Theater Around The Bay: The Rise of Geek Theater

Sunil Patel returns in another guest blog.

Last year I produced a Theater Pub night of sci-fi/fantasy/horror theater called The Pub from Another World. In one night, we saw plays about superheroes, clones, unicorns, time travel, and monsters. Theater Pub was no stranger to genre theater, having put on Lovecraft adaptations, Love in the Time of Zombies, and a Pint-Sized Play about a genie, but I wanted to see more, being a fan of both SFF and theater. It seemed a rare beast to me, especially given that we owe the word “robot” to Karel Čapek’s 1920 play, R.U.R. I made it to my mission to bring more genre theater to the Bay Area…and then two days after The Pub from Another World, Shotgun Players premiered Lauren Gunderson’s cloning drama, By and By. Perhaps genre theater wasn’t as rare a beast as I thought.

As Hardison from Leverage frequently proclaims, it is the Age of the Geek, and geek culture and theater are intersecting more than ever before. In February David Dean Bottrell raised over $80,000 to produce the 1st Annual Sci-Fest, a science fiction one-act play festival in Los Angeles boasting actors from shows like The X-Files, Lost, and Supernatural. The festival alternated two evenings featuring works by sci-fi greats Ursula K. LeGuin and Ray Bradbury in addition to new works. I enthusiastically backed the project and was fortunate enough to attend one show in May, where I got to see Ando from Heroes give a hell of a nonverbal performance and Langly from The X-Files deliver philosophical monologues while floating in space. The festival received many positive reviews, and submissions are now being accepted for the 2nd Annual Sci-Fest!

The Sci-Fest Kickstarter declared that apart from Ray Bradbury, “few writers have ever experimented with presenting compelling science fiction stories on stage.” As if responding to that very statement, a couple months later Jen Gunnels and Erin Underwood launched a Kickstarter for Geek Theater, an anthology of science fiction and fantasy plays, and raised nearly $4,000. The anthology collects over a dozen plays of various lengths (and one monologue) from current playwrights, bringing more visibility to theater about zombies and robots. I’m only familiar with a couple of the authors, one from comics and one from short stories, so I’m excited to discover new SFF playwrights.

Jen Gunnels is no stranger to sci-fi theater, though, as in April she was the keynote speaker at Stage the Future: The First International Conference on Science Fiction Theatre, an academic conference focusing on topics ranging from Ancient Speculative Theatre to Performing the Non-Human and the Post-Human. “This conference is the first of its kind and hopes to raise awareness of the need for a new theatre that is already here; a theatre that has its roots in the past and its eyes on the future,” the description reads, echoing my own desires. And like the first Sci-Fest, the first Stage the Future found success and is now accepting proposals for its second year.

Like her co-editor, Erin Underwood’s passion for sci-fi theater also took her to England this year, as in August she spoke at the World Science Fiction Convention in London (also known as Loncon). Staging the Fantastic, a panel that also included Geek Theater contributor James Patrick Kelley, asked “Is this a golden age for genre theatre?” In fact, Loncon itself featured seven stage productions, including an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Anubis Gates by World Fantasy Award winner Tim Powers and a hilarious production of The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) with jokes about Babylon 5 and the Joss Whedon oeuvre.

While it’s clear that traditional geek theater is alive and well, recently I’ve noticed another form that truly marries a love of geekery with the power of theater: the live reading. This July at San Diego Comic-Con, voice actors from Adventure Time performed an original radio play written by current head writer, Kent Osborne. Although the Adventure Time panel in 2012 also featured a live reading, this event was both separate from the official panel and a ticketed event, speaking to the popularity and appeal of the performance. A few days later, Naughty Dog hosted The Last of Us: One Night Live, with live performances of the score and key cut scenes from the acclaimed survival horror game. While the idea was met with some skepticism, reviews of the event were positive—the music and voice acting were praised in the game itself, after all, and I’d buy tickets to The Walking Dead: One Night Live in a heartbeat—and attendees were treated to a special epilogue scene written and directed by Neil Druckmann (writer/director of the game).

No one has embraced the theatricality of the live reading quite like Welcome to Night Vale, however. The weird, surreal podcast about a radio show in the strangest town in America has developed a massive following, and last year they began doing live shows. These shows sell out in minutes, and I’ve been lucky enough to attend two, one at the Booksmith and one at the Victoria Theater. Creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor met via the New York Neo-Futurists, and lead actor Cecil Baldwin performs with the New York Neos (I also saw him perform with the inaugural San Francisco Neo-Futurists). The influence is evident in the live shows, which similarly pay no attention to the fourth wall and bring the audience into the show. For one night, the audience is in Night Vale and part of the story. At the Booksmith we collectively killed a man with our minds. In the Victoria Theater we feared for our lives as an escaped Librarian slithered in our midst. A live reading can simply be actors reading from a script or it can be a transformative, transportive experience.

Is it just me or is this an actual trend? Science fiction theater festivals! Science fiction theater academic conferences! Live performances of video game cut scenes! I can’t wait to see where the intersection of geek culture and theater takes us next.

Sunil Patel is a Bay Area writer and actor. See his work at http://ghostwritingcow.com or follow him on Twitter @ghostwritingcow.

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One comment on “Theater Around The Bay: The Rise of Geek Theater

  1. Thanks so much for mentioning Sci-Fest (now rebranded as Sci-Fest LA). We coming back in May 2015 with an even bigger and better festival. Really excited about it.

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