This weekend is ACT's Young Playwrights Festival, the culmination of a 10-week program where playwrights—including some local favorites like Kelleen Conway Blanchard, Elizabeth Heffron, and Wayne Rawley—head into public schools to teach the basics of how to write a script. At the end, a few are chosen for staged readings at the festival.
This year, ACT spokesperson Mark Siano says fantasy, sci-fi, and gaming figure far more heavily in the students' scripts than usual: fantasy characters, role-playing games, fantasy characters playing role-playing games, etc.
There seems to be an uptick in those themes in regular theater as well—back in August, we saw the nerd-steampunk world premiere The Clockwork Professor and Annex regularly produces sci-fi plays by Scotto Moore and superhero serials by Jaime Roberts.
So I sent an email to the young adult (and not-so-young adult) playwrights: "How come we’re seeing so much more sci-fi/steampunk on stage? What can the stage offer sci-fi that prose and film can’t?"
The answers ranged from because sci-fi is neat to a Borges-like theory that everything fantastic is real because we live in one of many universes.
From YPP student Chloe Mason who wrote Cubicles and Cancer: An RPG about fantasy characters playing a game where they pretend to be regular humans (for example, if you roll an eight you go to a business lunch to get added networking powers):
In my opinion, what theatre can offer these genres that other mediums can’t is a focus on characters rather than setting. When it comes to alternate universes in movies or books, the differentiation comes in the universe. What kind of structure does it have? What sets it apart from other settings? Or, most importantly, what’s the message of the universe? For example, Hunger Games showcases a government and its power-play of manipulating its subjects into submission. Lord of the Rings is about the corruption of power and the impact of free will. In these stories, the message comes from the world-building.
Plays are different. Without the time or visuals to explain to an audience a complex setting, like other mediums have, the focus has to shift from the setting to the people. On a stage, you don’t tell the story of The Battle of Helm’s Deep, you show the story of a soldier looking for his brother’s body after the fight, hoping he doesn’t find it. You can’t show the entire Hunger Games competition, so you show a scene between two children the night before they’re sent to die.
Today, in the age of individualism, it only makes sense that alternate universes would come to the stage. Plays can give us real insight into characters that many sci-fi/fantasy movies have to cut for time. And, unlike books, we get to watch a character experience emotional turmoil, rather than have to imagine it. Because that’s really why we go to see plays: to see characters struggle against their situation and the emotions those conditions evoke. Having them be a dwarf wielding a crossbow is just a geeky bonus.
If you've got any other questions, I'd be more than happy to answer! Alternate Universe fiction is one of my passions, and these kinds of questions about changes in Geek Media are especially interesting.
From YPP writer Makenzie White, author of Dragon’s Tale, in which characters in a fantasy book prepare for the opening of the library like actors prepping for the opening night of a play:
Hi this is Makenzie, replying about the sci-fi/fantasy question. I have always been a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, although I recognize that it is suitable for movies and books. However, I think that the stage can induce even more thoughtfulness on the audience's part because not everything is shown or described to them. If the audience can, say, rather than seeing an arc of flame exploding from the mouth of an angry dragon, imagine the effects themselves. it is much "healthier for the mind." Also, it's rather amusing. In conclusion, I think that sci-fi and fantasy are just as suitable for the stage (as shown in plays/musicals like Wicked, Once Upon a Mattress, and The Wizard of Oz) and audiences can have just as much fun watching them as they would a movie.
From YPP playwright Antonia Sunderland who wrote The Play of the Ketchup about elves obsessed with things in the human world:
Actually, the fact that The Play of the Ketchup is fantasy has almost nothing to do with the fact that it's a play. I wasn't thinking of the genre when I decided to write it at all.
The reason why it came down to fantasy for me at all is because almost all the stories I write end up being fantasy. I'm even writing a novel right now which I've been working on since I was 12, in seventh grade, and it's historical fantasy. I actually find all the other genres pretty hard to write because, the way I see it, everything fantastical is real, because I believe strongly in Bubble Theory, which is the belief that there are endless multitudes of alternate universes, none of which are exactly alike, some of which might only be different in just one tiny thing, such as a speck of dust in this universe not existing in the other, or it might be different in millions of huge and small things. By this theory, every fictional place is real, in an alternate universe, because that is a bunch of differences. For example, Harry Potter and Hogwarts are real. In an alternate universe. Or in many alternate universes, all in different ways, but only one of them would be exactly like the Harry Potter books, word-for-word, detail by detail.
Although, discussing the fact that it's a play, I wouldn't really know the reason why more fantasy, sci-fi, and steampunk is appearing onstage because fantasy is how I roll, but if I were to give you a second answer, I'd say that it's because I would love to see the stage effects used in the Victorian age, which would be excellent for fantasy, but sadly are not used today. The Victorians were able to stage train crashes, houses on fire, hot-air balloon crashes, and underwater battles. These effects are lost because of the invention of movies. When those were invented, people lost the desire to put such things on stage, and these were eventually forgotten.
From YPP student Paulina Glass, author of Quell, in which a new serum makes everyone friendlier and more productive, endangering humanity in some way:
I find sometimes in science fiction that rich character development often gets cast aside in favor of world-building and explorations of complex moral issues through allegory. I love reading sci-fi and fantasy, but so often I have trouble relating to the generic “hero” characters that are used. I don’t find that a lot of the people in these profound and fantastical adventures are tangible, complex, and genuine. To me, a story is incomplete without multi-faceted people. So my play, Quell, is pretty soft-core science fiction; I set it in the near future with a science and ethical theme, but I don’t really make readers take a huge leap to imagine my characters’ circumstances. In this way, I can spend more time on character development and following a more human narrative. What the stage offers harder sci-fi is quite simply, real humans. We can get the human narrative because we see a blinking and breathing person right in front of us, on the stage, living in this constructed, alternate world. We’re reminded that the characters aren’t simply plot devices in a way that we can’t really get from reading a book, and I think that’s really important.
And finally, Seattle playwright Scotto Moore, who echoes what the others say about theater's investment in character instead of effects:
I think the explosion of young adult science fiction is definitely encouraging kids to dabble in creating sci-fi themselves. A lot of that stuff is character-driven in a way that seems more and more feasible to present on stage. Aside from that, sure, theatre can't compete with film in terms of spectacle, but without the crutch of visual effects, theatre does offer a great chance to express sci-fi ideas via strong characters and vivid performances. Audiences seem to be more than willing to imagine the details of a sci-fi world beyond what you can in design, as long as the actors are fully committed to the conventions of the story. That's how, for example, in "Duel of the Linguist Mages," we got away with expressing the concept of sentient alien punctuation marks by using a song and dance number.
See the full schedule of the Young Playwrights Festival and buy tickets over here.