Science Fiction Theatre, New Politics?

Yep, apologies again, I do have a very good excuse that was the worst migraine I’ve ever had, with proper visual disturbances and everything, and then (just recovered in time) I went to Manchester, and had a really brilliant weekend of just what I needed: friends, rock music, drink, video games and laughter. I feel almost happy! Plus only 12 MORE DAYS in Wolverhampton! YAY! So yes, that’s the reason for the gap in posts. But fear not loyal reader, this one will hopefully make up for it, for it is a rambling MONSTER.

OK, so while also doing shorter updates about what I’m up to and where I’m going with things, I did mention maybe doing more editorial-style blog entry every now and then. A bit of a chunkier look into my ideas on… things. Not sure what things exactly, but I suppose that it will probably be either theatre/arts or politics/feminism, these being the main forces that drive me. So yes, here’s a tentative first stab at one of these!

SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE

Yep, I’m on about that again. The reason I want to talk about my ideas for Science Fiction, or ‘Speculative’ Fiction on stage (aside from the fact it has formed the main body of my playwriting so far) is the very intriguing and quizzical reactions I have had to my writing so far. I should preface this with saying that by no means am I a fully-fledged playwright – I am still ’emerging’ (‘young’ playwright is no longer PC –ageist, you see) and will hopefully always be learning – as thus I’m sure some of the reactions to my writing may be to just that – the actual writing, and not the choice of genre, but some of it definitely isn’t, some of it is a direct recoil from ‘genre'(in the pejorative sense).

I will discuss these reactions a little later, but first I want to try and explain the use do I think porting these genres to the stage will have, why I think they are exciting, important and useful.

In my mind this kind of theatre has the potential to form a new kind of political theatre. I’ll begin with a quote from the (sadly, recently late) great Augusto Boal

Theatre is a weapon. A very efficient weapon […] for this reason the ruling classes try to take hold of theatre and utilise it as a tool for domination […] but the theatre can also be a weapon of the liberation. For that, it is necessary to change appropriate theatrical forms. Change is imperative.

p. ix, Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed (New Edition). London: Pluto Press, 2000.

Politics and the majority of theatre, in my opinion, have at their hearts the same driving force. A belief in the individual and collective voice. A belief that experience informs belief which in application can produce change for the better. Change is the aim of political theatre (what theatre doesn’t pertain to either a personal or public politic is another question entirely). To initiate change in ideas and ideals, as Boal suggests, theatrical forms must always be in flux, they cannot stagnate because it is at that point you begin to accept, rather than question. I do not mean change from week to week, but I’m talking in terms of movements. Has theatre really had a movement since In-Yer-Face 90s theatre? I think theatre must continually be re-appropriated for new worlds and generations because theatre has the power to open our eyes, for us to see our many selves- it has a power beyond all other art forms; because of story.

When we are young we tell stories through play, it’s how we learn, how we explore our world, our roles within it, but somehow people seem to think that eventually, they become too grown up for stories. That is why we miss the new coercive narratives, the stories and roles that rest within the covers of magazines, flicker on our screens and are emblazoned on the side of buildings. These stories bombard us every day, and tell us who and how we should be. We need new stories, stories to challenge and rival these. We need to key into something that has more truth, more life; this is why I believe in stories played out in the theatre.

When you watch theatre, when you believe in it, you invest in it a part of your life; you credit it with a small but important part of yourself. A play is built of a hundred little volunteered hours, it is a rift in the space time continuum, a coming together of a hundred hours into one. This is why theatre can make you gasp; make the breath catch in your lungs for the life that you see onstage, because it is, in a small and immense way, a part of you. For some, theatre is a first taste of a collective experience.

Has theatre really had a movement since In-Yer-Face 90s theatre? My experience of theatre is unfortunately one severely limited by funds, and founded on a university course which rarely looked at post 2000 work, so call me on it if you have a better answer, but I think the time is ripe for a new theatre, a theatre that draws in a new generation bereft by context. There are adults now who have not known a world without the internet, for whom political extremes have been replaced by apparently middle ground hogging-expense abusing-privately educated white men that known as much about us as we about them. This is not my opinion, but it is the opinion of many of my contemporaries, most of whom have never voted. Apathy, to me, seems to be the aim of a lazy, right wing media who would find things a lot easier if they could just produce lifestyle magazines. I understand why in all of the difficult suffering and wars, injustices which don’t fit into an easy ‘good or bad’ conflict people just want to shut themselves off to it. I understand this because I know how much each horrible piece of pain that the media and the internet delivers me, hurts. It hurts because I am only one person. It hurts because one person can change everything; it hurts because I don’t have the space to help everyone. So you disconnect. History is everywhere for this generation, constantly in the making. But the wars happen elsewhere, we see things on our screens, and for all of it, the horror is never really a part of our lives. I believe that we need a way of helping people see again, and to do that we must make people feel uneasy, unsafe, wobbly. It is not history, but the future that we need now, in order that this generation might see themselves here, and nowhere else, here with the ability to participate. I believe in the future. I believe that new theatrical forms are sorely needed for the continuing relevancy and power of theatre.

Theatre must constantly be in flux, we must find new forms, new ways of playing with stories because we can undo the pain of the modern world, we can begin to learn again. Theatre is not a reflection of life, but rather a reflection of what it could be- it is the art of possibility.

Theatre must reflect new worlds.

And this is where I believe science/speculative fiction theatre can come in.

There are a few examples of this happening in theatre, they are growing, I saw Zero by Theatre Absolute half a year ago – set in an anonymous future where series of internment camps criss-cross the world, Far Away by Caryl Churchill, if you ask me, is a spectacular, breathtaking piece of dystopian fiction, and Steve Water’s Contingency Plan double bill about a climate change is set in the near future, and currently getting rave reviews at The Bush. I really believe that where we are now, in the late ‘noughties’, on a wave that is beginning to swell, moving towards a tipping point – I feel this in the new wave of feminism, I feel it in the new questions being raised about the sustainability of the particular form of capitalism we have heretofore subscribed, I feel that it must happen in politics, and I feel that it is happening to stories now too. People in a world of web 2.0 and constant connectivity, laugh, love and communicate in entirely new ways. Is theatre currently fitted out to portray these new ways of being? To work with new ideas of identity and gender, or to harness the wonderfully widespread and democratising power of technology? I believe that all these big new question marks are making the world shift, and that theatre is also beginning to find its current skin too restrictive.

In my work I portray possible futures, in Being Someone Else I try to look at love, loss, and identity in the gaming world, in the radio play Bird Woman I loosely borrow from a 70s feminist fable to touch upon the feeling of being a young girl, and in Eismas I imagine a world where a single child policy has been enforced throughout Europe. I use these elements of SF, Spec-fic and fantasy with political intent- particularly in my most recent piece Eismas, I have used SF as a kind of distancing device – a cerebral as opposed to emotional distance – in order that an audience can relax, think ‘oh but this isn’t about me, it’s just a story’ but then I also hope that they would care about the central characters that they follow the journey of the piece and see how we could get there- and because they felt the pain of the world, see that they want for us not to be there, see this world in the light of what it might become. See that we have a chance, now, to change it.

This is not a new idea. From Victorian ghost stories (A Christmas Carol!) to feminist and socialist science fiction, to fairy stories, all of these have aimed to mould people’s feelings in the same way. Is it coercive? I suppose it is. But no more, I think, than any piece of storytelling.

So, back to why I am talking about why I write within the bounds of SF. I have had some very interesting experiences over the past year so, of a very odd resistance to SF on stage. Both of the external moderators on the masters I did at Birmingham commented that they did not like SF on my reader reports. One said that should and would not colour his report on my piece, the other accused the play of ‘wanting to be a Hollywood film’ and called me ‘a writer with very little experience of, or perhaps interest in, the material realities of making theatre’. Likewise at the recent workshopped reading of Eismas the question was asked: ‘wouldn’t this be better as a film?’ This produced a reasonably heated discussion, in which my director expressed the following (heavily paraphrased) sentiment: ‘this is not about the genre, this is about the content. Theatre, to me, is about people and politics: having something to say. This is not a play set in a big special effect driven world, this is a play about two people, and their relationship.’ Eismas shows the public sphere through the pain it exerts on the private. If you ask me, that is the stuff for theatre. This discussion was made doubly strange by the fact that two of the other plays were historical ones, one of which made allusions to vampirism, and the other was about psychics in Edwardian times! But I suppose that was exactly the reaction that I need isn’t it? The other half of the room really connected with the political content of the piece, and it’s that unease, that unease which is key to my political intent.

My mum (as ever) puts it succinctly when she says ‘it’s just snobbery, people forget, don’t they, that all stories are fiction’ all of the universes are invented, why not play with that? Why not use that edge to try and provoke the feeling that the future is invented. We decide what we want it to be.

Change is imperative. Theatrical forms must always be in flux. Theatre has the power to open our eyes, for us to see our many selves, to see ourselves anew. Let’s write about the future. Let’s talk about now. Let’s learn about being human again. Let’s participate.

Thanks for reading.

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5 Responses to “Science Fiction Theatre, New Politics?”

  1. danbye May 20, 2009 at 6:11 am #

    I couldn’t agree more with this.

    In the autumn I’m presenting a quartet of short pieces set in various versions of the near future. I hadn’t, I must admit, given the generic implications any thought at all – like your piece, they’re simply about characters in sticky situations. They’re all performed in non-theatre spaces and all to a greater or less extent exhibit dramaturgical eccentricities. It’s called “Quartet for the End of Time”. No-one, as yet, has spotted the reference, but I live in hope.

    That “couldn’t this be a film?” criticism particularly exercises me. People tend to level it at pieces that are quite one-room-dialogue-driven, something film can’t sustain half so well as theatre. No, this would be a rubbish film (not your play, which I haven’t read). When theatre actually does import some dramaturgical ideas from film – short snappy scenes, jump cuts, “split screen” – it often starts to look more, not less theatrical.

    Having said all that, no-one’s said any of those things about my pieces, not least because they haven’t yet been seen in their finished form.

    Anyway, keep up the good work. And how do you get your blog to sit within your website like that?

  2. Hannah May 20, 2009 at 7:15 am #

    Thank you so much for commenting :-) It’s lovely to know people other than friends and family read my blurry thoughts here, so thank you.

    Glad we concur on the experience of working on SF theatre, and I just saw you added me to Twitter, so I shall follow your work too!

    And I’m afraid the blog-thing is a massive cheat, I just fiddled around with the blog until it looks almost exactly like the rest of the site, and then linked it in the menu, though you still get the runner across the top. So the answer is tinkering, a basic knowledge of html, and patience. There’s probably a simpler way but that worked for me. Hope that helps!

  3. danbye May 20, 2009 at 8:24 am #

    Ah. I can do tinkering, but when it comes to basic knowledge of html and patience, I’m stumped. Hence not having got round to writing a website, either.

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