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Sci-Fi’s New (Old?) Theatre Magic

I want to connect some threads I’ve been thinking about as of late. Part of this stems directly from one of my last blog posts, in which I re-examined my conceptions of ancient Greek theatre and how it can become a fascinating tool for a modern audience to reconnect with the past and, by doing so, our future.

And now I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. We are fairly obsessed with it, as a human race. The desire to innovate, to advance, to adapt is innate in our core survival skills, and drives everything from our day to day decisions to the decision to put a man (or a woman) on the moon.

I think this is why the genre of science fiction and fantasy is so culturally pervasive. Science fiction, to me, is human beings attempting to reconcile ourselves with an unforeseeable future.

And, maybe, also reconcile ourselves with an unlivable past.

We are living in a post-colonial world, where we often look back at history and attempt to filter it through a new lens, defying assumptions and challenging possibilities. Hamilton is the most obvious example of this as a piece of revisionist history, but I would argue that sci-fi has been doing it for far longer, both onstage and on screen.

Here’s some quick numbers on domestic box office gross for a few recent science fiction / fantasy films: (data pulled from Box Office Mojo)

  • Ex Machina (2015)
    Domestic Gross: $25,442,958
    Production Budget: $15 million
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
    Domestic Gross: $153,636,354
    Production Budget: $150 million

And of course:

  • Star Wars: the Force Awakens (2015)
    Domestic Gross: $936,662,225
    Production Budget: $245 million


There’s no questioning sci-fi’s cultural – and literal – currency in modern film entertainment. But what about the stage? I stumbled across an American Theatre Magazine interview with Christina Anderson, Madeleine George, and Mac Rogers about the burgeoning intersection between the sci-fi we see in film and the sci-fi making its way to the theatre. It reads:

Part of the reason for the influx is simply that we now have a broader understanding of sci-fi’s essence as speculative fiction than old-fashioned space operas. Today’s playwrights also understand that high concepts don’t necessarily require computer-generated special effects. There’s also a deep desire among contemporary writers to reach back and take hold of the work that formed them, and to look forward into an uncertain future.

What compels me about this particular passage is the notion that sci-fi allows us to both honor a highly specific legacy and turn our gaze towards crafting a new future, both in the world of the play and in our world at large.

I think that the same can be said of the Ancient Greek theatre.

The purpose of Greek theatre was primarily educating the general populous to follow a certain moral code of being. In Antigone, we learn that family honor is worthy of sacrifice, in Ajax we learn that rage can be a crippling disease, and in Oedipus we learn to never, ever f*ck our moms. Greek theatre taught this and so much more, and on the way provided a vehicle for catharsis, an escape from the realities of war and famine and taxes that released a collective pressure and allowed us to continue with our daily lives.

Sci-fi and fantasy also draw heavily upon moral codes of being and the examination of moral absolutism to tell stories. As well as morality, sci-fi uses the traditional Hero’s Journey format to communicate the arc of the protagonist. Like Odysseus in The Odyssey, the hero (or heroine) must go on an epic journey, leave their home or place of comfort, be challenged and changed and return once more to their homeland anew. These conceits are old if not ancient, and yet still have the power to surprise and delight. And most playwrights writing in this vein are not ignorant to the centuries of legacy behind them.

[My] third play, Sovereign, is very much in the tradition of the real-time Greek tragedy about a great ruler who is in the process of falling. There’s hubris; there’s a dispute over a burial. I just said, “These things work! These things have been honed!” Maybe someday I’ll have my own theatrical traditions, but I’m trying to fit them into forms that I know work in the theatre.
– Mac Rogers

Ancient theatrical conventions have been so ingrained in our genealogy of performance that when they bled into science-fiction I wonder if we even noticed. I also wonder if the distinction even matters. Madeline George offers:

Plays are so about what the limits of a human being are. You don’t have special effects in the theatre; you have theatre magic. Why write genre?
– Madeline George

Sci-fi, or whatever you want to call it, is simply an extension – an exaggeration – of the magic of theatre. It is the way we answer our biggest, most daunting questions of morality, of justice, and of truth. It is both a reflection of our constant questioning and the epic-ness of our storytelling that hundreds of years after the Greeks we are still telling our stories in similar ways.

Only now, we have robots. And stuff.

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