There’s piece on today’s Guardian theatre blog by Andrew Haydon that starts interestingly, wondering why science ficiton – which can make an impact in cinema, television and, of course, literature – isn’t embraced more by the theatre. He goes on to list a number of previous theatre sf productions – including Mark Ravenhill’s The Cut – and a number of more recent, smaller productions that all sound interesting – especially Unlimited Theatre’s work (anyone thought about approaching these guys for a con?).
Haydon’s grasp of sf doesn’t seem to extend far beyond Star Trek and Star Wars and there’s a sneaking suspicion that the the whole blog piece has been written solely so he can make some jokes about David Tennant/Patrick Stewart’s forthcoming RSC appearance in a “sci fi Hamlet” – “Go on, RSC, put Hamlet on the Death Star”).
Before that, though, Haydon does manage to make at least one serious point about why theatre doesn’t have a significant science fiction presence. Describing a performance at the National Student Drama Festival of a piece called When You Cry in Space Your Tears Go Everywhere, made by a group of recent graduates of Dartington College called Tinned Fingers, Haydon says:
one of the performers reading out a list of thoughts and descriptions suddenly offers the gem: “space is a bit 70s”. It’s a great line, primarily because it is so accurate. It seamlessly pinpoints a whole feeling that can be summed up by the T-shirt slogan “This Was Supposed to Be the Future” – the idea that we have now passed all the major dates that, when we were growing up in the 70s and 80s, signified the future: Space 1999, 2000AD, 2001 A Space Odyssey. Rarely have I heard a collective penny drop so loudly in an audience.
And he suggests that this might be why sci-fi so rarely makes it ont the stage:
As well as being regarded with a certain warmth, there’s also a sense of mistrust around the genre. Writers fear that it’s somehow a bit uncool – a bit 70s – and so we get interminable plays about Urgent Contemporary Issues rather than coolly speculative projections. It’s a shame. After all, some of the 20th century’s greatest literature was set in the future – consider 1984, Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange.
Of course what this doesn’t explain is why, when science fiction had its firmest grip on people’s expectations of the future (from the 1950s to the mid 1980s?) there wasn’t a significant explosion of speculative theatre – and no Starlight Express doesn’t count. And nor do Lord of the Rings: The Musical or Wicked!
A number of comments below the blog make attempts to argue that sf theatre is more common that Haydon allows – but Return to the Forbidden Planet (a tongue in cheek adaptation of a film that was itself an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest) hardly amounts to contempory sf. Nor do the various adaptations (many done by amateur or semi-professional companies) of works by writers like Pratchett address the need for contemporary, original science fiction that uses the unique forms of theatre for speculation rather than simply adapting stories from other media. And, while setting Hamlet in space or The Women of Troy in the future might cast an interesting light on existing texts, it doesn’t make them, in any meaningful sense, science fiction. There’s a case for plays like Copenhagen (which takes the theme of uncertainty and weaves it into the construction of the play) and, less questionably, On Ego to be classed as speculative and there are clearly authors out there who want to use the theatre for speculative purposes – Sarah Kane gets a couple of mentions.
But perhaps the real reason why science fiction isn’t more common in theatre might also be found in the comments section below Haydon’s post – where science fiction is defined solely by its setting (i) in the future and (ii) in space or (iii) has robots in it. This typically conservative view of what makes science fiction (or more particularly) sci-fi is depressingly familiar and reflects the typical view of “sci-fi”.
And, of course, theatre – especially commercial theatre – is the most conservative of the arts. With huge fixed costs (buildings/casts/crew) relative to the amount it can make (from a fixed number of seats in one physical location at a time and at most two performances per day) the theatre is a hard place to break even, let alone make a profit. So commercial theatre tends to stick pretty firmly to the mainstream – the kind of stuff that respectable, bourgeois, slightly aged audiences expect on an expensive night out.
So sf theatre is always likely to be marginal – but it’s worth noting that it is out there for audiences willing to go looking for it – and that perhaps there’s an opportunity for fandom to look for ways to embrace it?