fi Theatre: Why it’s time to embrace the weird

Playwright and passionate Doctor Who fan Tim Foley argues that it's time that sci-fi in theatre came of age, ahead of his post-Brexit dystopia Astronauts of Hartlepool.
Tim Foley
Astronauts of Hartlepool is on at Vault Festival from Feb 8-12

Astronauts of Hartlepool is on at Vault Festival from Feb 8-12

I love science fiction. My blood runs thick with spaceships and robots. I could name you my Top Ten Sci-Fi Films. I could name you my Top Ten Sci-Fi Books. I won’t relate either of these lists here because they are ever-changing and require enthusiastic hand gestures and are probably best discussed over drinks. You’d then be expected to tell me your favourites too, because science fiction is at its best when it’s shared and when it’s geeked over and when you’re debating the pros and cons of David Tennant.

What I couldn’t tell you is my Top Ten Sci-Fi Plays, because we’re not so good at that front, are we? If I say ‘sci-fi play’, I think half of you would say ‘X by Ali McDowall’ (and I mean, great answer), and half of you would shrug and cough and tell me that you’re just not that into sci-fi. And that’s fine, people have different tastes. But. But. Science fiction is such a broad church, and I honestly think that as theatre-makers and theatre-lovers, you’re already halfway to becoming a convert.

I’m doing a sci-fi play, Astronauts of Hartlepool, at VAULT festival in a few weeks, and shock horror – it is not the first sci-fi play to be staged. Yes, there were even such things before X. A fact I love to trot out: the word ‘robot’ came from a 1920s play. Czech writer and political surrealist Karel Čapek invented the play from the word robota, ‘to drudge’ in his play R.U.R. (ROSSUM’S UNIVERSAL ROBOTS). The word is seeped in servitude and serfdom, and modern robot narratives still invoke the play’s themes of robots as tools versus robots as people. Now I can’t pretend there is some rich, vast, theatrical sci-fi past, but the slow and often ponderous gestation period of play-making has a real advantage over other mediums: it can delve into the human implications of new worlds or new technology.

X at the Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

X at the Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Yet we seem to have forgotten this. People tend to think ‘we’ve done sci-fi on stage’ the moment the one play set in space turns up. In terms of visual storytelling, science fiction is instead dominated by movies or television series with big budgets and big names. They can have the scale, the expected aesthetic. It’s not the only genre dominated by this medium – can you tell me your Top Ten Western Plays, for instance? – and I don’t disagree that, yes, there’s an awful lot of CGI beasties floating around and the likes of Transformers will have a few problems translating to the stage. It’s becoming increasingly hard to find the words ‘science fiction’ that aren’t followed by the phrase ‘franchise’, cos so HUGE are these extended universes that they need multiple films and a number clinging to their title like a ball-and-chain to creativity. And theatre: we can’t compete, so why bother.

Fuck that. I love a challenge. There’s something thrillingly addictive about the mismatch of scale here. How on earth do you do justice to a whole new galaxy onstage? Does everything have to be just out of sight (‘Oh look at the giant space-port over there’)? You’ve got to convey all the re-written laws of your invented universe in such a short time and a small space. Effectively, you’re trying to shoehorn a mammoth into a fuzzy slipper. Just think about it: with Astronauts of Hartlepool, we’ve got our defined space (the Pit at VAULT festival), we’ve got our defined time (an hour, no more or less). And yet in our black box in sixty minutes we’re going to transgress both dimensions and have pit-stops for ice cream. But hey, that’s…exactly what theatre does. There’s nothing ground-breaking about that. Don’t tell me you’re actually teleported to Russia every time a Chekhov rocks up. If you suspend your disbelief there, you can come with me for a picnic on the edge of a black hole.

I think we’re going to see more science fiction on-stage in years to come. Obligatory shout-out again for Ali McDowall here, who is awesome and my theatrical spirit animal. But the influx won’t just come from a few individuals. We’re in a weird time, emotionally, financially, politically. And I don’t know about you, but I’m looking at the scale of the real world right now and I’m thinking, shit, I don’t know what on Earth is going on half the time. Check out HYPERNORMALISATION by Adam Curtis on iPlayer. It’s great, but it sums up narratives of the 20th century and why we are where we are. We need to attempt to tell the narratives of right now and where we’ll be in years to come. What will driverless cars do to our economy? How will universal basic income affect society? Will the rising right leave permanent scars? Let not our fear about getting such predictions wrong – hey, I just made one at the start of this paragraph – prevent us from being bold with our storytelling.

Helen Sartory's ANDRODES at Vault Festival

Helen Sartory’s ANDRODES at Vault Festival

But I might well be preaching to the converted. VAULT Festival are doing a mini Proxima V programme– or in their words, ‘a carefully selected strand of sci-fi and space shows designed to make you smile, and make you think about where we’re all headed.’ This is truly wonderful. When Team Astronaut asked them why they programmed it, VAULT revealed they didn’t have any big masterplan to get more sci-fi on stage. They looked at the submissions, and saw what people were writing about – and there was oodles and oodles of these space stories. People are thinking about this, writing about this – and I’m so happy the festival has grabbed the theme and ran with it. There is something so joyful and uninhibited about stories that are bigger than humanity, yet simultaneously so human. That’s the mismatch of scale I’m talking about right there – looking at the wonders of creation through flawed and blinking eyes.

Maybe I’m being simplistic with the term sci-fi. Maybe it isn’t healthy to be so steadfast with labels, not in the theatre. Caryl Churchill has done cloning, countless writers have done dystopians…and hey there must be loads more, because I just don’t know. And why don’t I know? Well, up until recently, my sci-fi love and my theatre love didn’t overlap. I thought sci-fi was fun, and I thought theatre was ‘serious’. Forgive me, I was late to the plays, and I’m certainly making up for lost time – but even though I now know how playful plays can be, I’d still worry how far I’d be allowed to go. We had a big chat about whether to even say that ASTRONAUTS is sci-fi, because that might put people off coming. I mean, in the end, there’s an astronaut on the flyer and we’ve got Sophie Steer and Rakhee Thakrar leaping through universes, so people should know what they’re getting.

An exploded puzzle board. Photo: Richard Davenport

An exploded puzzle board. Photo: Richard Davenport

Yet if I worry about acknowledging sci-fi on stage, I should remember the night I saw Pomona. And man, that was the gut punch I needed. It’s funny, because Ali McDowall has argued it isn’t even science fiction, but there’s something inescapable about the alienation of a landscape and the evocation of space-faring beings that feels so…almost science fiction. Perhaps we need a new term for this nearly sci-fi – sci-fi-nigh? – because I’m seeing and feeling these plays that are brimming with such expansive imagery. Simon Longman’s Sparks red-shifts into space for its closing moments; Nathan Lucky Wood’s A Haunting (also playing at VAULT) is forever on the cusp of cyberspace; Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns grounds us in a post-electric dystopia where The Simpsons characters become Gods larger than Cthulhu. My first play, The Dogs of War, is weird and wonderful in its own right, and perhaps there’s a glimmer of the geek with the video gaming elements, but Astronauts is my first all-out inter-dimensional dive. So blurred are the lines now, so expansive is our technological advance, that Pandora’s box is open and the aliens aren’t climbing back inside any time soon.

Nobody wants sci-fi for the sake of it. I wouldn’t immediately argue against a Hamlet set in space (I have a wonderful visual of the end fight with lightsabers), but the reason you do anything in any certain way is because that way is necessary to the thing you want to do. That’s a really roundabout way of saying WHY DO IT, and if the answer is ‘because it’s fun’, then cool, great, run with that. But so often the great thing about science fiction is the fresh take it provides on an old problem. My grandma used to say there was nothing new under the sun, but let’s find a new sun, let’s tell stories of romance and immigration and change and loneliness in entirely novel ways. Think of Čapek’s robots – a stark portrayal of dehumanised labour if ever there were one. Astronauts is a Brexit sci-fi. Spoilers – we don’t mention Brexit once. We don’t have to. You’ll see why.

So let this be a rallying cry: embrace the weird. The big ideas, the bold new visions – where are they? We’re heading into the 21st century, we’re gonna yet be inventing words like ‘robot’ for things we can only dream of at the moment. And we do have those dreams. We all have these outlandish expectations and imaginative visions of what happens next. What Happens Next – the fundamental question the storyteller asks. So artists, please – bask in the sc-fi. Put the stars and beyond onstage. Especially if you think you don’t like it, because you’re EXACTLY the person to bring something new to it. Let the ‘science’ be huge, vast, unstageable. Let the ‘fiction’ be hard, honest, human.

Astronauts of Hartlepool is on at Vault Festival from Feb 1-8. For more info, visit the Vault Festival website

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